Chapter 2: National culture – Organisational Culture for Information Managers


National culture


This chapter considers national cultural characteristics. The problems inherent in defining national cultures are discussed, and the dangers of relying on stereotypes or caricatures are emphasised. The Hall contextual model is described, but most detail is reserved for the multidimensional model of national culture developed by Geert Hofstede. Each of the Hofstede dimensions is described and the implications for information management are discussed.

Key words

national culture

power distance

uncertainty avoidance




In this chapter I will explore the underlying level of our organisational culture model, national culture, or the characteristics associated with ‘the collective programming of the mind acquired by growing up in a particular country’ (Hofstede, 1997: 262). First I will consider the controversy surrounding national culture as a construct, and then various interpretations or models will be described. The majority of this chapter is devoted to discussion of Hofstede’s dimensions, and consideration of possible implications for information management.

The debate surrounding national culture

Any exploration of national culture has to be approached with caution. It is only too easy to fall into the trap of identifying stereotypes or caricatures. These national caricatures are simplistically drawn, therefore easily recognised and provide ready fodder for humour and populist politicians. Nationalities that are the target of jokes and more sinister attention vary according to geographical location and the presence or absence of societal forces, such as economic recession and immigration. So, it must be very strongly emphasised at the outset that the objective of our consideration of national culture is not to construct neat little stereotypes that can be applied to forecast the behaviour of individuals. My goal is to provide insight into the diversity of values and attitudes of people working in organisations towards information, and to show that there are multiple perspectives at play.

In the previous chapter I looked at the problems associated with equating culture with a particular country. To recap, I established unequivocally that there are major limitations to defining culture by equating it with a nation or country. What constitutes a nation, and the lack of permanence associated with nationhood are significant problem areas. The political boundaries of a nation are likely to contain distinct ethnic groups holding different cultural characteristics or values. This ethnic diversity is likely to be represented within organisations, adding a further element of complexity to the overall organisational culture. The objective in this chapter is to identify tendencies to hold certain values, rather than establishing hard and fast rules applicable to individuals.

Political and social changes which have contributed to increasing globalisation would seem to have emphasised cultural differences, rather than minimised them. As Frances Fukuyama states, ‘one of the ironies of the convergence of larger institutions since the end of the cold war is that people around the world are now even more conscious of the cultural differences that separate them’ (Fukuyama, 1995: 5).

Hence despite debates about the validity of national culture as a construct, interest in cultural differences seems to be increasing rather than diminishing. Organisations today are likely to conduct business internationally and multinational enterprises may face unexpected challenges in managing information. Different regulatory environments (for example, variations in copyright, privacy and freedom of information legislation) will pose one set of challenges, and these in turn will reflect possibly wide variation in attitudes and opinions relating to information. The regulatory environment will be discussed further in the next chapter.

Models of national culture

Given increasing globalisation, significant research effort has been directed towards developing models of national culture. We will consider the cultural dimensions associated with the Dutch anthropologist Hofstede’s model in detail. But before doing so, it is worth noting other models of national culture that are sometimes referred to in the literature.

Frances Fukuyama, quoted above, developed a theory based on the analysis of a single variable, trust. He associates this with the notion of shared social capital, which he explains as follows:

Social capital consists of norms or values, instantiated in an actual relationship among two or more people, that promote cooperation between them. These norms and values can range from the relatively superficial, like friends who share a love of cooking or hiking, to highly complex, like the value systems underlying organised religion. (Fukuyama, 2001: 480)

Another relatively simple cultural model is that of respected American academic Edward T. Hall (Hall, 1976). The Hall model uses a single continuum of high to low context to plot cultural differences. Preferences for high or low context are of key concern in information management. Where high context communication is preferred, the emphasis is on the context rather than content. In other words, critical communication takes place based not just on what is explicitly stated, which can be the minor source of information with respect to contextual information inherent in the person and/or environment. Low context communication, however, necessitates that as much information as possible has to be made explicit for communication to be successful. So, pictures and images could be much more effective than text in situations where the preference is for high-context communication. This has particular implications for information management, and as high/low context are also features of Hofstede’s model will be discussed later in this chapter under ‘Individualism/Collectivism’.

Another feature identified in the Hall model is attitudes to time. The two extremes are monochronic (paying attention to one thing at a time) and polychronic (paying attention to many things at once). This is an interesting feature to consider, which may influence the choice of communication tools used in today’s digital working environment. A combination of online text and oral communication may be more easily dealt with by polychronics (multi-taskers) than monochronics. Although there is much that is relevant to information managers in the Hall model, the main problem with it is that it has not been rigorously tested (Cardon, 2008).

