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Culture Matters

Business Analysts often work on projects and programmes that span organisational and national boundaries. Whether it’s working with a strategic supplier in Ukraine, a business process outsourcing partner in India or a software development team in New Zealand, this type of work presents many challenges. Not only are there time zone and organisational cultural differences, there are often differences in national culture that can lead to misunderstandings and even conflict.

There are many aspects that change professionals should keep firmly on their radar if they are to work effectively with colleagues and customers from other cultures.

Language is Affected by Cultural Context: Visualisation Bridges The Gap

It has often been said that “Britain and America Are Two Nations Divided by a Common Language”. This is probably equally true of the UK and any other English speaking nation, or indeed any nation states that happen to speak the same language. Those who grow up in a particular culture tend to convey very precise meanings through nuanced colloquialisms (‘slang’) and linguistic cues. Confusingly, with British English, the intended meaning might be the exact opposite of the literal meaning. A British person who says that they “might join you in the pub later” is almost certainly politely saying that they absolutely aren’t coming. The South African meaning of the word “now” is different from the British meaning of the word, which has the potential to cause confusion if it goes unchecked. These are just two specific examples.

Over time teams will pick up the differences, however it’s important to find ways of avoiding misunderstandings. This is where Business Analysis Modelling comes into its own. There are a whole range of visualisation and modelling techniques in a BA’s toolkit: from unstructured Rich Pictures, to more formal Use Cases, Process Models, Data Models and everything in between. A good visualisation bridges the communication gap by making any assumptions that have been made explicit. We have probably all experienced situations where stakeholders appear to agree during a meeting, and it is only when we draw something that we discover there are subtly different perspectives that aren’t being conveyed verbally. This is likely to be even more prominent when there are stakeholders with different cultural backgrounds and experiences in the room.

Building Cultural Self-Awareness: Know Thyself

The irony when it comes to culture is it’s very difficult for anyone of us to see our own quirks. It is easy to observe that other cultures act differently, but people who grow up within a culture are likely to find its nuances so ‘normal’ that they no longer see them. Working effectively with colleagues from different cultures requires an understanding of both their cultures and our own.

Geert Hofstede wrote the much cited book “Cultures and Organizations: Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival: Software of the Mind” which reflected on research into the differences between cultures. The third edition (which is co-authored with Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov) builds on decades of data. Even more accessible than the book is the Hofstede Insights website where different cultures can be benchmarked against each other. Want to know how Albania and Zambia compare? With a few clicks you can find out.

Hofstede Insights benchmarks national culture on six dimensions:

  • Power distance: “the extent to which the less powerful members of society accept that power is distributed unequally. An acceptance that power resides in few hands may result in a reluctance to take decisions without deferring to those who hold the power.”
  • Individualism: “the extent to which individuals either focus on looking after just themselves and their immediate family or believe that members of a society should look after each other.”
  • “Masculinity”: “the extent to which there is a focus on the aggressive pursuit of goals (defined as ‘masculinity’) or a focus on consensus and quality of life (‘femininity’).”
  • Uncertainty Avoidance:  “the extent to which members of a society prefer rules as a means of diminishing uncertainty and anxiety.”
  • Long term orientation: “the extent to which a society is concerned with long-term perseverance and a focus on the future, or on short-term tradition and norms where there are misgivings and concerns about change.”
  • Indulgence: “the extent to which a society is concerned with the ability to indulge oneself and have fun or is restrained by the norms and constraints imposed by the society.”

Quotes from Delivering Business Analysis: The BA Service Handbook (Paul and Lovelock, 2019).  Note “masculine” is shown in inverted commas (our emphasis) to differentiate it from perceived human gender roles.

This handy resource is very useful for those wanting to gain a quick overview of their own and other cultures. It should of course be noted that individual stakeholders are more unique and complex than any model could describe. As the Hofstede Insights website highlights “statements about just one culture on the level of “values” do not describe “reality”; such statements are generalisations and they ought to be relative”.   

Remaining curious about culture, using diagrams and models to uncover assumptions and referring to benchmarks such as Hofstede’s Insights can ensure that ‘culture clash’ is avoided.

References and Further Reading:

Hofstede Insights (2020) Compare Countries [Online]. Available at: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/product/compare-countries/

Hofstede, G., Hofstede , G.J. & Minkov, M. (2010) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, (3rd ed), McGraw-Hill Education

Paul, D. and Lovelock, C. (2019), Delivering Business Analysis: The BA Service handbook, Swindon, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT

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