A Framework to map and interpret 'Culture'
Updated: Mar 18
As an Analyst at an FMCG Co. in 2011, I began using extensively for the first time, the popular spreadsheet program - Microsoft Excel. My boss was proficient at it and he used to emphasize the importance of organizing data in a neat manner, among other things.
Once I became familiar with the scope & utility of the program, I was drawn towards it & enjoyed operating on it.
Excel's cell-based layout presented to me an attractive 'framework' to organize large sets of data into discrete chunks of understandable information. Very soon, I began using the same principles to decode complex objects in the real world. For example, I began to visualize a large building as an accumulation of neatly modeled cells, each comprising two windows and a balcony, laid out symmetrically in rows and columns.
This approach of breaking-down complexity into something understandable has held me in good stead ever since - I can attribute many of my positive moments, academically or professionally, to it. My fondness for Operations, Supply Chain & Mapping has formed as an extension to this affinity, in a way.
Intelloc Mapping Services | Mapmyops is engaged in providing mapping solutions to organizations which facilitate operations improvement, planning & monitoring workflows. These include but are not limited to Supply Chain Consulting, Drone Services, Location Analytics & Applications, Satellite Imagery Analytics & Polluted Water Remediation. Projects can be conducted pan-India.
Reach out to us via email - firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, can a Framework be developed to understand something as abstract as 'Culture', better?
To set the context first, I think all of us would agree that understanding Human Behavior is a very crucial aspect as we navigate our lives. It helps us to understand the who, why & how of everyday events: the ones where we are directly involved in, as well as the ones which we view from a distance - from our TV sets, laptops and mobile phones. Now, as much as each human is distinct as a behavioral being, groups of people tend to have common, social behavioral traits.
And because the human race finds itself in a position of strength due to the 'power of its collective' - it becomes all the more vital to understand these common behavioral traits - i.e. 'Culture' to decode and interpret not only isolated occurrences but also events of larger magnitude. While Behavior forms a significant part of Culture, the broad term also includes - Ideas, Norms, Habits, Attitudes, Beliefs, Customs and Laws as well.
My first tryst with the English word Culture in an Indian context would've most likely come from this pocket-sized and engaging silver-colored booklet- 'India's Priceless Heritage' by Nani Palkhivala (Figure 3 right below). That our 75 years of Independence has just passed, is perhaps a good occasion to recall it.
Mr. Palkhivala describes Indian Culture & 'Dharma' as a combination of three virtues - a) Self-discipline, b) Self-restraint and c) Self-development. While this is profound, the use of an individualistic term (Self) to describe a group-phenomenon (Culture) is striking. It is as if culture amalgamates the multitudes of us into a single organism.
Indian Culture is often described as 'multi-faceted', 'layered' and filled with 'richness'. Having grown up in it and being exposed to other cultures as well, I do agree with this portrayal and let me share with you why I think so-
I hypothesize that India's Geography has contributed enormously to India's cultural 'Evolution' and the formation and development of our rich heritage. To comprehend better what I'm about to explain, perhaps you'll need to mentally transport yourself to a time when India wasn't India but was भारतवर्ष (Bharatvarsha). You'd know that much of the subcontinent's landmass is arable as it is interspersed by numerous water-bodies - the harbinger of nutrients - which makes the soil fertile and the vegetation lush, as a result. A wide variety of food & cash crops can be grown besides the naturally abundant forest resources, herbs and spices. That humans congregate around water bodies is a time-validated phenomenon - most of the world's oldest civilizations were clustered so - be it Chinese (Yangtze), Egyptian (Nile) or Mesopotamian (Tigris-Euphrates). Also, majority of Indian residents are fortunate to live in moderate climes devoid of the extremes that are so prevalent elsewhere because of India's location on the globe with the Tropic of Cancer bisecting through. Plus, the natural barriers on our subcontinent's perimeter - the mountain ranges, ocean and desert had helped us to become a human petri dish of sorts - these helped to us to isolate from external threats effectively and to develop and thrive as a planetary microcosm. As a result, I do believe that ancient residents of our subcontinent were 'quicker' to transition from small tribes of hunter-gatherers looking to survive each day to a complex, inter-connected Society: a civilization steeped in agrarian practices, in residential planning, in education & learning, in social customs & classes, in the Sanskrit language & in 'Sanskriti', our beautiful word for Culture. With time, we were even able to use our brewing knowledge within to transform our natural barriers into a source of significant economic advantage and cultural broadcast - via the marvelous Uttarapatha land trade route and the Mountain-passes as well as the various flourishing Maritime trade routes.