There are two major multidimension models of culture with global applicability. Hofstede’s model identifies five dimensions, and the other model developed by Charles Hampden-Turner and Frans Trompenaars distinguishes seven dimensions (Hampden-Turner & Trompenaars, 1994). Although the terminology used in the two models differs, the factors measured by both are very similar. The matrix shown in Table 2.1 was developed by researchers in the information systems domain, and demonstrates the commonality in the two models.

Table 2.1

Mapping of Trompenaars’ and Hofstede’s dimensions

Source: Krumbholz and Maiden, 2001: 189.

Of these two models, Hofstede’s has been the most frequently replicated, tested and validated, and is therefore the one used in this book. Culture’s Consequences has been cited over 2,000 times according to the Social Science Citation Index, with most citations appearing in cross-cultural and organisational psychology, organisational sociology, management and communication (Hofstede, 2001: 462). A recent attempt to cross-validate Hofstede’s classification is particularly interesting in that it explored the reflection of national culture by organisations (van Oudenhoven, 2001). This study found considerable correlation between Hofstede’s dimensions and culture as perceived in organisations, but there was very little relationship between culture as perceived and culture as desired by respondents. My interpretation of this finding is that it demonstrates the fundamental nature of the dimensions of national culture. Any modifications or changes to those cultural values will be very slow and will not occur simply because management decides to ‘change the culture’. In contrast, if changes occur to these values this will take place over generations, and will involve home and family life.

Hofstede’s dimensions

Geert Hofstede’s model of the dimensions of national culture was based initially on the results of an extensive research project that surveyed the employees of IBM in 50 countries (Hofstede, 2001). Analysis of the results initially identified four cultural dimensions: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, collectivism/individualism, masculinity/femininity, then at a later stage long-term/short-term perspective was added. Criticisms of Hofstede’s model are identified and discussed in Chapter 1; in this chapter I will focus on explaining the dimensions themselves and their implications for information management.

It must be noted that Hofstede does not directly relate the management of information to the cultural dimensions. Of interest, though, are his comments relating to accounting in organisations. In general, he believes that the less an activity is governed by technical necessity, the more likely it is that it will be subject to cultural influences (Hofstede, 2001: 383). So, when considering accounting systems and acknowledging the fact that these systems are shaped largely by historical conventions, Hofstede concludes that it is logical for the rules of accounting and their use to vary along national cultural lines (p. 67).

A similar situation would seem to apply to information management, particularly to records and archives, but also to special library services. The next sections of this chapter consider each of Hofstede’s dimensions in turn. In Hofstede’s analysis, he developed tables for dimension showing the key differences for the extremes of each dimension in the workplace. I have used this data to compile characteristics relating to each dimension that are likely to impact on information management, i.e., anything that may affect the creation, control, flow, access, retrieval or storage of information.

Power distance

The issue underlying the power distance dimension is that of inequality. Within the organisational context, unless you are working in a very, very unusual setting, this is inevitable given employer/employee, manager/staff reporting lines. Positioning on this dimension indicates how this inequality is perceived by participants. Scores assigned by Hofstede to countries on the power distance index (PDI) were calculated on the basis of responses to three questions. These questions aimed to elicit attitudes of staff towards disagreeing with management (that is, whether or not employees are afraid to disagree with their manager), and actual and preferred decision-making styles of management (autocratic, persuasive/paternalistic or democratic) (Hofstede, 2001: 79).

Countries at the extreme ends of the power distance dimension are referred to as either high PDI or low PDI. Those at the highest end include Malaysia, Latin American countries, Arab countries, India, France and Hong Kong. Those at the lowest end include Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavian countries and Austria (Hofstede, 2001: 87).1

Hofstede summarised the key differences in work organisations between low and high power distance societies. In Table 2.2, I have selected only those that may impact on the management of information.

Table 2.2

Work organisation differences in low and high PDI societies

Work organisations in low PDI countries are more likely to have: Work organisations in high PDI countries are more likely to have:
Decentralised decision structures Centralised decision structures
Flat organisation structure Hierarchical organisation structure
Small proportion of supervisory personnel Large proportion of supervisory personnel
Ideal boss who is resourceful democrat, sees self as practical, orderly, relying on support Ideal boss who is well-meaning autocrat, regards self as benevolent decision maker
Managers relying on personal experience and on subordinates Managers relying on formal rules
Subordinates who expect to be consulted Subordinates who expect to be told
A view of consultative leadership as leading to satisfaction, performance and productivity A view of authoritative leadership and close supervision as leading to satisfaction, performance and productivity
Innovations that need good champions Innovations that need good support from hierarchy
Openness with information, also to nonsuperiors Information constrained by hierarchy

Source: From Hofstede, 2001: 107–108.

