Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Cognitive or cultural ? Behaviour in business & science

There are a myriad of scientific (pyschological, sociological or anthropological) works published over the years which seek to define the differences between 'base' human behavioural responses (cognitive) to stimuli from 'culturally' behavioural generated responses (cultural) to the same responses.

One of the most (in)famous experiments is the Milgram study  'Behavioural study of obedience' the findings of which Milgram summarises as follows :
 Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.
There have been other studies on the same line - all of which come up with essentially the same overall conclusion about humanity's willingness to follow orders over personal morality. But every study was executed in the Western world.

Within psychology, anthropology and sociology, there has been historically been an acceptance that there are base cognitive reactions that are common globally. This is being challenged by a growing wave of studies which highlight the flawed thinking behind this. A new paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” by Henrich, Heine, & Noranzayan and covered in this article really got me thinking about the impact of cognitive vs cultural behaviours.  The paper talks about how new studies are showing increasingly that what has historically been considered as 'base' behaviour is being challenged in the light of new experiments demonstrating cultural impact. It highlights the large proportion of studies being executed in the Western world - from which global assumptions are being extracted
A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.
It goes on to show that America & Americas - the largest source of such assumptions are not even viable as  the 'Western' norm :
As the three continued their work, they noticed something else that was remarkable: again and again one group of people appeared to be particularly unusual when compared to other populations—with perceptions, behaviors, and motivations that were almost always sliding down one end of the human bell curve

Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”
Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.
I have to admit the visual image of Americans as penguins and the streets of New York populated by armies of penguins amuses me- and it requires little stretch of the imagination when you think of the typical daytime population of Wall Street. And mentally migrating on from Wall Street, I started thinking about all the challenges I find in my daily working life in the IT Industry . IT has been shaped and changed dramatically in the last few decades by the rapid growth of outsourcing - leveraging the global economic differences in relative costs - to reduce expenditure whilst attempting to retain flexibility and capability. Outsourcing itself has a reputation for being challenging in the extreme to do successfully and conversations with Westerners who have been involved in outsourcing to Asia or beyond all seem to be peppered with nods of agreement as a familiar litany of woes gets recited and blithly blamed on 'culture'. That said, it has been lauded and dissected by many economic studies and business strategy documents from such leading academic bodies as Harvard, MIT, and the LSE, or commercial organisations such as Gartners or Forresters - so much so that for mid to large companies it is almost automatically accepted as the 'way to go'.

Culture has a major part to play in business life and the challenges of operating on a global basis : one of my recommended bible books to any new starter in multinational working is Fons Trompenaars' 'Riding the waves of culture'. That said, there seems to have always been an underlying assumption that the bone deep drivers of business are the same around the world. Now I question that : have business gurus and economists made the same mistake? Are the challenges faced in outsourcing, in running multinational companies more fundamentally complex than previously portrayed? Is the fact that we assumed we could 'outsource' American or Western norms and  'process' to those same norms inevitably impossible on the basis of the gap between base behaviours?

Does the impact of this mistaken enforcement of the 'American norm' go even deeper? Can it challenge the very beliefs behind our economic systems? Bhutan appears to believe so and chooses to measure itself in 'Gross National Happiness' rather than the more traditional 'GDP' : frequently joked about on the internet and media in general, but becoming of interest to the UN and other multinational bodies. I for one, hope it is adopted more widely.

I would love to see some studies sponsored by the top business schools that take the hypotheses behind the “The Weirdest People in the World?” study and revisits some of the seminal concepts behind business economics and activity in the light of it.

I wonder if the Milgram experiment would have had a different result if it had been done in a 'primitive' culture - and if so, what it says about Westerners as human beings.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The queen is going, long live the King

Last year was a pretty momentous 'Royal' year in the UK with Queen Elizabeth II's jubilee  with frenetic activity and press coverage. This year looks to be equally busy with another heir approaching  and I thought I'd escaped some of the Royal brouhaha by moving to Holland.

Turns out that I was wrong, as Queen Beatrix chose to abdicate in favour of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander.  Each year, the Dutch celebrate 'Queen's Day' on the 30th of April - marked by a Royal visit to two locations - but predominantly by the lifting of the need to have a permit to sell on the streets, or pay tax on the earnings. As a result, Queen's Day turns the entire country into a giant fleamarket, with a sea of shoppers in orange. This year however, Queen's Day marks the passing of the throne with all due pomp and cermony and will become King's Day (on a new birthday date) hence forth.

It does beg the question - if one looks around near a Royal residence will you find a collection of 'carefully maintained, no longer required due to retirement' bric-a-brac for sale? The odd 'worn once, dress coronet, does not fit new owner'? I, for one, plan to go shopping for bargains!