Navigating Global Business: A Cultural Compass
By Simcha Ronen and Oded Shenkar
2017, Cambridge University Press;
Amazon: $53.24 paperback
Reviewed by Maia Aron
It was a horribly rude awakening: shortly after publishing my first big feature article as a fledgling newspaper reporter, an angry crowd demonstrated at my newspaper office, vandalized my apartment and dumped garbage on my car.
The story concerned the colorful roots of an Italian-American neighborhood. It described how early immigrants, who survived by cultivating vegetables, chickens and pigs in their New Jersey backyards, moved through the heady days of bootlegging and bookmaking and ultimately achieved success in business and politics.
“I guess they didn’t like the part about their criminal past,” I said to the editor who was forced to deal with the crowd. “They didn’t care about the bootlegging and bookmaking,” he responded, “they got crazy about the chickens and the pigs.”
“I thought they’d be proud of themselves!” I exclaimed. “Where I come from, everyone competes over how awful their past was to show how their success is all the more impressive.”
“That may be how it is with Jews,” said my Irish-American editor, “But apparently, it’s not how it is with Italians.”
If only I’d been able to learn from A Cultural Compass before publishing that article, and before embarking on a subsequent career that required expertise in international business relationships!
Admittedly, the above is a simplistic anecdote regarding an extremely rigorous work, but it does hit the nail on the head: “Culture remains one of the most potent forces in business, impacting both process and outcome,” the authors write. “It influences the very willingness to engage in business, as in other life domains, as well as the nature and form of such engagement and its likely success or failure.”
Navigating Global Business: A Cultural Compass is truly pathbreaking in its combination of intellectual depth and practical usefulness. For Israelis, who seek business, cultural, and governmental ties with virtually every civilized country, it’s actually essential.
Simcha (Simi) Ronen, Professor Emeritus of Organizational Behavior at Tel Aviv University, specializes in cross-cultural aspects of leadership, management, employee values, and behavior and organizational change. Oded Shenkar, Professor of Global Business Management and Human Resources at the Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University, advises numerous global firms, in addition to his academic work.
Professors Ronen and Shenkar have produced an exhaustively researched, yet highly readable analysis of worldwide culture in all its manifestations: what it is, how it works, why it’s important, and how knowledge of it can be used effectively in business, management, and other endeavors.
Perhaps chief among their innovative concepts is their “nested” delineation and analysis of “cultural clusters.” Finding national boundaries insufficient to describe cultural phenomena, the authors, based on extensive data and research, identify eleven basic cultural clusters and four major “Independents.” So, for example, the “Anglo” cluster includes the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Ireland, and South Africa. While these countries have distinctly different cultures, their similarities outweigh geographic considerations when it comes to issues, such as business management.
The eleven clusters described in the book are: Arab, Aegean, Latin American, East European, Latin European, Nordic, Germanic, Sub-Saharan African, Anglo, Confucian, and South Asian. The four “Independents” are: Brazil, Japan, India, and Israel.
Each cluster is characterized by five “Correlates” (geography, language, religion, economic development, economic freedom) and roughly eight “Organizational Dimensions” (focal actor, deference, tolerance for ambiguity, gender marking, performance and future orientations, leadership preferences, communication preferences, sources of guidance). All these considerations are further elucidated in detailed charts, illustrations, and explanations.
The authors then account for useful cross-cluster similarities: “For instance, the Latin American and Aegean clusters are similar in their intolerance for ambiguity, but greatly differ on gender marking…this is important because…combinations of dimensions have an important impact…. For example, where intolerance for ambiguity is combined with high deference, as in the Arab cluster, the leader is expected… to mitigate uncertainty….”
Navigating Global Business: A Cultural Compass will be useful to both quantitative and qualitative researchers, those in large multi-national companies, and those in smaller companies seeking to do business internationally. It will be useful to both executives seeking to improve peer relationships and managers seeking to optimize an international workforce.
Kudos to Professors Ronen and Shenkar, who summarize virtually all the major research in this field and also offer a creative starting point for future work.
Maia Aron, a member of the ESRA Editorial Board, is a graduate of the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She has worked as a writer and editor, as well as a business and marketing executive.