Organisational structure and management style differences

Most of these characteristics are to do with organisational structure and management style. These will undoubtedly impact on the ease with which information will flow within an organisation, and its accessibility to staff. For example, organisations situated in a high PDI society may have a predominately downwards one way flow of information from management to employees, where decisions are made at a high level and transmitted down to subordinate staff. There may be little sideways flow of information between organisational units, or upwards flow from employees to management.

In contrast, organisations situated in a low power distance society with the flat structure and consultative management style predicted by Hofstede (see Table 2.2) may have information flowing upwards, downwards and sideways between management, staff and colleagues, but this may be in uncontrolled and erratic ways. The characteristic of openness with information may mean that the principle of freedom of access may be significant. It would be interesting to explore whether there is an association of freedom of information legislation with countries having a low ranking in terms of power distance. However, whether that translates to recognition of the need for appropriate infrastructure within organisations to manage information so that it is available is another matter entirely, as the case of New Zealand shows.

New Zealand has a very low ranking on the power distance index, and was one of the first countries to implement freedom of information legislation in 1982. However, this coincided with the drastic restructuring of the public sector and one of the casualties was records management. At this time many government agencies registry services were decentralised and records staff positions were cut. So there is a clear precedent for a cultural predisposition for openness with information not to be necessarily a good thing in terms of recognition of the need for information management in organisations.

According to Hofstede’s study, high power distance is a characteristic feature of Chinese cultures and indicates that status is accorded very high importance. There is a significant body of literature by expatriate academics at Hong Kong universities which attempts to explain the Chinese culture to Westerners and the implications for business. For example, the psychologist Michael Bond’s Beyond the Chinese Face describes how relationships within organisations will be governed by a strict hierarchy, based on Confucian tradition (Bond, 1991). He suggests that leadership roles in Chinese organisations will have wide-ranging authority which is not necessarily associated with accountability, and concludes that more decisions are made in private by fewer people in Chinese culture. High value will be accorded to power, wealth and expertise.

From my own experience conducting research in Hong Kong, interviews with staff in a university became very easy to organise when I was able to mention the name of a senior university executive. In one notable instance someone I needed to interview was fully occupied all week in training, but when I mentioned the name of the executive my interviewee immediately offered to be available after work hours. Another example of the importance of hierarchy was provided by features of the workplace. In the offices of the university it was evident that a lot of emphasis was given to defining and also making explicit the relationships between staff, and that the staff themselves were very conscious of those relationships. Outward signs of those relationships were displayed in the office accommodation and proximity of individuals to each other. At first sight the division appeared to be between managers located in offices, and the staff reporting to the manager in open-plan areas. However, the open-plan work areas were also divided, and workspaces ranged through a number of subtle configurations, from cubicle to shared desk. Also a person’s status within the organisation was immediately obvious from the ranking assigned to their position title (clerical officer I, clerical officer II, and so on) and this was indicated in the internal telephone directory.

Similarly, at this university it was noteworthy that the webmaster reported directly to the President’s Office. This reporting line was felt to be necessary because the web represented an enterprise-wide project. Therefore it had to be clearly demonstrated that the webmaster was relatively independent and would not have loyalty or give precedence to a particular work unit.

Reliance on experience and subordinates, versus rules

The characteristic in low PDI countries of reliance on personal experience and on subordinates suggests that decision making may be ad hoc, perhaps not documented, and furthermore that textual sources of information may not necessarily be preferred or regarded as authoritative.

When I visited the site of my Australian case study, the university was undertaking a large-scale project which aimed to rationalise and standardise all written policies and procedures. So work was underway to consolidate all policies into a single electronic resource, distinguishing between policies, procedures and guidelines, and determining a standardised format. This work was a topic raised by most interviewees, some viewed this as a positive development, and others were more doubtful. The consolidation process was described as being fraught with difficulty as it was found that many existing documents did not actually meet the criteria that had been established for policies. It is typical of a country where there is low ranking in terms of power distance that the development of written guidance was ad hoc in nature, and that it was necessary at a later stage to return and try to apply an overarching framework in order to organise this information.

Preferences for textual information are also further discussed below as a feature associated with ‘Individualism/ Collectivism’.

