Fons Trompenaars

I caught up with Dr. Fons Trompenaars, Dutch Organizational Theorist, Management Consultant and author of several books on cross cultural management, the best known being "Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business." Many business leaders are familiar with his Seven Dimensions of Culture, a model that helps managers and negotiators work more effectively with people of different nationalities.

Since Trompenaars works with executives in many large organisations, I thought he could share some ideas on how UK IT directors might confront issues around cross-cultural communication and diversity. According to Trompenaars, great leaders encourage diversity, because they know it's a necessary element for innovation.

Pat Brans: Before we get down to the core of our discussion, let's make sure we're on the same page. Can you give me your definition of culture?
Fons Trompenaars: Culture for me is very functional - the end result of people organising themselves to overcome survival issues. This usually has a lot to do with nature, the environment in which a culture grows up. Culture is, in fact, a bunch of values, behaviours, and norms that you accumulate in a group in order to survive.  

Let me give you some examples. The Dutch have a value of consensus. There are thick books written about why this is. This consensus idea comes from people having to fight water in the Netherlands. If you have to fight water, you need consensus. You need a lot of people to agree on how to fight water. So, you see, the value of consensus comes from fighting water.

Now let's look at the Swedes. They have a long-term commitment to social structure, and they like to do a lot of long-term planning. That's because, for a long time, the Swedes were dependent on cutting trees, and making paper out of it or burning it. It takes 35 years before the tree is back, which causes you to develop a different idea of time than you would if you were in a Banana republic, where if you pluck a banana, three months later there is a new banana.

So culture is very functional.

We've developed a little model, where we explain culture using the metaphor of the onion. It's very much according Edgar Schein's idea of culture with three different layers. The outside of the onion is how you perceive the onion, or the artifacts of culture. Artifacts include the way we dress, what we eat, and what we write about. It also includes our art, which is culture with a big "C."

This outer layer covers a second, deeper layer, which consists of norms and values. Norms are what we should do; and norms become values when we start liking what we should do. The third, inner-most layer of the onion consists of the basic assumptions shared by the members of a culture.

So culture is multi layered. At the core are the basic assumptions, which are expressed on the outside with behaviors and artifacts. That's our view on culture.

PB: What can you say about the UK culture and how it compares with a few other cultures?
FT: The UK is an example of a "high context" culture. If your boss fires you, he or she might say, "I suggest you consider another job". By contrast, in "low context" cultures, like the Dutch, the boss will just say, "You're fired".

The British, in particular the Southern English, are very indirect. The culture is said to be a high context culture, because one needs to understand the context within which something is said to understand what is really being said.

In that sense, Americans and Australians are much more direct. They call a spade a spade.

I think the English would call a spade a different thing again, and you see it in the British humour. That's another beautiful aspect of British culture - the sense of humor. If you look at Monty Python, they poke fun at awkward aspects of the high context culture, and nothing in the skits tells you where to laugh. You have to understand the context to find it funny On the other hand, in America, the humour is slapstick, and the television indicates exactly where to laugh. It's much more direct in America.

That brings to mind the Germans. The Germans are very structured. They are, in a way, also critical, but they can be very polite at the same time. In that sense they are quite different from the Dutch. The Dutch can be straight to the point, even if their boss is there.

The Dutch can criticise their boss in public. Not the Germans. The Germans can criticise you, but as soon as there's hierarchy, they become very polite.

PB: You talk a lot about universalism versus particularism, which are two opposite poles on one of the seven cultural dimensions you've defined. Can you explain this cultural dimension?
FT: A universalistic culture is a culture that says there is a universal truth. Take for example, the rule that 50 kilometres per hour is a speed limit. A universalist would say, "Oh let's stick to it, because it's a rule and we need to follow it."

If it's 3am in Switzerland and the sign says 50kph, and there's nobody on the road, if you're an Italian, you'll say, "Ah come on! 50kph? That's for when it's busy. But I'm now in a particular situation where we can ignore this rule." In this example, you see that the Swiss are universalistic, and the Italians are particularistic.

