Working in a foreign culture

In uni, I did a subject called ‘International Management’. At the time I thought it was a bit of a joke. My ideology then was that everyone was the same, motivated by the same intrinsic things and culture was just a set of rules that could be understood and applied appropriately. 
It seems to me now that is not the case, although I still think the subject was a joke.
That subject focused on taking cultural considerations into account when considering a market for products. It focused on the impact of cultural considerations on the value chain and how this would impact sales and demand. 
No doubt these are important considerations. What seems more important is if the staff understand and work within the same ideology as the staff in the home country?
 I can tell you that here in Dili, that is not the case.
Its a really tough working environment and its baby steps here at the moment. I’m not even sure if everything I have learnt regarding behavioural change, motivation and leadership applies here. In fact, i’m pretty sure it doesn’t. Its a different world. 
The difficult concept to grasp about Timor is that up to 10 years ago, this place was equivalent in terms of business understanding as the UK in the 17th century. It was a cottage economy at best, and hardly even that. The concepts of producing excess for sale, selling services, contracting, efficiency, and mass production are all massively foreign. Can you imagine not understanding that? Can you empathise with how confusing and frightening all this change must be? I can’t, it is incomprehensible to me and probably many who were born and educated in a much more developed system. 
If the Timorese do not understand these concepts, how can we expect them to comprehend the individual motivating forces embedded in them. Of course we cannot, so we need to identify what currently motivate them and how that can be linked to the organisational goals. At the moment a huge goal congruence exists between organisations with western based development ideals and local timorese staff who do not understand how they fit into those goals. 

5 thoughts on “Working in a foreign culture

  1. R&D, I completely agree with you.

    Demelza, to stun you further would you believe that it goes a lot further than seedless mater melons
    ? The

    Worse than that, seeds growers have been genticaaly modifying seeds for a long time so that the fruit that is produced is either seedless or infertile. This means that farmers cannot organically re-grow the plants – they have to buy new seeds.

    My first real awakening to this issue was when some friends played a traditional indian music gig for the Sydney Peace Prize. The winner was an Indian woman called Dr Vandan Shiva and the prize was for her work demonstrating the ill effects on poor farmers of genetically modified seeds. You can read her manifesto on the future of seeds here.

    Rhian, you are spot on about the problems of homogenisation especially of economic values and probably moral values. The economic consumption model has been demonstrated to be flawed but so far it is still the best economic model we have to address poverty.

    Even addressing poverty is problematic. To measure poverty we apply western concepts to 'value' some-ones livelihood. For example, we take into account the saleable value of produce that a subsistence farmers produces and consumes. What we do not take into account ('value') is the additional family time / work-life balance that subsistence farmer has in comparison to his commercial farming cousins in the developed world. How could we – it is impossible to measure and totally individually derived.

    Even Xanana Gusmao (PM, TL) said in his autobigraphy 'To resist is to win' he wanted nothing more when the battle for independence was over than to return to land and become a farmer. Hasn't yet happened. Hopefully it does one day though and he leads the way for the Timorese in demonstrating which values are most important.

    Besides economic development I'm not sure what you mean by meddling of values. One organisation that comes to mind when considering moral values is the church, but thats a whole different debate.

    One of the institutions that comes to mind when thinking of moral meddling is education. The lack of education the Timorese received in the past is one of the factors affecting the development of the country. The capability of the timorese to read and write is amongst the lowest in south east asia. I'm a strong believer in education. The problem with education is that it is often tainted. Biased by the hand that feeds it. I even expect that outside of the formal education system we educate the Timorese in our moral, ethical and pathetic materialistic values without even knowing it. How could we possibly avoid that though? I have no idea.

  2. I heard something the other day that made me think of this post….did you know there are now seedless watermelons!
    This really brought home to me how much of a consumer society I live in. The idea of deliberately creating a fruit that had no seed seems pretty pointless, the seed is a valuable part of the plant because you can use it to plant other watermelons. Yes I know that not many of us probably do but we could and not only that how on earth do we ensure the plant species survives if it doesn't have seeds.
    It disgusts me that we as a society have actually wasted money and resources on something like this…surely the scientist/horticulturists could spend their time on something more worthwhile…I dunno like figuring out how to make crops that will grow in drought stricken countries so thousands of people don't starve to death!

  3. When you look at the very core of our motivations, we are all after the same intrinsic things (food, shelter, reproduction = survival).

    I still struggle with the concept of International Development. It's not that I don't want “undeveloped” or “3rd World” countries to “progress” and ascend out of poverty, it's just that I fear there is too much meddling and homogenisation (if that's a word) of values.

    Perhaps I am old fashioned and regressive but who are we to say our model has the right framework or that our map is the most accurate?

    As far as the value chain goes, who cares if an apple is small and slightly yellowish, not large, rosy red and shiny like the catalogue photos say it should be? It's still food, probably tastes better and fills your stomach with the nourishment it needs.

    We get so caught up in our own bullshit sometimes, we really lose sight of those “intrinsic” motivations.

    And I'm not saying we should all go back to swinging clubs and living in caves, but perhaps WE can learn something from the cultural values of those communities not completely tarnished by western, capitalist beliefs.


  4. Thanks for your comment Lise, I was hoping you might chip in on this topic!

    I'm hoping the principles are still the same and that it is just the ideologies and process of implementation is different. By that I mean that I hope 'motivation' still exists but it is might be in the form of a sense of extended family social responsibility rather than ambition.

    Strangely enough the commissions we offer seem to still provide motivation.

    I'm also interested to hear what work have you been doing with indigenous communities?

  5. Definitely a challenge to work with coming from a Western background like ours. But what an amzing chance to try to shift/open the way you think to meet with their culture and values – a real flexible thinking challenge! Its the same as trying to do Western psychology with indigenous communities – does. not. work! Totally a new educatin for me when working with them. I'll be excited to hear how you get on.

    And love the photos of Com, what an amazing landscape Timor Leste has – so diverse.

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