Openness with information

Returning to the research undertaken by expatriate academics at Hong Kong universities, Ernest Jordan (1994) suggested that a characteristic of high power distance may be that ‘management information may well be precisely that, information only available to management … Pressure may well be put on the information providers to generate only the information that is acceptable’ (p. 13).

This emphasis on hierarchy and consequent importance of the manager or boss implies that relationships within a work unit will tend to be familial and supportive, with the downside being that there may well be inter-unit rivalry rather than collaboration:

Loyalties, being narrow, are rather more difficult to meld into an organization-wide affiliation. Usually their ambit is only as wide as the immediate boss’s range of direct relationships. This consequence of paternalism often results in inter-departmental indifference, stonewalling and competitiveness in Chinese organizations. (Bond, 1991: 84)

The need to maintain the status quo is likely to have a negative impact on the keeping of information as evidence, for accountability purposes. The interests of managers are best served by ‘maintaining prerogatives unfettered by systematic records or documented regulations’ (Martinsons & Westwood, 1997: 223).

Attitudes to innovation

I have included Hofstede’s characteristic of innovation in Table 2.2 as, given the ever-changing emerging trends in our digital environment, many information managers will be in the position of having to introduce innovations. In high power distance societies it will be necessary to have support for that innovation from the management structure; in low power distance societies a champion or crusader figure will be needed.

Uncertainty avoidance

The uncertainty avoidance dimension and associated scores on the uncertainty avoidance index (UAI) refer to uncertainty about the future and the extent to which a culture will attempt to minimise that uncertainty. Uncertainty avoidance was calculated using the answers to three questions – the questions addressed staff attitudes to company rules and regulations, employment stability and stress.

Countries which ranked highly in terms of uncertainty avoidance include Germany, Switzerland and Austria, those at the other end of the spectrum include the United Kingdom and China.

Hofstede has summarised the key differences in work organisations between low and high uncertainty avoidance societies. I have selected those that may impact on the management of information, and these are shown in Table 2.3.

Table 2.3

Work organisation differences in low and high UAI societies

Work organisations in low UAI countries are more likely to have: Work organisations in high UAI countries are more likely to have:
Short average duration of employment Long average duration of employment
Scepticism towards technological solutions Bias towards technological solutions
Innovators who feel independent of rules Innovators who feel constrained by rules
Renegade championing Rational championing
Top managers involved in strategy Top managers involved in operations
Power of superiors depending on position and relationships Power of superiors depending on control of uncertainties
Tolerance for ambiguity in structures and procedures Highly formalised management
Bias towards transformational leader role Bias towards hierarchical control role
Innovations welcomed but not necessarily taken seriously Innovations resisted but if accepted applied consistently
Employees who will have to learn and manage precision and punctuality Employees to whom precision and punctuality come naturally
Relationship orientation Task orientation
Belief in generalists and common sense Belief in specialists and expertise

Source: From Hofstede, 2001: 169–170.

There is much in the profile of low uncertainty avoidance countries that presents significant challenges for information managers.

Short versus long-term employment

Leaving aside economic drivers to hang on to a particular job, cultural preferences are significant. A tendency towards preferring shorter duration of employment, together with ambiguity concerning procedures could mean that there is less chance of personnel being aware of information management policies and practice, or of following them. The archival scholar David Bearman has also speculated on the consequences of a low ranking in terms of this uncertainty avoidance dimension for information management. He describes methods of work in organisations where employment is likely to be of short duration as being strongly influenced by personal work styles, and where employees are judged by results rather than adherence to organisational practices (Bearman, 1992: 177). In today’s digital workplace where most employees are likely to be creating and managing information at the desktop, tendencies to develop personal and unique working practices is a significant feature that needs to be recognised by information managers.

Attitudes to technology

Particularly interesting is the ‘scepticism towards technology solutions’ characteristic of countries with a low need to avoid uncertainty about the future that is identified in Table 2.3. It is certainly worth reflecting on given the user resistance to electronic documents and records management systems (EDRMS). Concerns about the effectiveness of these systems have been raised in Britain as a result of research undertaken by the National Archives (2009).

Specialists, expertise, rules and workflows

The existence of long-term employees, and a belief in specialists and expertise in organisations in countries that have a high ranking on the uncertainty avoidance index may signify respect for individuals as repositories of specialised and authoritative knowledge, but not necessarily negate a formal recordkeeping system. On the other hand, a low need to avoid uncertainty has been associated with a conclusion that rules and policy and procedural guidelines are less likely to be documented (Martinsons & Westwood, 1997). As explained in Chapter 1, documentation of policies and procedures is actively discouraged in the managerialist view of ‘good’ organisational cultures that has been very influential in western English-speaking democracies – precisely those countries which feature at the lower end of Hofstede’s uncertainty avoidance dimension.