The tragic events that transpired over the last millennium have not only undone our growth but also desecrated a once remarkable culture. Our channels of economic trade became an effective medium to launch invasions by envious raiders who were not only quick to capitalize on our internal divides but also ensured that the pillars of culture were also pummeled in the process - be it books, art, food or customs. The world order changed drastically too with the rise / growth of European-origin phenomenon such as Colonialism, Renaissance, the English Language, Industrial Revolution, USA, Scientific Research, Green Revolution, Electronics & Automobiles which propelled the cultural progress of the benefactors by leaps and bounds.
The role of 'Geography' as a Culture-determinant is already reducing - we are now capable to develop urban settlements in hostile environments, grow crops regardless of soil and natural climatic conditions, work remotely from anywhere and mingle with different cultures using air travel or from the comforts of our homes using the avenues that electronic and social media presents to us.
In the future, it is evident that adoption, mastery and ownership of complex, cross-functional technologies - AI, Blockchain, Robotics, to name a few - will play a dominant role in determining the next world order. Early-movers could potentially be endowed with very long-lasting economic advantages, just as India & China did during ancient times and Europe & USA did (& are doing) in recent times, if not more.
However, what I'm particularly curious and concerned about is how or whether Culture would 'evolve' going forward. Would we find a way to limit our greed, utilize resources carefully and live harmoniously or would we collapse into an anarchic Humanoid society in a vision-less world as slaves to technology & governed by enforcers in a high-surveillance environment - a dark, dystopian future?
Frankly, this reality is not all that implausible given how we are setting ourselves up today, with all our explicit and implicit divides, conflicts and vitriolic posturings.
Hence, I think it is all the more important that we aim to understand our cultural traits, similarities and differences better today and strive to reach a global consensus to sustainably progress our time on this planet and to avert the not-so-distant annihilation of Cultures or even Mankind as a whole as we know it.
I do believe India has an important role to play in this new world order - maybe not as a Protagonist (as many in our country feel), but more as a Guide. A lot of us, especially the youth, do feel unsure about ourselves today - whether to continue mimicking the West's successful 'Capitalism' model of development (with its obvious flaws) with the hope of equaling or surpassing it someday or to somehow connect and embrace India's spiritual & cultural past (I'm afraid its true essence is irretrievable and cannot be recreated) or to pursue the aggressive form of Nationalism as it exists today - a concept driven more by fluffy political interests rather than substantive, reality-embedded foundations (certainly a big No-No). Perhaps, it would be a mixture of all of the above or maybe even something radically different.
As I grapple with these thoughts, I do realize that Mapping is a good way a) to lend structure to thinking, b) to use as a framework to organize & understand reality and c) to embark on an explorative adventure with the hope of reaching an ideal, magical destination as one yearns, so often.
It is in this situation that I happened to listen to an audiobook - The Culture Map - Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business which is a good reference point, in my opinion, for point b) above - a framework to organize & understand reality.
It is so important to have a good understanding of the 'As-Is' before we chart an ideal 'To-Be' and this book, in my opinion, provides a useful framework to assess 'Culture' in its modern, global avatar albeit more in a business context.
The Culture Map, originally published in 2014, makes for a good read (listen) and the content is insightful. It's author - Erin Meyer, is a professor of Management Practice at INSEAD in the Organizational Behavior Department and the book is a manifestation of her research work on behavior, similarities and differences in management styles in cross-country, cross-cultural environments.
At the core of the book lies the Culture Mapping Framework which encompasses a wide range of relevant behaviors, particularly in a business setting. Erin puts forth a compelling case for understanding, accommodating and leveraging cultural nuances to get things done effectively in a global workplace, by sharing plenty of real-life examples. It is highly likely that readers, especially those who've had global experiences - business or otherwise, would relate to it and utter - 'This has happened to me!' or 'I could've handled this situation better had I known this...'
(I had indicated, in my previous article on Supply Chain Design, of my desire to make more space for operations focused business content on this Mapmyops Geo-blog. Writing on this topic fits in well with my preferences, as a result.)
The flow of the ensuing content will be as follows - First, I'll introduce you to the Culture mapping framework (Figure 4). Thereafter, I'll proceed to explain each of the eight Behavioral Dimensions using Behavior Comparison Cards which would contain the salient features of the dimension's traits elaborated using examples. Along the way, I'll throw light on some of the key aspects, peculiarities, opinions and insights which I gleaned from listening the audiobook.
