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Global academics: teaching and managing across cultures

By Margaret Adolphus

In the early twenty-first century, being an academic seems to go hand in hand with being a global citizen. Look at the CVs of managers or faculty in higher education, and you will see that many have had at least one stint in a different country.

What insights have they gained from the experience, and how has it affected the way they teach or manage? I talked to a number of academics within the Emerald community (mainly editors and advisers), and one or two outside it. The result was a fascinating insight into what they regarded as different, what they learnt, and what they felt they brought to the situation.

Managing in context

It is one of life's eternal puzzles – when you are working and/or living in a different culture, to what extent do you adapt and to what extent do you retain your own style? Do you fit in, or do you regard yourself as a change agent, bringing something different?

"There is no meaning without context, and therefore you have to adjust your management style to the culture, context, the belief systems and the way in which different countries operate", Howard Thomas, dean of the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University and Emerald academic adviser.

"You should never lose completely where you come from, you should always remember you are rooted – even if only distantly – in the culture in which you were born", Nicola Hijlkema, vice-rector for international relations at the Estonian Business School, Estonia.

Howard Thomas (quoted above) has been described by Della Bradshaw of the Financial Times as part of the "rarefied club of serial deans" as well as being "arguably the only dean to have held the top job at business schools on three continents" ("Warwick dean heads for Singapore", 17 August 2009).

Thomas stresses that you need to understand and adapt your style to culture and management systems. He cites as an example his present position in Singapore, where the environment is "somewhat more bureaucratic and more hierarchical, but people are very hardworking, polite and risk averse".

In his experience, they prefer short, formal meetings and like one-on-one meetings to discuss and examine issues more thoroughly.

Thomas clearly finds the challenge of adapting to other cultures stimulating, and a learning experience. Others may experience frustrations with the prevailing educational culture, as in the case of Leo Jago, co-editor of the International Journal of Event and Festival Management, who came to the UK from Australia to manage a tourism research centre at Nottingham University.

Jago found that the system of assessing performance based mainly on publication gave little incentive to academics to do research in a centre which prioritized industry links.

And because home working is so common among British academics (who are also too scared of drink-drive laws to enjoy the Friday afternoon socials which are a feature of Australian academic life), it can be difficult to establish a collaborative research culture.

Being a change agent

What if your job involves not so much managing a school that is world class, but acting as a change agent? Nicola Hijlkema speaks seven languages and has over 30 years' experience managing the international departments of various higher education institutions (HEIs).

She also has antennae sharply tuned to all aspects of cultural difference, from where to put the sugar paper wrapping in a bar to what constitutes formal and informal address and what to expect from meetings, and has always tried to fit in as much as possible on her various postings.

Given her portfolio, however, she may need to bring about change in an environment which emphasizes quality at a national, as opposed to international, level.

She only stayed two years at one particular establishment, because they were fixated on comparing themselves only to their French competitors, despite the fact that she was hired to promote them internationally.

And long experience of running departments across Eastern and Western Europe, as well as a stint as director of business school services at the European Foundation for Management Development, and seven years representing a leading US school in Europe, has led her to reflect on the importance of systems and procedures, and the need for management training for academics.

She finds that the English tend to be more disciplined when it comes to having proper minutes for meetings as a record of decisions, not to mention putting new programmes through the necessary hoops – "in other countries, some schools just decide to do it and then find the mistakes afterwards".

Fortunately this more structured approach is gradually gaining ground with her current school, although one colleague has likened her to a Soviet Commissar!

Neither has she ever felt the need to modify her own open managerial style, in favour of a more "closed" approach which fears "giving things away". She favours sharing information, giving people responsibility, and training them up so that they can deputize for her in her absence, or even possibly succeed her when she moves on.


"I think it [management education] has to be about implementation and how to make it all work in a given set of circumstances. That requires teamwork, debate, reflection, thought", Simon Lawder, a strategic management and leadership development consultant based in south-west England.

"One has to be culturally sensitive in terms of content, materials and teaching method", Martha Pennington, lecturer at Georgia Southern University, USA.

Reluctance to change one's values becomes even more pronounced to those who teach in different cultures.

It's a generalization, but Chinese students tend to adopt rote learning, memorizing key themes of lectures which they expect to be tested on. Nor in some cases can the lecturer rely on their having understood, as students may be fearful that questioning may offend, and an insult to the lecturer's exalted status.

Meanwhile, students in the Anglo Saxon tradition, and in Australia, expect – or should expect – to be challenged, to interact with the lecturer, and with one another, and to develop their critical thinking skills.

It is not, however, a simple East-West divide. In Singapore, according to Howard Thomas, students are used to small classes and a wide range of teaching methods, whereas the French style tends to be more didactic.

According to David Weir, now at the University of Suffolk in the UK, but with stints at the French business schools of CERAM and ESC-Rennes under his belt, those who have been through the French lycee system "are accustomed to heavy instruction ... where things are either right or wrong, and they are not used to discovery learning and discussion".

The UK system comes under criticism from Australian Leo Jago, who nevertheless admires the drive of British students to get a 2:1, and the strong pecking order within universities, and contrasts this with the more laid-back culture among Australian students.

He found the teaching system to be more lecture-dominated than in Australia, with fewer seminars, and students less willing to participate in class.

Martha Pennington, an experienced teacher educator and editor of Innovation and Leadership in English Language Teaching has taught (linguistics) all over the world.