I once got a ticket in Switzerland, because at 2am, I was standing in front of a pedestrian red light. There was nobody within 300 metres, so I crossed the road. As I walked across I saw a man standing on the other side, so I told him hello. He happened to be a policeman, and he gave me a ticket.

In Switzerland a rule is a rule and it doesn't matter if it's functional or not. A universalist would say a rule is a rule and a particularist would say it depends on the particular case.

We have an exercise to measure this. The scenario is as follows. You're riding in a car next to a good friend who is driving. Your friend is speeding and he hits a pedestrian. You know he was speeding. He was going 50kph in a place where the limit is 30.

You go to court and you're the only witness.

Now we have two questions. One is, what is the right of your friend to expect you to testify and to lie for him? Does he have the right, some right, or no right? The second question is, would you lie - yes or no?

The extreme universalist would say my friend has no right, and I would not help by lying. The extreme particularist would say, "Yeah, my friend obviously has the right. That's what friends are for." Then there are people in between who want more information, such as how badly the was the pedestrian injured.

In Japan, they've come up with an interesting answer. They say they would test the strength of their friendship by asking their friend to tell the truth in court, so they can talk the judge into lowering the sentence for his courage. In other words, they've found a meta-solution by joining different elements of the problem.

PB: Tell me more about different business cultures.
FT: Let's start with the Italians. You need to spend a lot of time with them to really understand them. On a given day, they may say the opposite from the previous day, depending on the particular circumstance.

One of the beauties of England (we very often talk about England rather than the UK when we talk about business culture) is the "gentleman's agreement". Once you have a gentleman's agreement, the lawyers will follow it and take it seriously. If you have a gentleman's agreement with English people, you can trust them on it.

And that is also true with the Germans, but not so true with Italians - not because anyone of them are malicious, but it's because the Italians have to discuss the agreement with their boss who is not there at the meeting, and who might have a different opinion. And the Italians expect you to understand that. They tend to zigzag.

At least the Germans are straight to the point, very efficient. The problem with the Germans is flexibility, or lack of flexibility. Once you've gone down a road step by step in a sequence and you want to divert from the road, it puts you three years behind, because if the goal changes, you have trouble getting on the new road. They have to spend a lot of time re-discussing the situation. So the Germans are very efficient, but not very effective. The Italians are very effective, but not very efficient.

If the boss is not present in Italy, you never know what the decision is. And the boss has another boss, so you really have to go all the way to the top. When they talk with you, they always say, "I wonder what Giorgio thinks about this." That's because it's a family culture, and it's hierarchical.

In Germany, authority is not so much about family. It's based much more on your expertise. So authority comes with expertise, and that's why, in Germany, a lot of leaders are still referred to as "Herr Professor Doktor Doktor Schmidt."

In Germany, if you don't have the title you buy one because it's very important. The top CEOs were once top experts in something like finance or R&D, and that gives the Germans authority. By contrast, in America you hide the title because people might find out that you have thought about a subject, which is the end of your career.

And then there's England, which is first of all a class society. You know, it's the Eton, Oxford, Cambridge type of group - very political, very old boy's network. By the way, let's not forget that the expression "old boy's network" comes from this practice in England of maintaining close ties with university classmates. They know each other, and if you don't understand that, you're in trouble.

PB: How do all of these interesting observations apply to IT leadership, diversity, and innovation?
FT: Innovation is creating value by joining opposites that are not easily joinable. So it has a lot to do with what I said in the example of universalism versus particularism. Instead of asking do you go for the friend or the truth, the Japanese combine the friend to the truth and that is an innovative solution.

Innovation requires diversity. It requires different inputs. Diversity is about what you don't share; inclusion is about what you share. Great leaders seek out diversity, and they are inclusive.

Leaders will always join different viewpoints on the higher levels. For me, that's the kind of innovative power CIOs need if they want to make a huge difference.