International Programs News & Views Volume 17
The Impact of Culture on Business
Secretary Dan Glickman and Chief Pearlie Reed have consistently reminded NRCS employees of their commitment to ensure the civil rights of USDA's customers and employees. They emphasize that every employee and every customer must be treated fairly and equitably, with dignity and respect. We have been encouraged to talk about how being a member of a diverse work force affects relationships as well as productivity.
Each human being is unique. Our basic differences stem from our perception of one another, influenced by our backgrounds. Getting people to work together effectively should include the following people values: truth, trust, mentoring, openness, risk-taking, giving credit and caring. Business values balance people values and they are what we need to do in order to be successful in the marketplace of our industry or service. Workforce diversity is a critical dimension for those organizations seeking to establish themselves as global enterprises. Although the definition of workforce diversity is straightforward¾ a workforce in which individuals differ from one another¾ the meaning of diversity in the workplace context has evolved considerably over time. The struggle to achieve diversity is a necessity as domestic and foreign organizations are increasingly interdependent on markets, sourcing and manufacturing, and customers.
The common understanding of diversity usually refers to differences in people of color, ethnic origin, gender, sexual or religious preferences, age, and disabilities. But in today's more varied workplace, diversity of culture plays a major role. Culture is distinctly the human capacity for adapting to circumstances and transmitting this coping skill and knowledge to subsequent generations. Culture gives people a sense of who they are, of belonging, of how they should behave, and of what they should be doing. It impacts behavior, morality, and productivity at work and includes values and patterns that influence company attitudes and actions. The concept of culture changes, as does the way we communicate it. Global managers realize that the new work culture worldwide requires us not only to be open to change, but to build it into our social systems. We must stay relevant in meeting human needs by creating new markets, processes, products, and services.
A few characteristics of culture would include:
Communication and language:
The communication system, verbal and nonverbal, distinguishes one group from another. Apart from the multitude of "foreign" languages, some nations have as many as fifteen or more major spoken languages (within one language group there are dialects, accents, slang, and jargon.) Furthermore, the meanings given to gestures often differ by culture. Subcultures, such as the military, have terminology and signals that cut across national boundaries (such as a salute or the rank system.) In Africa, with its countless tribes and clans, 2,000 languages are spoken- Swahili, Zulu, and Hausa being the most important.
Dress and appearance:
Outward garments, adornments, or lack thereof, body decorations are distinctive by culture (Japanese kimono, Englishman's bowler, etc.).
Food and feeding habits: The manner in which food is selected, prepared, presented, and eaten often differs by culture. One man's pet is another person's delicacy. Dog is featured on menus in the Far East. Americans love beef, yet it is forbidden to Hindus, while the forbidden food in Moslem and Jewish culture is normally pork. Improving global performance: Modern society is in transition and is impacting both work and management performance. The traumas are evident in social, economic, and work life. Examining the cycles and patterns of economic upswings and downswings, Gerhard Mensch, a German economist, observed in the 1970's that basic innovations increase dramatically during periods of transitions and from one era to another. We are presently living in this type of era and are witnessing the innovations in information, silicon, solar, and space technologies that are causing a decline in traditional industries and point the way to tomorrow's changes. Some important factors for effective performance in the new work culture are: Generic cognitive skills. Prior work experience. Social skills. Recruiting and hiring practices. Personal traits. Prior cross-cultural experience. On-the-job training. Foreign language competency. Knowledge in academic major attributes of educational institution through planned renewal and to reproject their public images.
Global leaders must understand and analyze the impact of culture on organizations. They should lead the way in influencing cultural change within their institutions. Those with the mindset and skills of a global manager exercise proactive leadership in altering both the macro and micro levels of culture. To cope effectively with accelerating change, global managers should continuously revise their images of self, role, and organization, so that attitudes and behavior are modified accordingly. Effective leadership styles are dependent on the people and culture at a given point in time. In the emerging work culture, leadership opportunities are shared with competent knowledge workers, regardless of gender, race, religion, or nationality. The underlying message here is that global managers should be change makers, and it begins with oneself!
For many organizations, formalizing the cultural integration function presents a new way of thinking and behaving. For both organizations and people, change is often difficult. By valuing differences, however, companies are facing up to historic shifts in the makeup of the labor market. They realize it is a business and bottom-line issue, for it involves also communicating with and motivating diverse minorities and immigrants. For example, at Hewlett-Packard's San Diego plant, which is comprised of many Mexican, Filipino and Indochinese employees, managers receive training in their worker's cultural backgrounds. Three external forces have most significantly contributed to growing workforce diversity in the U. S.--tight labor markets, immigration, and worker behavior.
As the economic expansion enters its eighth year, labor markets remain extremely tight and are expected to remain that way in the future. This is due to a slowing of labor force growth since the 1970's and 1980's when large numbers of women and babyboomers joined the labor force. Based on the Hudson Institute's "Workforce 2000" study, futurists have identified the following pertinent trends affecting the new work culture:
Diversity of personnel.
Expansion of worker support services.
Flexible work arrangements.
Focused human resource development.
Competing in the global talent pool.
Creating virtual corporations and communities.
Diversity has different meanings and applications, depending on where you are in the world. For global managers, the challenge is to innovate in finding ways to improve human commitment and performance at work. Because so many people achieve their full potential through their work and career, the new work culture fosters values like empowerment and character development, gauging success not in terms of organizational status, but in the quality of work life. For contemporary organizations and their workers, knowledge and innovation equal global marketplace power. On this issue, if a system is to be transformed, then diverse personnel are valued for their competency, rather than establishing barriers based on race, gender, or handicaps.
The increased diversity of the 21st century workforce will require that individuals and firms rethink the traditional meaning of workforce diversity. In the future, workforce diversity will refer less to black/white racial diversity, but increasingly to diversity of culture, age, gender, skills, abilities, religion, and sexual orientation. Incorporating these diverse individuals in the workforce will represent new challenges and policy issues to be addressed. As business is done more and more through partnerships, joint ventures, and strategic alliances, so an ability to relate to other cultures becomes a key organizational requirement. Overcoming language barriers, grasping various cultural nuances, attracting the best employees in a changing demographic and establishing good faith internationally will be important for a diverse workforce. Several cross-cultural challenges will include: Immigration; International projects; American military forces; and Transcultural professions.
The National Employee Development Center (NEDC) has been working in conjunction with the Department to develop eight modules that will be used as a source of mandatory training for USDA employees. This was a result of a study conducted by the Civil Rights Action Team. The training reemphasizes USDA's commitment to continuously improve its relationships with employees and customers.
Author: Elizabeth Todd, Training Technician, NEDC, Fort Worth, Texas
Editor: Gail C. Roane (retired), International Programs Division