Miracles happen - meltdowns, too

Managing across Cultures - Business in Asia Pacific
February 28, 2003

Both of these books target readers who want an understanding of managing in other cultures, but they take very different approaches.

Business in Asia Pacific follows the style of a user's guide and provides an introduction to how the reader might start doing business in Asia, while Managing across Cultures provides an academic assessment of the nature of management in different cultures.

Business in Asia Pacific emphasises the continuing importance of Asia Pacific to any company with international pretensions and sets out to provide an overview of business in the region. The book is presented as a single comprehensive textbook to provide the background understanding and methodology needed to develop business strategy in the region for business managers and students. Such an ambitious plan requires a carefully structured and consistent approach.

The style reads a bit like a Fodor's guide to business. First, a historical section tracks the build-up to the "miracle", as the author refers to the boom period in Asia Pacific up to 1997, the subsequent meltdown, reactions to this and, finally, emerging prospects.

Countries receive some individual treatment, but there is no focus on Japan and China despite their avoidance of the 1997 crisis; indeed Japan is almost ignored.

The second section, describing culture and business practices in the region, introduces issues differentiating East from West. This section provides a useful synopsis of the basic building blocks needed for an understanding of Asian business, although it gives perhaps too much credence to unsubstantiated claims from other authors.

Section three tries to provide a methodology for strategic development.

Space is wasted in giving basic strategy lessons to an audience who will certainly have this knowledge, whereas almost no space is given to identifying where the real potential of the region lies for a particular company, whether this be buying, selling, manufacturing, lending or investing. This section is further let down by the case studies, which are inconsistent (each is individually authored) and cover principally Asian firms in Asia without any foreign involvement, leaving in doubt the book's real targets. The random inclusion of Land Rover's introduction of Quality Circles in the UK is even more mystifying.

If the geographical scope of the book had been limited to Southeast Asia and Korea, with contextual reference to Japan and China, then it could be considered almost complete. As it is, it fails to cover the necessary ground. It needs, too, to be more forthright on the issue of corruption.

This, as much as anything else, led to the meltdown. The author also fails to highlight the rivalry within the region, which can make it harder to sell in Malaysia or Indonesia from Singapore than it would be from Paris or Atlanta.

Overall, Business in Asia Pacific provides a starting point for a new student. It introduces many sources of information, but it falls short of providing the "introductory but comprehensive" understanding promised. The book also risks becoming quickly dated as the prospects in the region unravel. Indonesia has seen three presidents since the commentary was written.

Managing across Cultures is an edited book of papers by a worthy collection of authors who provide a tour of the academic debates on management in different cultures, covering arguments for both high and low-context cultural relevance. These arguments advocate, on the one hand, that local culture and environment have an impact on the way management needs to be conducted in different locations, and, on the other, that global technological, market and environmental influences are steadily driving all management to a common solution.

The book presents a series of studies by different authors, each treating widely varying geographical areas. These studies were written specifically for the book but use completely different approaches. The result is mixed messages, with only partial convergence towards common standards in management practices. This confused impression coincides with the theoretical thread carried throughout the book - Weber's framework matching the trend towards universal solutions such as total quality management, flattening hierarchies and learning organisations with the necessity of adapting to local conditions.

The last section focuses on the relevance of social sciences to cross-cultural management. The topic is discussed from four viewpoints: economic and cultural transformation, women in management, management education and the development of a transnational capitalist class. To satisfy the norms of social transactions, management systems are converging on common, previously identified and rationalised themes but, as a process of social change, this convergence is necessarily slow. While such change is taking place, developments in management practices, often emerging from cultural idiosyncrasies, lead to new points of focus.

Managing across Cultures is far from easy to read, both from a practical point of view - the combination of typesetting and narrow margins left my head spinning - and from the heavy-duty academic approach in many of the papers without a consistent format. Though not for the faint-hearted, it could be a useful book for the more determined student. It would have benefited from the editors making more of a contribution than their four-page introduction, by defining the direction through commentary at appropriate junctures and by explaining some of the papers to assist the layman.

Paul Brunet is an industrialist and part-time research fellow in operations management at the Said Business School, University of Oxford.

Managing across Cultures: Issues and Perspectives. Second edition

Editor - Malcolm Warner and Pat Joynt
ISBN - 1 86152 973 2
Publisher - Thomson Learning
Price - £.99
Pages - 284

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