08 May 2018

Business with cultural values in a Western world – whoa?!


can’t be the only person to have at least 10 tabs open when I’m working on something right? Well one late afternoon while mindlessly scrolling through my Twitter newsfeed (is there any other way to scroll through Twitter?) I noticed a tweet which made me stop and think. Paraphrased, it said that business and (non-Western) culture could not mix because business was too much of a Western construct. So – fake news or truth? Let’s get down to business.

Because of colonisation we live in a Western world. I mean, we speak English and follow laws made by Parliament which are enforced by the police and judiciary. All these ‘structures’ originated from the West. This is our reality.

Now, if that is true for our public lives, what about our ‘personal spheres’ (Western construct, yet again)? The space where we have the freedom (need I say it again?) to do anything we want, so long as we don’t harm anyone else. The domain of business. Is it a Western construct?

Yes and no. I know it seems like a cop out but just bear with me.

The ‘norm’ or the way that business is usually conducted is shaped by a Western worldview. Individualism is at its heart. A small sign of this is the way businesses have their own individual legal person. No matter how many people work for this business, it is one person. You can sue the business (not the people). The business can owe you money. You can owe the business money. It is for all intents and purposes, a legal person. One person.

On a larger level, it’s impact is cray. When you are acting as an individual, you only think about yourself. Just like The Wolf of Wall Street, greed is good is the motto of this old boy’s club. Check the receipts. Think of the failure of Enron, a business once heralded as America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years but which collapsed due to fraud and greed. We have lived through the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 – 2008 which also came to pass because of a culture of greed within the housing market. The norm or the way that these guys did business caused the whole world’s economy to go into recession. You might say that these were outliers on the greater scheme of things but bro, if the crash happened on a global scale then that shows there were so many different mechanisms at play allowing this type of behaviour and culture to be accepted.

This type of behaviour is still making an impact today. The gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in society is getting bigger and bigger. In January 2017 Oxfam released a report called ‘An economy for the 99%’. Referencing the Credit Suisse report of October 2015, they reported that the richest 1% of the entire world’s population had the same amount of wealth as the other 99%. So, not only is business as usual a Western construct but it is clearly not working as well as it should be.

What about business in the context of the Pacific Islands? Business is not something that was brought to our shores by missionaries, traders, whalers or Europeans. Leai, we have been doing business long before they arrived to our shores. We traded within our own islands and also with each other. We had our own names for it of course but they were the exchange of goods and services – business.

What I find interesting though is that unlike the West, and even though we have super diverse cultures within each Pacific Island, one thing we all have in common is that we are collective people. We do not stand as individuals. We acknowledge the importance of those who have gone before us, our present and those who will come after us. Rather than speaking in language such as freedom, often our communities speak about the responsibilities we owe to each other. How will the decisions I make impact you? Given our globalised society this is especially important and even more so because of issues such as climate change, which is the reality for many of the Pacific Islands right now.

Even the ‘norm’ may be slowly changing. Business theories talking about the importance about the triple bottom line are starting to uncover what we have always known; a good business is one that does not only benefit the individual but our communities.

So, can we create businesses that align with our communities’ cultures exist today? Of course. You have the ‘freedom’ to run your business in whatever way you like. You can conduct business with an intergenerational worldview and build a business culture that is collectively oriented. Just remember that it will be hard to go against the tide of the business norm. Hard but not impossible.

This is the first of my series where I look at an assumption and determine whether its fake news or not. Disclaimer: My conclusions are a product of my past, my upbringing and all my experiences to date


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