Saturday, July 11, 2009

Eurocentricism in Business

The last two years have been extremely useful to me in studying and understanding how cultural differences come in the way of business and working relationships. Elsewhere in this blog, I have referred to the phenomena of Anglo-Saxon arrogance, something which I experienced on a day to day life in business. But, in a broader sense, and when I reflect with neutrality and perspective, I realize that this odd arrogance - the assumption that the Asian business culture is essentially backward and wants to emulate the West - comes from the pervasive eurocentric concept of civilization. Therefore, it is harder indeed to explain and teach a western business executive ways of the East, though I must not apply a stereotype and there are many exceptions of conscious efforts made by western executives to be truly global citizens.

The problem of this eurocentricism, apart from the brazen disregard of other people's sensibilities [which are usually toned down by good manners], is that any exposure to a different business culture is usually treated with the amusement befitting a visit to the zoo. Besides, usually professional behaviour is benchmarked against the acceptable western business behaviour, and most corporate strategies and operational tactics presuppose a western cultural mindset. I remember explaining to someone how the Indians treat time - the concept of poly chronic time - but was told that after all the Indian executives want to become like the westerners, and therefore, good and acceptable behaviour must be benchmarked so and may not necessarily make adjustments for the native conceptions.

In the social sciences, some limited enquiry has been made regarding the pre-European past, and allowed for a more nuanced view beyond the 'white man's burden' version of the East. While the euro-centric version of history usually equated progress with adoption of western practises, there are a number of alternate views on the rise, notably in the Islamic world but not limited to it, which do not see western practises as the most advanced and sophisticated.

However, it is generally regarded as a mistake, in the realm of social sciences, to see the world in terms of competing civilizations, and indeed, in terms of the clash of civilizations. There are two clear reasons for this. One, indeed, is that we all have multi-dimensional identities - father, friend, husband, Muslim, shia, Indian, doctor, lover of music and football fan rolled into one - and human connections usually flow different paths and shape the civilizations [and it is not the other way round]. And, as a result of this, there is more cross-pollination of culture than armchair theorists or cubicle-bound politicians know or dare to admit.

While the European pre-eminence is currently contested in social sciences, and alternate perspectives are gaining ground, there is an automatic assumption that European/western approach is the only way to go. But then, as in civilizational matters, the people contexts are far more complex and dynamic than one can theorize and one can clearly see different approaches to business emerging already. In a way, it is easier to define success in business than social sciences - profits and long term competitiveness perhaps - and one can already see a number of Asian companies stealing the march over their western rivals. There are a number of complaints over the business practises of these Asian companies, specifically against the Chinese, who seem to adapt a particularly cavalier approach towards intellectual property rights and get lambasted in Western press for doing so. However, one has to remember that these companies are not exactly on a level playing field; in most cases, they are up against entrenched competition which has come into being not just by hard work and ethics as the corporate mythologies proclaim, but also employing a number of dirty tricks and often 'stealing' the natural resources of the Asian nations in the first place. In every stage of civilization, the successful try to protect the status quo and the aspirational challenges it; without going into any value judgements, we are at another inflection point in history where a similar conflict is being mounted.

And, in this context, one may say the European/ Western thinking of business is not the only correct way to conduct oneself. Increasingly, the less individualistic, more collective way of doing business - the Asian way - seems relevant in the context of shrinking natural resources. Besides, from my very Asian/Indian point of view, I realize that Western business executives often build relationships at a superficial level, which may not be very helpful as the world faces a talent shortage and business problems become more complex than ever and businesses need to foster collaboration across diverse teams. In my view, both globalization and collaborative nature of the business is better served by the deep relationship based Asian cultures.

In my quest to build a cross-culture training organization, I am increasingly inclined to build this balanced approach - away from the current euro-centric paradigm and based on a clearer understanding of one's own culture first. I am indeed not into spiritualism or any such thinking, but I think that we need global Indians - who are proud and confident Indians at heart, at ease with their own identity and independent in their business thinking - and who meet the world half way down the road.

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