Wednesday, 3 May 2017

So what is national culture?

Up to the eighteenth century, we humans were mostly under the heel of dynastic rulers, who looked after their own geographic territories - often principalities. Lots of kings and princes chopped up the planet into their own stake. However, from the nineteenth century onwards, while we hung onto the same idea of 'sovereign territory', these ruling dynasties disappeared. 

Instead we created an idea of an "imagined community", a cultural collective, which is our modern concept of nationhood (Hall, 1999, p. 4). We lead ourselves.

Nationhood is wrapped up with cultural identity... and this is a slippery concept. Some researchers suggest our national identity is created from within our national culture, using our cultural resources – our pasts, our words and our actions – to create something to strive for, for who we might become in the future, as much as for who we now are (Hall and De Gay, 1996). Their idea is that culture is created through “narrativization”, by telling stories to ourselves. Those stories are not really that factual - think myths - but the telling and retelling of them creates belonging, connection and some level of 'together we stand'-ness (Hall and De Gay, 1996; Schein, 2009).

Culture, according to Schein, is created through shared “language, ethnic background, religion, and shared experience” (2009). While it can be difficult to see cultural alignment from inside a society, national and cultural unity can be seen in three key areas: life and work; philosophy; and legislation (d’Iribarne, 2009, citing Wittgenstein, 1953). We can measure our national cultural differences using these.

National identity runs deeply within our societies and it seeps into our organisations and groups. From the beginning of his long research career, Schein uses interchangeable measures for both national and organisational cultures. He mentions the concept of "cultural island" to explain the difference between one group and another, comparing the new ‘now’ with the idea of “back home” (1988, 2009). 

Our organisations and actions form, according to Laurent, “cultural artifacts (sic) reflecting the basic assumptions and values of the national culture in which organizations are imbedded”. We can really see cultural context when we are working in multi-nationals: we get that "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more" sensation (LeRoy & Fleming, 1939). Laurent suggested that our default ‘one best way’ of managing is unworkable as what is “highly meaningful and potentially effective for the home country [may be..] meaningless, confusing, and ineffective for another” (1986, p. 97). So our organisations also reflect our national character. 

Nationhood is not a static thing. We 'make it up' as we go along each day, and it becomes an evolving story of ourselves which grows alongside us and around us, generation by generation (Laurent, 1986; Hall, 1999; Flynn & Saladin, 2006).

It is fascinating to watch us at work, making up our nations as we go along :-)


  • d'Iribarne, P. (2009). National cultures and organisations in search of a theory: an interpretative approach. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 9(3), 309-321.
  • Flynn, B. B., & Saladin, B. (2006). Relevance of Baldrige constructs in an international context: A study of national culture. Journal of Operations Management, 24(5), 583-603.
  • Hall, R. B. (1999). National collective identity: social constructs and international systems. USA: Columbia University Press.
  • Hall, S., & Du Gay, P. (Eds.). (1996). Questions of Cultural Identity. USA: SAGE Publications.
  • Laurent, A. (1986). The cross-cultural puzzle of international human resource management. Human Resource Management, 25(1), 91-102.
  • LeRoy, M. (Producer), & Fleming, V. (Director). (1939). The wizard of Oz [Motion picture]. USA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). 
  • Schein, E. H. (2009). The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (New and Revised Edition). USA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Schein, E. H. (1988). Organizational Culture. Sloan School of Management, MIT: Working Paper 2088-88. Retrieved 2 April 2017 from

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