On Creating a Learning Culture in Collectivist Societies

Cultural differences are never right or wrong. However, in some cases they can have certain disadvantages. Stone me if you want to – but I think that when it comes to learning, individualistic values are healthier. In a collectivist society, the purpose of learning is so that the individual can fit into the group. If she learns a certain skill, she will be useful for the group and therefore accepted.

While that is totally fine, the problem arises when she already got accepted by a company, because then there really is no incentive anymore to learn. She already is a member of the group. Members of the group become members of the family – and you don’t fire your family members, do you? In collectivist societies, once you enter the workforce, the time to learn is over. Adults are not students.

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That is a dangerous belief. It is a belief that leads to rigid, unadaptable thinking. How can someone find new solutions to a problem if she is unwilling to learn?

Interestingly, this is in total contrast with the concept of KAIZEN – continuous improvement, for which Japan is famous. So how do you combine KAIZEN, which requires continuous learning, with a belief that adults do not need to learn?

By focusing on exactly this need to be a valuable member of the group. KAIZEN works in a way where every single employee no matter what his or her position gives solutions to problems, so that small, but incremental changes on a daily basis make a real difference over time. The important point here is the fact that every employee contributes to the solution of the problem, everybody is part of the team and has an important role to play. There would be nothing more shameful than letting your team-members down in a collectivist country. And that is exactly how you can make people learn.

Show them that if they want to make valuable contributions to the team, they need to keep learning and growing. Do not criticize them openly, do not talk about what they did wrong – focus on opportunities instead. Opportunities which help to improve the company as a whole, but for which learning is necessary.

Maybe asking them to become students once more, will cause inner conflict. It is not really common in their culture, after all. There is a clash between two values: adults are not students vs. the desire to do what’s best for the company. Point to the fact that the most important thing to do is what’s best for the family – your company. They will gladly become lifelong-learners.

What are your experiences related to learning in collectivist societies? Have you noticed the “collections” of certificates each person has? Is it easy for you to encourage your Asian employees to learn something new – to read a book or to attend a seminar? What steps do you take to motivate them?

Final note: the idea that Asians learn with the goal of becoming members of the group comes from Geert Hofstede. If you want to know more about it, I recommend reading his classic “Culture and Organizations. Software of the Mind”.

Tim

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