Time management in cultural diversity

Celia de Anca. Director. Centre for Diversity in Global Management. Instituto de Empresa

22 April 2003

Managing diversity is vital for companies today. Firms must be able to adapt to the variety of their workforce. Yet it is not easy to decide which mode of behavior best suits an organization.

A large portion of company time is wasted criticising how others waste time. On one hand, we find it difficult to understand how others need so much time to carry out some task, while others cannot understand how we seem to operate in a permanent state of chaos, apparently floundering in a sea of simultaneous activities. All the while, phrases are hurled from one side or another, like “things have to be done right or not done at all”. Yet neither side pauses to consider the complementary nature of these two modes of behavior and the comparative advantage that can be gained by any firm capable of managing both working methods within a flexible, wide-ranging context.

This potential source of tension – how each individual or group perceives the best way to plan and organize work – is multiplied exponentially in the case of firms operating in a multicultural environment. E. T. Hall, a pioneer in the study of cross-cultural management, identified two types of cultures: monochromic, or those who perceive time as something linear and manageable; and polychronic, whose concept of time is more ethereal and all-enveloping and, as a result, difficult to control. Those fitting the first type tend to do one thing at a time and concentrate fully on the task at hand. Those from a polychronic culture tend to do several things at once, are easily distracted and, in general, more committed to people than to the job itself.

The key factor in diversity is being able to manage it. Apart from these and other similar categories, it is a fact that the way people work depends to a large degree on behavioral patterns produced by their culture, gender or individual personality. It is precisely this diversity that can, principally, generate innovation within the company, but it can also produce conflicts and tensions.

In recent years, companies such as JP Morgan Chase, BP, Shell, Bayer, American Express, Ford or Pfizer have introduced important processes of reforms, whereby top management presents a significant change of strategy that, in the medium term, strives to maximize workforce potential. It is not so much a question of social justice as a belief that increased diversity, when well-managed, offers tremendous future potential for a company. This is because it enables an effective response to demand, a greater variety of opinions and the increased flexibility needed in a market undergoing constant change.

This principally involves promoting a change of culture, a new business model capable of competing in a diverse, ever-changing marketplace. There are no easy recipes that can be applied, but some practices and methods are more efficient than others. Ideas and experiences arise from different quarters, both within the firm and in the outside world of theoretical knowledge and in diverse cultural environments.

Business schools, which act as a bridge between the practical world and the knowledge-creation sector, possess the necessary instruments to extract data from corporate diversity management experiences, then analyze and disseminate them. In doing so, they can adapt them to recipients’ different needs, as well as to the different cultural contexts in which these latter operate. In other words, business schools can establish centers that create and disseminate knowledge, while at the same time serving as platforms for debate.

Thanks to the global, changing context in which they function, companies today must, above all, be capable of innovating and growing. To this end, they need to adapt to the potential of their members’ diversity. The latter, in turn, need to grow and create within a context in which they feel their work is recognized and valued. In a labor context with an ever-increasing melting-pot of cultures, personalities, gender-mix and age groups, within an ever-changing economic environment, it is not easy to decide which kind of behavior is most appropriate for the company: a multifaceted person capable of producing work rapidly in many directions, or a monochronic person who plans everything and concentrates on details in order to produce rigorously perfect work. Ideally, employees should be capable of doing both.

Appropriate training helps in acquiring skills the other group possesses. Nevertheless, while we undergo the process of becoming more complete persons, we shall have to learn to respect and foster the complementary power of our differences.

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