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Business across Cultures.
Fons Trompenaars and Peter Woolliams
ISBN: 1-84112-474-5, Capstone, £12.99, paperback, 360 pages.

As the introductory volume to a new series, Business across Cultures promises to provide a ‘new conceptual framework for dealing with the business implications of culture’ and a ‘practical toolkit for managers and leaders’. Successive titles will each cover people management, corporate culture and marketing in depth. Priced at £12.99 they offer excellent value for the business reader and cross-cultural student. So what do you get for your money?

Trompenaars and Woolliams suggest that cross-cultural theory has partly stagnated and is now too constrained by the original bi-polar models which were used to describe it from the 1970s. Too much of its development is also influenced by Anglo-American research and thinking. It’s time, they say, to offer an alternative to simply recognising cultural differences and develop ways of crossing these differences.

To the human resource professional faced with a mountain of theory and limited practical advice, this holds great promise. Culture is a slippery subject which shifts its form under observation; to tackle it head on in an organisational setting can be overwhelming. In Business across Cultures, we are offered steps towards a systematic approach of ‘cultural due diligence’ to apply to business processes. The cross-cultural field suffers a similar fate to that of human resources: they are both seen by many business leaders as soft people issues and often ignored in favour of quantifiable measures. But it’s people, and ultimately their cultural origins, who define those processes. Where this is overlooked, the consequences can be financially punishing. We hear tales of IT systems designed by a sequential (monochronic) culture failing to satisfy the users in a synchronic (polychronic) culture; of successful products failing to gain market share after the advertising campaign misfires; of cross-cultural accounting practices resulting in loss.

Business across Cultures does give good illustrations of typical situations which may occur. We are introduced to four extreme stereotypes of corporate culture – the Incubator, the Eiffel Tower, the Guided Missile and the Family. Where a business needs to move from one model to another, we are shown examples of the typical dilemmas involved in this organisational change and an outline template of how to tackle this. There is also some interesting analysis of the data which Trompenaars and his consultancy have built up over the years providing illustrations of the seven dilemmas of cultural difference. There are individual chapters on marketing, finance and human resources which provide an overview. The chapter on human resources is a little sketchy, but as this will be the subject of a further title, we can expect it to be dealt with in more detail later.

Business across Cultures is readable and informative. Statements on theory are supported by examples drawn from their long experience in the field and it is these examples which always make books on culture so fascinating. This is not a ‘toolkit’ in the sense of a detailed how to do it guide, but it is a well-drawn map marking obstacles and opportunities the authors have come across. The choice of route is in the hands of the reader.

This review appeared in People Management, April 2004.
Contributor: Eleanor Halsall

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