The accounting literature also presents some evidence of consideration of the influence of this cultural characteristic. Peter Smith (1992: 41) suggests that organisations in high uncertainty avoidance cultures are likely to have longer time perspectives and more structured decision-making procedures. Structured decision-making procedures imply very clear business processes and workflows, which are key prerequisites underpinning effective recordkeeping systems.

Jeffrey Cohen and colleagues (1993) discuss the relationship between the uncertainty avoidance ranking of a culture with ethical decision making on the part of auditors. They state:

In general, auditors from strong UA cultures are more likely to equate ‘legal’ with ‘ethical’ responsibilities. In contrast, when specific legal sanctions are missing, those in low UA cultures might apply a broader ethical framework to decisions and refrain from questionable actions even if they were legal. (p. 5)

This implies that in countries with a high UAI ranking, accountability issues surrounding recordkeeping are less likely to be seriously taken into consideration if they are not also legal or regulatory requirements. Ethical considerations, if not based on legal requirements, might not even be considered as such. One confirmation of respect for regulation in high UAI societies comes from Frances Harvey (1997) who conducted an ethnographical study that compared the information systems design process in Germany and the United States. She describes how the German design process relied very heavily on standards, which is characteristic of countries with a high ranking on the UAI. That tendency has also been recognised in the archival literature: ‘The Germans stick to the rules on Aktenführung. Like the Italians they use their ordinances and classification schemes as bureaucratic means to avoid uncertainty’ (Ketelaar, 1997: 144).

Recognition of and respect for standards is of critical significance to information managers. The development of international standards is a strategy to provide a framework for information management in our complex digital environment; for example, ISO 15489 Records Management, ISO 23081 Records Management Processes – Metadata for Records and ISO 15389 Dublin Core Metadata Element Set. So an understanding of any inherent predisposition (or indeed resistance) to standards will help information managers in determining successful approaches to their implementation.

Organisational models – power distance and uncertainty avoidance relationships

Power distance and uncertainty avoidance characteristics are associated with distinct models or types of organisation. In countries where there is a combination of a high ranking on the power distance dimension with a high need to avoid uncertainty, the typical organisation type has been termed the ‘full bureaucracy’ or pyramid model (Hofstede, 2001: 377). As the name pyramid suggests, this organisation type is strongly hierarchical, and roles and functions will be clearly differentiated. It has been argued that technologies that promote and facilitate the dissemination of information in this organisation type would be implemented with considerable difficulty (Davison and Jordan, 1996). Full bureaucracies are most likely to be found in Latin, Mediterranean and Islamic countries, as well as Japan and some other Asian countries.

In contrast, in countries with a low ranking on the power distance dimension with a low need to avoid uncertainty about the future such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand, the typical organisation type will be implicitly structured, and is known as the market model (Hofstede 2001: 377). In this organisation type more importance is likely to be accorded to relationships between people than to rules and regulations (Mead, 1990: 26).

Although the cultural characteristics that define this organisation type may welcome technologies that enhance access to information, control aspects may not be so favourably received. As mentioned above, EDRMS may be particularly unsuited to this type of workplace. Not only do current manifestations of EDRMS necessitate work practices which may be perceived as additional burdens by the end user, but they also impose a formality which may appear at odds to informal, relationship-based working environment.

In my Australian case study, systems had been established for different functional areas, and sometimes for individual tasks within those functions, but little attention had been paid to the need for integration of those systems. Therefore there was no coherent way to manage information needed by different work units. There were, for example, no fewer than three quite separate information systems involved in the publication of course materials. All generated essential information, but all operated independently of each other.

The third type of organisation is the personnel bureaucracy, likely to be typical in countries characterised by a high ranking on the power distance dimension coupled with a low need to avoid uncertainty about the future. This has been termed the family model (Hofstede, 2001: 377). As this term suggests, this organisation type is centred on a strong leader whose authority is associated with the individual, rather than the rank or position which he or she holds. These organisations are likely to be found in China, India, Hong Kong and Singapore, for example. As with full bureaucracies, technologies that facilitate the dissemination of information may be regarded as a threat rather than a benefit in this organisation type.

