Working with differences

February 5, 2009

Peter Brady ("Dragons and dinosaur views", 22 January) is correct in pointing out that many "cultural differences" programmes are unhelpful or even damaging. However, it is equally important not to overestimate cultural similarities - this can reflect attitudinal bias and can be equally unhelpful.

For the past five years or so, staff at a number of British and Chinese universities have been collaborating in depth as part of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Sino-UK e-Learning Programme. Our longitudinal research with British and Chinese staff involved with the programme has revealed an interesting phenomenon - Chinese partners have referred regularly to Sino-UK differences, while the British have typically regarded them as minimal.

Issues that have been of concern to several Chinese partners, in relation to their UK counterparts, have ranged from the initial assumption by the British that the collaborative projects would take place in English, to their lack of sensitivity to different project management and decision-making procedures.

All partners needed to grow in their mutual understanding of each other around these and many other issues, as their collaborations proceeded. It was a time-consuming process, and so Hefce agreed that the last phase of the programme, the Global People project, should focus on drawing out our learning on the intercultural aspects of partnerships.

We have not been focusing on specific cultures, but rather on the generic competencies needed for effective intercultural partnerships wherever they occur. The Global People Resource Bank will be launched at the University of Warwick this month, and will be made available to the sector in the belief that the minimisation of cultural differences is as unwise as the exaggeration of them.

Helen Spencer-Oatey, University of Warwick, Manager for Hefce of the eChina-UK Programme.

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