Friday, May 04, 2007

Blogging Across Cultures - How Well Does This Practice Translate?

Blogging seems to be slowly coming into our daily conversations at work as people start to experiment, and open up to the power of this tool. In our discussions we have seen some very different reactions to the notion of blogs by people at different levels of our international institution. In some of our conversations we have been wondering about the links between culture and blogging.

Do certain cultures take to the practice more naturally than others? (This includes national cultures and organisational/team cultures.)

Within the field of intercultural communication, there are some sets of cultural assumptions that seem to, broadly speaking, be embraced by different cultural groups. One of these is called "Power Distance". If you think of this as a continuum, from Low Power Distance to High Power Distance (with most cultures falling somewhere in between), here are some of the features at the extremes:

Low Power Distance - This features a democratic management style, power is not jeaously guarded, subordinates take initiative and are not overly deferential to managers. In cultures with low power distance, the CEO or boss might go to the cafeteria and have lunch with the staff uninvited; young professionals could comfortably contest ideas in meetings run by senior staff members; and hierarchies would be flatter.

High Power Distance - This is a more authoritarian culture, power is more centralised, there is more deference to authority and managers tend to hold on to power. In cultures with high power distance, CEOs would have lunch with Senior Managers in a separate room with reservations (and have a better lunch than the staff); plenary discussions would not feature much open dissent of ideas, certainly not by younger staff; and hierarchies would have many levels between general staff and the top management.

So how might this relate to blogging? Well, blogging is definitely a democratising tool, it lets people at any rank in an organization make their viewpoints known (agree or disagree); it allows anyone to start a discussion, a movement or an activity; it allows many voices in an organization rather than one top one; it distributes the right and ability to speak, share and discuss across an organization or a community. Would blogging be considered threatening in a culture with high power distance, or at least might there be strong cultural norms that create a disincentive to blogging? When we send out our draft blogging policy for internal discussion, what might be some of the responses based on cultural interpretations of this new medium? I would be curious to see what others think about the cultural aspects of blogging practice.

Moving to Music - The Isicathamiya Effect

I have long loved the traditional South African choral song -‘isicathamiya’ - of Joseph Shabalala and his group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group has spread the message of peace, love and harmony for 47 years, and teaching people about South Africa and the culture of the Zulu people. So great has been their success and popularity that they have performed at many musical award shows, the Olympics, South African Presidential inaugurations and Nobel Peace Prize Ceremonies.

A few nights ago I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing them live for the first time. One thing I think anyone who has seen them live would agree is that the performance of this group stirs something in you. And not only the music, but the presence of these artists and the way they dance. (Their movements are derived from the tradition of the mine workers of South Africa and the ‘tip toe’ steps they used so as not to disturb the camp security guards during their weekly singing competitions.) Beyond the beautiful harmonies, this is powerful, moving stuff.

Reflecting on this and a call from organizers of the World Conservation Congress (Barcelona, Spain, October 2008) for event proposals, I’m wondering how we can harness the role of music in such events and more generally as we work? How can we use music to ‘stir something’ in participants and help move us to better work together in co-creating sustainable solutions to the challenges we face? Put on the music of your choice and share your thoughts (including your musical recommendations)...