The final organisation type is likely to be found in countries with a low ranking on the power distance dimension associated with a high need to avoid uncertainty about the future. This organisation type has been referred to as a workflow bureaucracy (Mead, 1990: 26) or more descriptively as a ‘well-oiled machine’ (Hofstede, 2001: 377). These organisations are most likely to be found in the German-speaking world of Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Here, in contrast to the market model, more emphasis is placed on regulating activities. This would seem to be the ideal organisation type in terms of accomplishing records management objectives. Theoretically there should be no major concerns about inhibiting or restricting access to information from a defending the hierarchy perspective. Furthermore, any well-oiled machine will have very clearly identified workflows which will facilitate the identification of activities that should result in the creation of records. The fluidity and lack of fixity associated with the market model is just not apparent here, a boon for records managers!

These four organisation types are applied to the scenarios described in the final chapter.

Individualism and collectivism

This dimension measures the degree to which a society views individualism as a positive or negative trait. Individualism index (IDV) scores were assigned after analysis of answers to 14 questions relating to work goals (Hofstede, 2001: 214).

Cultures are referred to as being individualist or collectivist, depending on their IDV ranking. The United States is the highest ranking individualist country, closely followed by Australia. Chinese and South East Asian countries are examples of collectivist cultures.

Key differences between individuals in low and high IDV societies have been summarised by Hofstede, and I have selected just a few of these as being the most relevant to information management. These are shown in Table 2.4.

Table 2.4

Differences in low and high IDV societies likely to impact on information management

Individuals/Work organisations in low IDV (collectivist) countries are more likely to have: Individuals/Work organisations in high IDV (individualist) countries are more likely to have:
Employees that perform best in groups Employees that perform best as individuals
A view of sharing information as an attribute of organisational success A view of withholding information as an attribute of organisational success
Training at its most effective when focused at group level Training at its most effective when focused at individual level
High context communication Low context communication
Social network main source of information Media main source of information
Lack of vertical integration in society Vertical integration in society

Source: From Hofstede, 2001: 227, 228 and 244.

However, these few characteristics are among the most interesting and could be crucial to successful information management in organisations.

Preferences for group versus individual work and views of information sharing

The first two characteristics reflect attitudes to sharing information which are fundamental to the ways in which people work in organisations positioned at the extreme ends of the individualist and collectivist dimension. The preference for working in small groups in collectivist cultures has a direct influence on the extent to which it is necessary and desirable to make information accessible.

The manifestation of these features in a collectivist culture was very apparent in the case study that I undertook of an organisation in Hong Kong. Here, employees were very willing to share information with members of the same workgroup or team. When asked if they would willingly share work information with other teams, however, reactions were quite different. There was an expectation that if sharing information between workgroups was required this would have to be formally negotiated between the respective managers. Similarly, it was very noticeable that there was a lot of concern about allowing access to information. Information was to be protected, rather than made accessible. For example, when discussing archiving documents, the principal objection related to how to control access in the far distant future.

At this organisation there was no central server. The absence of this meant that not only was there no organisation-wide backup of data on personal computers, but also to collaborative work was not facilitated. The full functionality of groupware could not be used. For instance, staff could not organise meetings based on ascertaining individuals’ availability as indicated in their electronic calendars.

Features that we may take for granted in one setting as being essential in order to work effectively may indeed be absent altogether in organisations in other cultural settings. The moral of the story being, of course, to find out why the situation exists in the first place rather than rushing in to implement information management features that may just not fit in with cultural attitudes.

Preferences for training delivery

This characteristic has been singled out because preferences as to how training should be delivered, on a group or individual basis, will have a direct impact on the effectiveness of that training. Information managers will inevitably have a responsibility to provide training, whether it is in the use of a new system or introducing new policy. Increasing the chances of successfully achieving changes in practice will be enhanced if cultural characteristics are taken into account.

High versus low context communication

Earlier in this chapter I introduced the Hall model of culture, based on a continuum of preferences to high versus low context. Hofstede has linked this theory with his individualist/ collectivist dimension, associating low context preferences with individualism, and high context with collectivism.

High-context communication implies that little has to be said or written because most of the information is either in the physical environment or internalised in the person; only a small part is in the coded, explicit part of the message. Low-context communication implies that the mass of information is made explicit. (Hofstede, 2001: 212)

Edward and Mildred Hall (1989) categorise Germans as low context – i.e., they need detailed background information when they interact with others, a historical perspective is useful and detailed background information is needed when making decisions. This implies that full and accurate recordkeeping is likely to be regarded as being of prime importance, and it is worth speculating on whether or not this characteristic will also impact on attitudes to metadata.

So, in low context cultures, information has to be made explicit and therefore there is likely to be a preference for textual information sources. In contrast, in collectivist cultures what is implicit in the context is equally, if not more important than, the explicit content. Therefore images are likely to be key tools used in communication. These preferences should be remembered in many areas of information management practice; for example, when determining what information should be prioritised for digitisation, or when designing training materials and instructional guides.

