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Culture matters in information and knowledge management

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David J Pauleen, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Understanding the influence of national culture

To date, much of the information and knowledge management (IKM) literature has focused on corporate and organizational culture, with relatively little attention on the implications of national culture. However, cross-cultural information and knowledge sharing has been forced to the fore through the forces of globalization, increasingly culturally diverse workforces as well as through international mergers and acquisitions, Internet-based e-commerce, and an increasing trend to global outsourcing.

Moreover, dominant western cultural assumptions about information and knowledge and their management influence IKM research and development. Given the above, an understanding of the influence of culture is now, arguably, a critical requirement in understanding and implementing successful IKM in global contexts.

While it has been suggested that globalization will act as an antecedent to cultural homogeneity (Levitt, 1983), and that cultural distinctiveness will be lost as global strategies displace strategies that revolve around national, regional and cultural differences, a quick look at current world events may cause one to doubt the validity of this view, at least for the present. Within the international management area in general, as well as within the IKM arena, this implicit culture-free assumption has been seriously challenged (Adler, 2002; Glisby and Holden, 2003), and it is argued that cultural context is an important IKM dynamic.

The relationship between culture and information and knowledge

The relationship between culture and information and knowledge can be approached from several disciplines. Stiglitz (cited in Rooney et al., 2003) has strongly suggested that culture is a critical factor in knowledge-related economic policy. Rooney et al. (2003) state that in a knowledge discourse, culture and communication are the natural counterparts to information and communication technologies. Rooney (2004) contends that knowledge is social in nature, and that "insofar that ideas, theories and beliefs form a shared phenomenological background in which people think and act, this context is decidedly cultural" (p. 9).

Drawing from psychology and cultural history, Nisbett et al. (2001) argue that the considerable social differences that exist among cultures affect, among other things, tacit epistemologies (theories of knowledge, including what counts as knowledge and degrees of certainly about knowledge) and the nature of cognitive processes – the ways by which people know the world. Nisbett et al. (2001:
p. 292) propose that:

  • Social organization directs attention to some aspects of the field (what can be known) at the expense of others.
  • Metaphysics guides tacit epistemology, that is, beliefs about what is important to know and how knowledge can be obtained.
  • Epistemology dictates the development and application of some cognitive processes at the expense of others.
  • Social organization and social practices can influence directly the development and use of cognitive processes such as dialectical versus logical ones.

Greek and Chinese societies – a comparison

The authors go on to compare ancient Greek and Chinese societies to point out the difference in their understanding and application of information and knowledge. Associated with the Greeks are the notions of personal agency, and the categorization of objects and events, governing rules, and causal models – all for the purpose of systematic description, prediction and explanation. According to Chia (2003) it has been a western tradition to regard a knowledgeable person not as one who has the ability to perform as task, but as one who can understand and render articulate and explicit, particularly in writing, the underlying causes of events.

In contrast the ancient Chinese are associated with a sense of reciprocal social obligation or collective agency, which included the wider physical and metaphysical environment. In this way of correlative thinking, things are not causally related, but rather are moved by internal resonances and the correlative harmonization of wills (Hwa, 1987). As a result the Chinese did not develop laws of nature, but instead relied on intuition and empiricism. Learning and knowing came through direct, sustained, experimental practice (Chia, 2003). Moreover, in Chinese culture, "the invisible, the tacit, the spoken and the implied... are held in higher esteem... than the visible, explicit, the written and the articulate" (Chia, 2003: p. 957).

Nisbett et al.(2001) group the cognitive differences between ancient Chinese and Greeks under the headings of holistic versus analytical thought. Holistic thought involves an orientation to the "context or field as a whole, including in particular the relationship between a focal object and the field and a preference for explaining and predicting events based on the existing relationships" (p. 293). Analytic thought is defined as "detaching the object from its context, a tendency to focus on attributes of the object, to assign it to categories and a preference for using rules about the categories to explain and predict the object's behaviour"(p. 293).

Culture, understanding of knowledge and cognition

Nisbett et al. (2001) go on to further explicate the differences in ancient Greek and Chinese thought processes and make a compelling argument linking the influence of culture on the understanding of knowledge and cognition. Furthermore, Nisbett (2003) compiles a number of clinical and field experiments that demonstrate how cultural differences in cognition continue to be prevalent in today's society.

Chia (2003) claims that differing business attitudes are based on both, deep underlying metaphysical assumptions, as well as the idea of information and knowledge and its relationship to decision making and action. This signals the need to develop "alternative conceptualizations and practical understandings of the strategic priorities, decisional imperatives and modes of management operating in diverse geographical locations throughout the world" (Chia, 2003: p. 957). It clearly follows, this argument includes the management of information and knowledge. Indeed, Chia goes on to suggest that "the current preoccupation with explicit knowledge creation and management may need to be tempered by an equally important emphasis on direct experimental action as a valuable source of meaning, innovation, productivity and enhanced performance" (p. 959).

National culture

Given the arguments made by Nisbett and Chia, national culture could very well be a significant factor in the IKM equation. It is reasonable to assume that IKM models and frameworks which exclude the influence of culture may be seriously undercutting their potential effectiveness, particularly in global applications. Cultural differences in the understanding and expression of information and knowledge could be expected to influence most aspects of practical and theoretical IKM and IKM systems, from how information and knowledge is classified, processed and retrieved (e.g. search engines, DSS, intranets, portals) to how information and knowledge is shared and used in collaborative systems (Notes, CoPs, etc) to how knowledge workers are managed (collaborative spaces, reward and recognition, etc). In this sense, national culture can be considered the crucial context, in which national IKM management and IKM in individual organizations are embedded. Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1963) suggest that, cultural systems may be considered both products of action as well as conditioning elements of future action.

Finally, national culture (and subcultures) may be considered part of the information and knowledge assets of a nation, for as Schein (1985) points out culture is a set of valid thinking for solving problems encountered in the environment.

Further reading and references

Adler, N.J. (2002), International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, 3rd ed., South-Western, Cincinnati, OH, USA.

Chia, R. (2003), "From knowledge-creation to the perfecting of action: Tao, Basho and pure experience as the ultimate ground of knowing", Human Relations, Vol. 56 No. 8, pp. 953-981.

Hwa, Y.J. (1987), "Heidegger's way of sinitic thinking", in Parkes, G. (Ed.), Heidegger and Asian Thought, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, HI, USA.

Glisby, M. and Holden, N. (2003), "Contextual constraints in knowledge management theory: the cultural embeddedness of Nonaka's knowledge-creation company", Knowledge and Process Management, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 29-36.

Kroeber, A.L. and Kluckhohn, C. (1963), Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, Vintage Books, New York, NY, USA.

Levitt, T. (1983), "The globalisation of markets", Harvard Business Review , May-June, pp.1-11.

Nisbett, R.E., Peng, K., Choi, I., Norenzayan, A. (2001), "Culture and systems of thought: holistic versus analytic cognition", Psychological Review, Vol. 108 No. 2, pp. 291-310.

Nisbett, R.E. (2003), Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why, The Free press, New York, NY, USA.

Rooney, D. (2004), "Knowledge, economy, technology and society: the politics of discourse", Working Paper.

Rooney, D., Hearn, G., Mandeville, T. and Joseph, R. (2003), "Public policy in knowledge-based economies: foundations and frameworks", New Horizons in Public Policy (series), Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK.

Schein, E.H. (1985), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, USA.