Erin maps Culture at a country-level i.e. on the basis of Geography - culture of India, culture of Japan and so on. As you can see from the visual above, the eight Behavioral Dimensions are very relevant in a business context - (Style of) a) Communicating, b) Evaluating, c) Persuading, d) Leading, e) Deciding, f) Trusting, g) Disagreeing & h) Scheduling.
The framework doesn't appear to grade, generate or display a single absolute Cultural value for each country. Rather, the countries are placed on a Scale, relative to each other, for each of the eight behavioral dimensions. A country's positioning is determined by its general affinity to pursue a particular type of behavior within the broader dimension. Each dimension has two opposing behavioral traits at either end of the scale - for example, in the 'Leading' behavior, the positioning of each country on the scale would be basis whether it has an 'Egalitarian' way or a 'Hierarchical' way of corporate leadership, from left to right (Refer to Figure 5 right below).
For example, UK is placed towards the mid-left of the 'Communicating' scale (you may refer to Figure 7 below) indicating that it adopts a fairly Low-context communicating style whereas it falls bang at the center of the 'Disagreeing' scale indicating that it is neither very Confrontational nor too Docile in terms of expressing dissent.
The next section details each of the 8 Behavioral Dimensions of the Culture Mapping Framework.
Please note that-
a) The features are better read vertically than horizontally
b) You'd be right to assume that the exact opposite of each statement is a feature of the adjacent trait, even if not mentioned explicitly
c) Many of the examples used are directly paraphrased from the audiobook while some others are based on my personal experiences and understanding.
To see how countries fare against each other on a common scale, you may refer to Erin's output from her research for the 'Communicating' behavior, right below (Figure 7)-
It would be natural for you to perceive that if some countries are clustered on the far right of any behavioral scale then they would gel well together because of similar cultural tendencies whereas if they are at opposing ends then there would be a greater scope for misunderstandings. While this holds true in general, it is not always the case.
For example, here in the 'Communicating' scale - the greatest scope of misunderstanding is actually between cultures who fall on the far right i.e. those who use High-context communicating styles (eg. China & Japan). This is because High-context communicating entails the use of subtle, indirect messaging. The Chinese may convey a message which the Japanese interpret in a different way and then they'll convey their feedback which the Chinese may interpret in a different way. No wonder, the 'Encryption - Decryption' loop only works well in Computing and not in Human Exchanges! Perhaps, this aspect could very well be a contributing factor to China-Japan's bitter rivalry.
Moreover, Erin insists us to take into account the relative positioning of each country to facilitate effective cross-cultural business practices. For example, even if two cultures are placed on the left of the 'Communicating' scale, which would indicate their affinity to use direct, clear messaging - for example USA & UK - USA is actually positioned to the far right of the scale and for them, even UK is a High-context culture. Often, the British way of subtle humor is not understood by US listeners.
While Erin has placed countries on the 'Evaluating' scale, the output tends to be even more meaningful in her visualization below (Figure 9) which contrasts the 'Evaluating' scale with the 'Communicating' scale in a 2*2 matrix. Some cultures which communicate in a Low-context manner i.e. very directly, do tend to adopt a milder and indirect 'Evaluating' approach (such as US & Canada) while the vice-versa also holds true (such as Israel & France).
In a cross-cultural setting - a dominant DNF evaluating culture may lead to demoralized employees who may perceive their superiors to be tyrants whereas, in a dominant INF evaluating culture, the positive feedback that often precedes negative feedback may be perceived as fake and the employees may feel that their superiors are not being transparent. Adopting a balanced to slightly INF approach works well in cross-cultural organizations as per the author's experiences.
'Persuading' is a very important human trait, especially in a business context. It is not restricted to the Sales function alone but to the multiple forms of Selling in a corporate environment - be it products, services, ideas, knowledge or beliefs to a wide range of stakeholders. Aspects like Career progression, Project buy-ins & Fund sanctions are influenced considerably by the person or the team's ability to win over the 'Influencers'. It is therefore important to map cultures using this behavioral trait as different cultures adopt differing styles of persuasion - could be Principles-first, Applications-first or Holistic Thinking.