At my German case study organisation, each person I interviewed volunteered documentation (on paper and on CD-Rom) in order to supplement and support what he or she was saying. Documents included instructional guides for students, reports, public relations brochures, copies of curricula, copies of form letters and so on. All information sent out to students was also available from the university’s website, but hardcopy would be handed over usually with the comment ‘just in case you can’t find it’ or ‘just in case you forget to look for this later’. Documents were detailed and factual, even when their purpose was promotional. The public relations-type brochure describing the university’s virtual learning programme included comprehensive diagrams of the computer network, for instance.

Information gathering from social network versus media network

This characteristic is of great importance, particularly when designing library services. It indicates differences in the ways in which people in individualist and collectivist societies go about gathering information, at least initially. There has been very little academic research to explore this characteristic, but some speculation. For instance, preferences for information gathering from a media network have been described as people seeking business information from written resources: ‘Whilst they will listen to the views of colleagues or relatives, they place much emphasis on the use of reading, reports, databases and information sources’ (Morden, 1999: 21). Whereas people in collectivist cultures are more likely to trust social networks, whether in the family or at work, as sources of information.

Vertical integration

Another unexplored characteristic which is very significant for information management is what Hofstede (2001: 228) describes as the lack of vertical integration of members of individualist societies. This means that unlike collectivist cultures, people in individualist societies will not as a matter of course maintain links with their past. In Chinese societies, maintenance of those links with the past is reflected in the importance of genealogies. The tradition of compiling genealogies has existed for centuries, and this has not only been carried out by individual families but also by government bureaus (Zhao, 2001).

In individualist societies, however, names of ancestors will not necessarily be remembered through generations unless a hobby genealogist in the family makes a conscious effort to research their history. This need for research has led to what only can be termed the genealogical revolution in Western industrialised countries, which has had a profound effect on the nature and type of service provided by our memory institutions, particularly archives. This revolution has been brought about because of the sheer numbers of people researching their family history, their need to access records such as censuses, combined with the technological capabilities to digitise and make information globally available. It is easy for us in these Western countries, however, to assume that this is a universal phenomenon, but that is not likely to be the case. The impact of genealogy on memory institutions is not likely to be nearly so significant in collectivist cultures, where there are existing traditions of maintaining and preserving family histories.

Awareness and respect for the past is likely to have consequences for information management from a practical perspective. In Estonia (which has a medium ranking on the individualism scale) it was very noticeable that a high degree of importance was accorded to preservation issues, including the development of a national framework for action (Konsa & Reimo, 2009). I saw much more evidence of routine monitoring of environmental conditions (for example, recording of temperature and humidity) in libraries than I was used to seeing in New Zealand. Also there were signs that digital preservation challenges were being taken very seriously by archivists and records managers. Concern for preservation in itself seems to indicate looking both backwards and forwards in time. In other words, recognising the need to preserve information created in the past so that it can be accessed in the future.

Masculinity and femininity

This dimension measures the relative roles played by gender role values in a society. Hofstede explains as follows:

I found both occupations and countries in the IBM data to differ along a social/ego dimension of work goals, opposing interpersonal relations goals (relationship with manager, cooperation, and friendly atmosphere) to ego-directed goals (earnings and advancement). This dimension is related to the percentage of women within the occupation or country sample, but is not accounted for by the varying shares of women only; we find it also in the responses by men in these occupations or countries. (Hofstede, 2001: 284)

Therefore masculinity and femininity do not refer to an individual’s biological designation, but are used as relative terms to indicate cultural characteristics. Japan, most European countries and the United States are examples of ‘masculine’ countries. Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands are the most ‘feminine’. Some of the differences in masculinity/femininity values (MAS) as summarised by Hofstede are shown in Table 2.5.

Table 2.5

Workplace differences in low and high MAS societies

Employees in low MAS (feminine) societies are more likely to: Employees in high MAS (masculine) societies are more likely to:
Work in order to live Live in order to work
Value relations and working conditions as the key contributing factors to job satisfaction Value security, pay and interesting work as key contributing factors to job satisfaction
Value equality, solidarity, and quality of work life Value equity, mutual competition, and performance
Believe that managers are employees like others Believe that managers are culture heroes
Believe that career ambitions are optional for both men and women Believe that career ambitions are compulsory for men, optional for women
Undersell themselves when applying for jobs Oversell themselves when applying for jobs
Resolve conflicts through problem solving, compromise, and negotiation Resolve conflicts through denying them or fighting until the best ‘man’ wins

Source: From Hofstede, 2001: 318.

