BOOK REVIEW / Once more unto the breach: 'Riding the Waves of Culture' - Fons Trompenaars: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 12.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
The last-minute pressure on the chief protagonists in Brussels and Washington to resolve their differences for the greater good of world trade and conclude the Uruguay Round of Gatt earlier this month has produced a negotiation style conspicuously absent for the six years during which the round has been conducted.

No-one, apart from the French farming lobby perhaps, wants to be seen as an architect of failure. However, the rules of international brinkmanship exist for those with a disposition to extract every extra slice of advantage.

If the Gatt round is a large theatre of international cultural diversity, the smaller dilemmas faced, for example, by Eurotunnel in its dealings with TML, Disney Corporation in its dealings with Euro Disney, Volvo in its dealings with Renault, the Ukraine in its nuclear debate with Russia, Hong Kong in its death-throes dialogue with China or the UK Government's handling of the Iraqi regime, typify the extent to which fundamental tensions between these cultures influence the outcome of affairs.

At the micro level each of us contemplating a holiday abroad is massively influenced by deep-seated perceptions and prejudices about the cultures available. The majority look for the most compatible set of cultural norms, trading off gastronomic delight against belief that the natives are committed to daylight robbery.

The lesson of history is that we ignore our cultural heritage vis a vis our trading partners at our peril. In the burgeoning economies of South-east Asia the cultural tensions between South Korea and Japan, or Japan and China, have a profound effect on their trading styles. There is too much history - too much bloodshed, betrayal and imperialism - to be forgotten.

Fears of sustained US hegemony or economic imperialism by the European Union colour policy-making and sustain tariff barriers. While our British imperial past gave us occupation of a quarter of the world's surface, did it also give us a depth of understanding of the mores of the peoples over whom we held sway and with whom we must now trade as equals? Arguably not.

International businesses have tried many solutions to the dilemma of how to manage globally and yet retain strong national identities.

Some take managers from the corporate centre, parachute them into some far flung outpost of empire and expect them to go native on the surface and remain corporatist at heart - with mixed success. Others seek out the 'international manager', groomed by the business schools in the academic concepts of management and thereby dubiously empowered to run any business, anywhere. Still others hold that the principles of management will be generally applicable, but must respect the cultural norms of the application country.

The marketing-minded will see that valuing cultural differences is as critical a piece of market analysis as distribution, competition, regulation, buying behaviours and market dynamics. No marketer can afford to ignore attitudes to colour, religion, sexual taboo or educative process in determining a communications strategy. Nor can the marketer ignore history. Inappropriate triumphalism over some long-gone victory, like that of the exasperated UK manager who ends all telexes to his French joint venture 'remember Agincourt' in a bid to get a submissive response, is risky.

Where Fons Trompenaars will do great service to international management with his well-researched and considered Riding the Waves of Culture is in reminding us that there is no one right way to manage the cultural diversity of our trading partners, whether at the national, regional or interpersonal level.

He starts: 'It is my belief that you can never understand other cultures,' and goes on to say that nationally-based management solutions seldom cross borders effectively.

Fair enough, if he means that the national component of the solution is forced to cross the border as well as the underlying principle.

Consider the different educational norms prevailing in the developed world. The Anglo-Saxon approach is virtually unique in that the didactic model beloved of the Victorians is now replaced by interactive models, course work and projects. On the other hand, in France, Germany, Turkey, Singapore, Japan, Russia and extensively in the USA, the approach remains didactic, with an enormous gulf between the teacher and the taught.

This has profound effects on the definition of the meaning of risk, for example. The British are substantially empiricist in their approach to risk. The attitude outside the UK is dominated by numerative analysis, logical and focused in its application. Even in the simplest joint venture this one dimension of cultural difference will have a profound effect.

Mr Trompenaars draws on more than 10 years' experience and research conducted in more than 40 countries to draw out lessons and inferences. He offers guidelines for success that seem persuasive.

Indeed, he leaves no stone unturned in the search for criteria that will make the difference between successful cross-cultural bonding and otherwise.

There are striking parallels with a major study undertaken, under the aegis of Sundridge Park, by Dr Mark Urnov of the Gorbachev Foundation in Russia and two colleagues at the University of Bradford Management Centre. Questions put to both Russian and UK managers produce radically different responses.

Both Mr Trompenaars and Mr Urnov propound that organisational ideologies are inextricably connected to the cultural norms prevailing in the social and political environment. Unless these norms are analysed and understood, they say, there can be no secure basis of understanding with those organisations.

The writing is on the wall: get inside the mind of your customers and partners. You might then note that sometimes the world is flat and sometimes round.