As an Indian-origin student exploring international higher education - studying Global Supply Chain & Logistics struck to me as an interesting option. Supply Chain involves observing dependencies and linkages in a systems-view rather than from an organizational-view. Having listened to Erin's explanation of Holistic thinking behavior and its prevalence in Asian cultures made me introspect. There was a growing realization in me that quite possibly, my cultural roots had influenced my academic pursuits.
Typically, Indians do tend to evaluate the pros & cons in-depth and see the larger picture and then proceed to build a solid, winnable case. This is in stark contrast to Western cultures which adopt a 'First Do, then Think' approach (Applications-first trait) as well as the Arab cultures which lay down the law as a strict interpretation to Islamist texts and influences (Principles-first trait).
An important aspect to convey to readers here is that Erin doesn't espouse cultural 'Stereotyping'. Rather, she suggests that these deep-rooted Cultural Behaviors should be taken into account and used as a basis to determine Leadership best-practices in a cross-cultural environment. The inability to do so could tantamount to workplace conflicts, lack of motivation and project delays.
Many of you may have formed firm approaches on how to deal with people - evaluating each of them in isolation basis their merits and demerits and behaving with them, responding to them accordingly. The author indicates that this is may be an impractical and a wrong approach - because you are judging people not in their cultural context but from your own lens i.e. your own culture's prism. Instead, what she suggests is that managers and leaders should become familiar with the cultural backgrounds of their workforce and design the policies, processes and communication methods accordingly so as to be accommodating of them.
One way, which Erin proposes time and time again in the book, is to formulate a plan and to convey it in advance to the workforce. For example, 'This is how your performance evaluations will be done', 'This is how we'll look to handle workplace grievances', 'This is what would be considered acceptable and this is what wouldn't'. Also, instead of directly conveying this plan, the use of Cultural Bridges - i.e. locals to that particular culture or seasoned international professionals is a much better way to convey the message in a cross-cultural setting.
Erin credits a lot of her work pertaining to the 'Leading' behavior in particular to Geert Hofstede, a famous Dutch social psychologist. Having recently passed away, Hofstede's research work in the field of cross-cultural behavior is held in very high regard among professionals within this field and beyond. For instance, his 'Six Dimensions of National Culture' is often taught at management schools.
This is how India fares -
To understand Hofstede's National Culture framework better and what these scores for India mean, please refer to this summary page on his website.
After listening to this section of the book and upon merging the learning with my experiences and world-views, I drew a connection - Three of the top countries in the world renowned for the quality of their products & processes, innovation & design-excellence - namely Japan, Germany & USA - adopt a hybrid approach of Leading-Deciding.
Japan & Germany, who are masters in operational efficiency and manufacturing defect-free, high quality products, generally adopt a 'Hierarchical' Leading but a 'Consensual' Deciding style. When it comes to consensus, as Erin indicates, the Japanese tend to prefer using the 'Ringi' System where each layer of the management, starting from bottom-up, discuss and arrive at a consensus for a proposal and then transfer their feedback to the next level of management above them who, in turn, do the same. This process continues till it reaches the leader / decision-maker. Reduction of unnecessary meetings and capturing the voice of everyone are the key advantages of this traditional 'Deciding' cultural system of the Japanese.
In contrast, USA, which is widely-regarded as a torch-bearer in business innovation and management best-practices, adopts a fairly 'Egalitarian' style of Leadership but a more 'Top-Down' approach when it comes to Decision-making. Incidentally, a video trending on Facebook, which I viewed just as I was typing out this section, brings to the fore this cultural contrast!
Video 1: Humorous Depiction of Egalitarian Leadership and Top-Down Deciding Style of USA. Source: Facebook- https://fb.watch/e-jzRT_hQN/
A young child playing with the blazer of, and asking questions to, the then former US Vice-President Joe Biden who humbly obliged, signified the presence of an 'Egalitarian' cultural environment to me. Nonetheless, Joe Biden was quick to expressively point out later in the video about the 'Hierarchy' of authority - No. 1: Obama followed by No. 2: himself.
Funny how a random video could give clues about the 'Deciding' cultural environment of a country!
I designed the Behavior Comparison Card for 'Trusting' dimension in a different way - in the form of a storyline. Simplistically, the intended moral of the story is that long-term, trust-based relationships pay more dividends than short-term, task-based relationships. Realistically, most cultures adopt a blend of differing proportions of these two opposing traits rather than fixating on one approach.
