Worldprism: Intellectual Influences for our model of cultural differences

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” George Box, Statistician

This posting will not be of interest to everyone.  It describes the intellectual roots of the Worldprism model of cultural differences, and is, therefore, necessarily abstract and theoretical.  Future postings will be focused on the application of the model to real world situations.

‘Usefulness’ was a guiding principle when developing the  Worldprism.  We wanted to create a framework of cultural differences that was intellectually sound, but also of practical use for business people.

Models are essential for simplifying and managing complex phenomena like cultures, and this was our objective in developing the Worldprism.

Worldprism Development

The model was influenced by the research of many individuals:

  • The anthropologists Florence and Clyde Kluckhohn, and the social psychologist Fred Strodtbeck who pioneered the value orientations approach to analyzing cultures.  Value orientations represent a set of beliefs that cultures have about human nature and relationships, the physical world, time, and activity.
  • The sociologist Talcott Parsons and his model of pattern variables, i.e. contrasting values to which people orient themselves in social interactions, e.g. Universalism – Particularism and Diffuseness – Specificity.
  • The anthropologist Edward Hall and his concepts of polychromic (many things at once) time and monochromic (single focus) time, and high and low context cultures -referring to the degree people rely on things other than words to express meaning, e.g. body language.
  • The cultural researcher, Geert Hofstede who identified at five, and then six, value dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity vs. Femininity, Long-Term Orientation vs. Short-Term Orientation, and Indulgence vs. Restraint.
  • The researchers, Fons Trompenaar and Charles Hampden-Turner who identified and developed seven dimensions of culture: Universalism vs. Particularism, Individualism vs, Collectivism, Neutral vs. Emotional, Specific vs. Diffuse, Achievement vs. Ascription, Sequential vs. Synchronic, Internal vs. External Control.

The empirical studies of Hofstede and Trompenaars helped quantify cultural differences, and their frameworks have become dominant in cultural training.  While Hofstede and Trompenaars have added great value, in our own training practice we kept encountering two significant problems:

  • Participants struggled with the language which often seemed alien and overly academic.
  • The statistical approach to describing country cultures hid a lot of their complexity.  There are often more differences within a culture than between them.  The country profile statistics – while impressive – tended to ‘average out’ a culture, and lead to fixed and stereotypical perceptions.

Given these challenges, my colleagues and I decided to develop a model of cultural differences utilizing past research as well as our years of cross-cultural experience.  We wanted a framework that was user-friendly and practical; a framework in which statistics were just one credibility factor.  We wanted on-the-ground input from in-country consultants, and not just employee or training participant surveys.

One of the first things we did was give our model an organizational structure which others lacked.  The three R’s of Relating, Regulating, and Reasoning provided us with a high-level frame of cultural dimensions; the 3 R’s emerged from real challenges managers faced.

Dimensions

  • Relating: Expectations about interacting with one another
  • Regulating: Expectations about managing the world around us
  • Reasoning: Expectations about problem-solving

Each dimension has a set of cultural orientations derived from cultural research, but described in a more accessible language.

  • Task vs relationship
  • Explicit vs implicit
  • Individual vs group
  • Risk taking vs risk avoiding
  • Tight vs loose
  • Shared vs concentrated
  • Linear vs circular
  • Facts vs thinking
  • Simple vs complex

Western business cultures often lean toward orientations on the left-side of the left-column (Task, Explicit, Individual, etc), but that is too simplistic. Each regional, national, organizational, professional, or team culture has its own pattern of orientations, and can contain contradictory orientations in continual tension, e.g. Individual – Group.

This complexity is what makes cultural intelligence and agility so important.  It is not enough to say, for example, that the USA is Explicit in its communication style.  That will true in many instances, but not in all.  The culturally intelligent individual will be able to use a framework like the Worldprism to ‘read’ a cross-cultural situation and adapt in real-time.

About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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