3 lessons which taught me why traditional OD is not appropriate in non Western and global organizations

As I mentioned in a previous post, I came from a very traditional Organization Development background. Over the years, I became convinced that OD`s western ethnocentric bias negatively impacts its effectiveness in a non western and global organizational configuration.

The `wake up call`I got about traditional OD was not gradual. Three events really shook me up, accelerating my thought process about  the need for a global version of OD.

I shall share them with you in this post.

1) In a group discussion with security personnel in the Mid East, I ask a question. The participants clarified  among themselves (in Arabic, which I speak) who is the oldest participant. He answered my question first; all other participants aligned with what he said.

2) In  Beijing, I ask a question and the managing director gives an inaccurate answer. I then solicit other answers, which are better than the answer that the MD gave me. I congratulate the person who gave me the `best“ answer. I lost the MD`s trust for a long time.

3) I facilitated a “lessons learned“  between Dutch management and Japanese customer service folks about a major crash at a client site. The level of emotion was very high, since a lot of business had been lost because of this incident. I laid out `ground rules“ for the discussion which included: No Defensive Behaviour. Once I showed that bullet, the Japanese did not trust me.

A facilitator with a global orientation will ask less questions because of the complexity inserted by honorific based issues; furthermore, the consultant will accept that only via a lot of defensive and opaque communication can issues be ferreted out.

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13 thoughts on “3 lessons which taught me why traditional OD is not appropriate in non Western and global organizations

  1. An incredibly rich insight from Allon. He so clearly articulates reality.

    I am going to help Allon spread his wisdom to the world of organization change and development, after all I am one of the few living original 100 change agents. Who else do you know who has been doing organization development on a daily basis since 1962. My teacher, Argyris did but now he has left this life.

    • Roland and Allon:
      Please join the International Society for Organization Development and Change this July in Amsterdam where we will be hosted by Fons Trompenaars and his staff for our third conference off the shores of the USA. A pre-conference workshop will focus on cultural competencies which our organization began to explore more last December in Hawaii with our Polynesian members. Many of our members and friends from various African countries as well as Europe and the USA will be joining us in Amsterdam in July. I would love to welcome you to the conference to help us explore and learn together. Check http://www.isodc.org for registration information. Hope you will join us there. Lena

  2. Your observations are perfectly correct. Unfortunately most Western organisations do not have sufficiently exposed leadership management to understand your experience and seek effective ways to managing cross culturally. Consequently non- third-world staff are emotionally, psychologically troubled by their decisions and actions. Suffice to say that the most successful of personnel of global Western organisations in the third world are those with significant western education and or inclinations – certainly not those that champion local adaptations of OD

  3. I think what you are highlighting here is the danger of any personal bias as a facilitator. For example when we as facilitators lay out “our” ground rules rather than eliciting them from a group, we run into trouble in new cultural contexts.

    I think a facilitator with a truly global approach asks more questions which they don’t answer – not fewer. It’s only by asking questions that we enable others to arrive at insight. And we leave our judgments out of what we hear. To quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

      • Dear Allon and Jessica,

        I think you both have a point about asking culturally appropriate questions. It’s not necessarily about more or less, but about different questions.

        As you say, Allon, questions that take cultural values like honour, face and hierarchy into account. Or like you say, Jessica, exploratory open-ended questions. Once we turn our cultural radar on and tune into the way other cultures deal with conflict, we can broaden our approaches – as you both describe above.

        So, I don’t think your perspectives are conflicting. But that view might be culturally coloured, as I am a consensus seeking Swede…

        As a cultural trainer, I think your examples are gold, Allon. Thank you for sharing them. I will point my clients towards your blog!

  4. The current situation in Eastern Europe and how it has develop the last few years make me wonder if some of the lessons learned you are kindly sharing could not benefit some politicians!? Politics in my mind has nothing to do with the management of a for-profit organization but exchange of experience could be useful. Just a thought.

  5. I am with Jessica on this one. Having run a global Indian business, worked in a global management consultancy, and support global organizations in strategy and change, my reaction to the three vignettes were that the facilitator was making mistakes. I winced when I read them. Perhaps avoid the easy national stereotyping and be the OD person – recognize individuals and standard group dynamics.

    • This “easy national stereotyping” as you labelled it makes me very uncomfortable because it means that collectivist societies can be made less so if we refuse me to see the collective. This is indeed a very strong western prejudice of OD,

      I noticed I made you “wince”.
      I also noticed that you web site promises “an analytical approach to alignment that yields quantifiable results beyond human limitations.”
      Well I guess I am in the little leagues. I cannot promise or deliver that….maybe because my view of things is all mixed and distorted.
      Your web page mentions “Alignment “No More Soft Stuff”….so I understand why something like this can derail events to “align”….alignment becomes harder when you see reality as I see it.

  6. I appreciate Allon’s insights and I also very much appreciate the subsequent dialogue. This learning!

    I have had similar expriences as Allon with my OD work in Asia. I have (hopefully) learned from them and adjusted my approach. For example I have learned that the best way to collect data and give feedback is in individual interviews or small (peer group) sessions.

    I still believe that the application of OD came be very beneficial to the health of the organization and the people in those organizations. So I will continue to adapt my approach based continuous learning on cultural differences, but (so far) keep at the heart of my work the core principles of OD (engaging the whole organization in the improvement process).

  7. The same lessons apply on a much smaller scale, Allon. I’ve worked in Telecommunications, Financial Services, Insurance, Healthcare, Government and the Military and the cultures are all quite different. What works well in one will be a flop in another.

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