A direct relationship between this dimension and information management is not immediately obvious. The preference for problem solving by consensus in ‘feminine’ societies may, however, suggest that a very prescriptive approach to the management of information may not result in the desired outcomes. In other words, procedural changes should not be introduced to an organisation without appropriate consultation and debate. This dimension may therefore be significant when considering acceptance of, and compliance with, international standards of practice.

Long-term versus short-term

This final dimension was identified after the original IBM research project was completed. It emerged as a result of the Chinese Values Survey – a survey of students from 23 countries conducted about a decade after the initial study. The values addressed in the survey were suggested by Chinese scholars, in contrast to the IBM survey which was designed by Western researchers (Hofstede, 2001: 351).

Countries surveyed were ranked on a long-term orientation index (LTO) according to the relative degree of long-term/ short-term orientation in life. Out of 23 countries, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan demonstrated the highest long-term orientation, whereas Anglo-Irish heritage countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Great Britain showed a short-term orientation. As with the masculinity/ femininity dimension, no features that appear significant for information management are obvious from a reading of Hofstede’s discussion of this dimension. Which is not to say, of course, that it is not relevant to us, rather that it has not been investigated as yet.

Summary and conclusions

To conclude, negotiating access to the universities in Hong Kong, Australia and Germany to conduct research provides a very clear example of the ways in which national cultural characteristics can influence the flow of information within organisations:

The organisation type associated with Australian characteristics of low power distance and low need to avoid uncertainty is the market model, which is likely to place more reliance on personal relationships between employees than on rules and hierarchies (Mead, 1990: 28). The problems I experienced when attempting to negotiate access to the university in order to conduct the case study fitted with the characteristics of this model. The flow of information was erratic, subject, it seemed, more to the goodwill of individuals rather than systematic procedures. Communication was sporadic, and it was difficult to ascertain at times whether it was taking place at all. Decision-making bodies (such as the research committee) were in place and the rules associated with their functioning documented, but these rules were not necessarily known, or would not necessarily be sought out, by individual staff members.

In Hong Kong, finding out who to contact to request permission to carry out the case study was a straightforward two-stage process. The first person I contacted, an academic within the university, knew exactly who I should approach, and as soon as this person had given permission the project proceeded. There was no requirement to gain approval from any other body such as a human ethics committee.

In Hofstede’s survey, Germany’s ranking for power distance is relatively low, indicating that organisations are likely to have a flat structure and a consultative approach to management. The organisation type associated with German characteristics of low power distance and a high need to avoid uncertainty is the well-oiled machine model, the workflow bureaucracy. In this model, relationships between work processes are prescribed (Hofstede, 2001: 375), and therefore more emphasis is placed on regulating activities rather than relationships (Mead, 1990: 26). Communication is likely to flow up and down and outward from many points, but only according to well-defined procedures. The effectiveness of the information flow within the German university was confirmed by all interviewees, even though this organisation was distributed across a number of locations throughout the city. Negotiating access to the German university was the least problematic and the quickest to arrange. This was despite the fact that I had no knowledge at all of specific individuals who could point me in the right direction. My initial e-mail of enquiry was forwarded by university staff to the appropriate office, and actioned promptly. All interviews were scheduled for me, including the additional ones that I identified while onsite. Every assistance was provided to ensure that I would have minimal problems in keeping to the schedule, for example the information provided for me on arrival included relevant bus timetables.

Despite the dangers in relying on and applying national cultural models, there is much that will provide valuable insight to information managers in national cultural theory. The dangers lie in developing stereotypical ideas of behaviour and attitudes, and assuming that all individuals of a certain country will behave in the same way. The discussion of national cultural differences in this chapter must be interpreted in the context of likelihood, rather than certainty. Above all, exploration of these factors should encourage information managers to broaden their perceptions of a very wide range of preferences and attitudes to information, rather than narrow them.

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions have been described in detail, and those features which seem relevant to information management explored. Differences in terms of power distance, uncertainty avoidance and individualism versus collectivism seem to be most significant to information managers. Regardless of whether you are working in a multinational enterprise, on a collaborative project with team members spread across the globe or are serving a wide variety of users, there is much here that will be valuable to you. The English language professional literature is not surprisingly dominated by ‘our’ view of the world. This chapter has hopefully succeeded in pointing out that there is not just one such view that is applicable to all contexts. The following chapter considers other national features that may impact on information management, namely language, legislation and technological capabilities.


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1.Specific rankings for individual countries can be checked online at