She maintains that it is absolutely crucial to adjust your teaching to the students' context, and to be aware that in some cultures, students may be afraid to speak out in class, especially without prior preparation.

When teaching in Hong Kong, Pennington found that students expected to get extensive notes from their teachers. At first resistant, eventually she compromised by giving them a few points, with space underneath for the students to add further points.

This changed Pennington's teaching permanently: now she prepares PowerPoint slides for her students, often with links to online material.

Others make more modest adjustments to their teaching. Richard Li-Hua of Sunderland University and editor of the Journal of Technology Management in China, who has extensive experience both of China and the UK, does not alter his delivery style when lecturing to Chinese students, but offers a lot more encouragement when it comes to question time.

Adjustments may need to be made to allow for special circumstances. For example, Lee Parker, professor of accounting at the University of South Australia (and co-editor of Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal), varies his delivery and the exercises he gives when teaching in Hong Kong, where students tend to work long hours six days a week, and may consequently fall asleep in class.

Teaching uncertainty

Some situations – and subjects – force lecturers to take a more radical, counter cultural approach (at least, counter to the culture they find themselves in).

David Weir and his colleague Simon Lawder both have extensive experience of teaching in French business schools, and both found they had to work hard to get a reaction out of their students.

Both, however, retained their interactive teaching style, getting people to work in groups, deliberately mixing the cultures, using story-telling and case studies, encouraging reflection.

But isn't it a form of cultural imperialism, to assume that the way one teaches in one's own country is better, and is it really wrong to view teaching as imparting expertise?

Lawder is adamant that it is not. In business, there are so many ways of doing things, and it's not simply a matter of learning models and systems.

Lawder teaches business ethics, where there is no one right answer. Weir teaches intercultural management, where cultural sensitivity and listening skills are critical (he has a "coffee shop" exercise where he gets students to pretend they are in a coffee shop so they need to circulate and meet as many people as possible).

Locally appropriate materials

Not everybody to whom I spoke felt the need to vary their teaching style; most, however, commented on the need to alter the substance and use examples that are relevant to the culture they are teaching in.

Anecdotes and jokes also may not translate easily to another culture. The case study has long been a staple of business education, but the tendency is to use cases which reflect American business culture, and are often out of date.

It's far preferable to use cases and other teaching materials which relate to the student's own country or culture: for example, Chinese businesses such as Lenovo for Chinese business students, or small and medium enterprises for countries without multinational penetration.

The Global Business School Network, which helps business schools achieve international standards by organizing collaborative partnerships with top global schools, is helping to create locally sourced case studies available in an online database.

Another useful resource is Emerald Emerging Markets Case Studies, an online collection of peer-reviewed case studies focusing on business decision making and management development throughout key global emerging markets. Written by case writers working in developing economies, they offer local perspectives with global appeal.

Insights gained

"Globalization is not westernization, it is not Americanization, is it multicultural, it is all over the world", Richard Li-Hua, professor of strategic management and development, University of Sunderland, UK.

"I am grateful to the students I have taught because they have also contributed to my learning. This process has involved collaborating with others in trying to make sense of life and work in positive and productive ways that capitalize upon the synergies cultural diversity tends to ignite. I am passionate about this. It is an important step towards the peaceful survival of the planet", Dr Joanna Crossman, senior lecturer in the School of Management, University of South Australia.

"I have learnt to listen to the other side ... not just what people are saying to you, but what the words really are covering up. I have also learnt the importance of understanding something of the mentality of the country", Nicola Hijlkema.

The rich listening skills, and the ability to interact with, and benefit from, other cultures is described by Howard Thomas as:

"a combination of emotional intelligence and ... contextual intelligence".

Thomas also maintains that he has gained a much richer understanding of different cultures and contexts, which has made him a better manager. And this is particularly important given the international nature of (especially business) education.

Some return from overseas stints with new, or renewed, values. Anthony Normore, a specialist in educational leadership development at California State University and series editor of Advances in Educational Administration, left teaching positions in Nepal and South Korea much influenced by the value both countries place on the "act of giving" on education, social interaction, and support systems.

Such values, he maintains, were once held in high regard in Canada and the USA, but,

"somehow we've lost a bit along the way in this very fast-paced, technologically oriented world ... we need to reclaim what is really critical to our hearts and souls, which is the concept of caring for one another and the work that we do that's having a lasting impact on students" (see viewpoint from Anthony H. Normore).

Sometimes, what is gained is a sense of proportion, an understanding that no one educational system is the best, that all have their strengths and weaknesses – David Weir comments some British academics and academic administrators know little about other systems, and tend to think that theirs is the best.

Giving as well as receiving

Cultural exchange, however, is a two-way process: the manager or lecturer on a stint abroad must give as well as receive.

David Weir and Simon Lawder both felt that their French students gained from their more open teaching style, and were better able to reflect and understand that things are not always simply right or wrong.

But perhaps the most interesting insight comes from Richard Li-Hua, from his position straddling both Chinese and Western culture.

I asked him if the rapid growth of the Chinese economy (forecast by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to exceed that of the USA by 2016) and the consequent reverse migration of Western students to China for their higher education, would change our educational values? And would we see a resurgence of the lecture, and of rote learning?

On the contrary, says Li-Hua:

"China wants to become an innovation oriented society, and given the culture of rote learning, this is a problem".

Hence the Chinese Government is encouraging good universities to import resources, teaching styles and even faculty from the West, so as to encourage a more open, interactive, style.

It's a lesson in listening and respect for cultural diversity that the West could well learn from.