However, the lack of trust between stakeholders could derail business success and I felt it important to drive home the distinct differences between Task-based & Relationship-based behavioral traits. The latter places significant value on personal relationships, social connections and network of influence in their business dealings and is widely prevalent in Middle Eastern, South Eastern and Latin American cultures even to this day. However, the importance of Task-based Trusting should not be undermined because it is a more practical and efficient method and the rules of the game tend to be fair, merit-based and equal for all.
The concept behind the 'Trusting' dimension has been derived from the 'Cognitive' & 'Affective' modes of Trust. In simple words, do you Trust with the Head (Cognitive / Task-based) or with the Heart (Affective / Relationship based)?
Would you feel comfortable if your boss, parent or close friend is publicly questioned about his/her method of decision-making or performance? Would you prefer the dissenters to be emotionally expressive to the point of being ungainly or would you prefer them to be docile but unnerve you with their sudden barrage of queries?
Coming from a largely patriarchal society, I personally find it uncomfortable to deal with the possibility of engaging with dissenters in a free-for-all, democratic environment. However, as I've learnt from this section of the audiobook, many Cultures do actively foster 'Confrontational' behavior as to them, it is a signal of an active, involved and a motivated workplace.
The fact that Erin chose 'Disagreeing' and not 'Agreeing' as a cultural dimension to map, implicitly signified to me that the author herself is influenced by cultures which encourage confrontation. To lend more credence to my belief, I quickly tallied it with her Disagreeing Scale output below (Figure 18) -
Erin's French influences, both professional (INSEAD) & personal (Husband) as well as her US (Minnesota) origin may have prompted her to chose 'Disagreeing' as a trait after all!
Given my own background in operations and having spent considerable time working for & with US-origin organizations here in India, personally I do rely on the Linear-time approach. I like to form a workday schedule, prefer to break-down complex activities to simple tasks and sincerely plan and attempt to complete projects on-time.
Often as a business owner running my startup, I get furious (implicitly) with customers and suppliers when they don't respond as scheduled, give vague timeline for placing calls, do not read my reference material, come unprepared and late for meetings or interrupt the project flow with needless bottlenecks.
Yet, at the same time, I do admire (implicitly, again) the same folks because they tend to accomplish so much more in their given time, assuming responsibility for multiple projects, and somehow be able to deliver results too. Yet, I do believe that 'Managed success' should not be a go-to approach as it is steeped in probability and hoping that things go right. 'Linear-time' behavior is a form of a 'Planned success' and organizations in India should transition to it partially, if not heavily, to be consistently competitive in the global arena be it business or sports or any other field.
Geographic Mapping, Operations Mapping, Business Process Mapping relies on Linear-time principles as well. No wonder, German cars, Japanese manufacturing and Swiss watches have stood the test of time. With Mapmyops, I hope to be able to assist organizations in making this transition.
While I do believe that humans are not designed or meant to be mechanical beings, watching race-car maintenance happen in a matter of few seconds during Pit Stops is a sight to marvel and testament to the benefits of adopting a Linear-time culture. This is not to say that L-t culture is without flaws - it is deemed to be rigid and often impractical given the VUCA world we live in. Yet, personally for me, it's benefits far outweigh its failings.
With this we come towards the end of the article. I hope you found this framework of mapping culture as useful. Each country can be mapped and compared on the 8-Dimensional scale, in isolation or in a combined way. The output can also be compared to other countries' own culture map and many insights can be gleaned from it. One can think of ways and means to minimize the scope of organizational conflicts by understanding the differences between two or more cultures and determining policies and best-practices accordingly.
Erin's website seems to have useful (and possibly updated) Culture mapping tools which can be used to build individual, team, corporate and country-level behavior-maps and I'm sure many leaders and organizations operating in cross-cultural environments could benefit from it.
I loved listening to The Culture Map's audiobook and perhaps, you may choose to listen to it as well. If anything, this book could've been even better if it had assessed culture using some other parameters other than purely on the basis of the country's geographic extent. Because large countries such as India, China, USA or Brazil would house a wide range of diverse cultures within - so I'm not sure if this generalization is an effective one for such countries. Perhaps, the culture 'cake' could've been sliced in other ways - based on religion, age, gender, profession. Also, Erin's interpretation of culture largely focused on 'behavioral' traits which is a slightly narrow take, although to be fair to her, she did try to bring in historical and attitudinal aspects with examples, occasionally. Moreover, I believe behavioral aspects of culture are more dominant in a business environment and hence, more relevant for the book's subject matter.
Thank you Hachette Book Group, publisher of the audiobook 'The Culture Map' for advising me on the copyright rules.