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Cultural kaleidoscope

Managing the myriad of perspectives within the marketing team is fraught with complications

Green, kaleidoscopic imageThere have been many changes in the working life of European pharmaceutical marketers in the past decade or so, with fewer truly different new molecules, more stringent ethical guidelines and the need to sell cost-effectiveness as well as clinical efficacy.

Another factor that has been just as important, but less obvious, is the gradual decline of the nation state as a basis for how pharmaceutical companies make and implement their business plans and marketing strategies. In the late 20th century, teams were mostly country-based and reported to country managers. Lines of authority eventually led to some global HQ, but it was the country, its market dynamics and organisational structure, that underpinned the pharmaceutical marketer's day-to-day job.

By contrast, today's pharmaceutical marketers, especially those in senior roles, are usually regional. Strategies are developed at European level and brand teams are often made up of five or six nationalities. Outside the large countries, even implementation sometimes crosses borders in strategic business units aligned to, for example, the Nordic or Benelux sub-regions.

The implication of this change is that getting things done requires us to be not only good team players but also anthropologists and ethnologists, managing cultures alongside strategy. To help you do that, this article summarises some of the management research into national cultures and their impact on working in pan-European teams.

Beyond the visible
Asked to describe a culture, most of us would fall back on things like language, customs, rituals, dress and so on. These visible features are what organisational culture researchers refer to as 'artefacts'. Beneath this observable face, shaping a country's culture are its values. So when Germans use "Herr Doktor" and other titles formally, it is because they place more value on status and position than many other European cultures.

Values themselves flow out of fundamental beliefs and assumptions that may be held unconsciously but are also strong and collective. Scandinavian societies have egalitarian beliefs that are reflected in their employment laws and the way they run meetings, both of which may differ from the way things work elsewhere in Europe.

The important point to grasp is that it's not just the way of doing things that is different; some basic beliefs are different too.

Researchers have found big differences in the fundamental attitudes of different cultures. The best-known academic thinking about this is Hofstede's five cultural dimensions:

1.    Power distribution – acceptance of power inequality
2.    Individualism – expectations of collectivist behaviour
3.    Masculinity – expectations of differences in gender roles
4.    Uncertainty avoidance – desire for rules and structured activity  
5.    Time horizon – attitudes toward the short and long term.

It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see how individuals who hold different beliefs about these concepts would behave differently in the context of a strategic planning meeting. The key to working effectively is to understand that your colleague's behaviour is not simply a superficial habit but rather flows from his or her deep-seated beliefs. Armed with this knowledge, we can begin to think about how multicultural marketing teams work or don't work and how we might manage them better.

Cultural impact
It is one thing to appreciate that your pan-European marketing team is a kaleidoscope of differing cultural assumptions. It's altogether more challenging to understand how that heterogeneity is impacting on the effectiveness of the team. To do this, it helps to clarify what your marketing team is actually doing.

The roles and activities of marketing teams vary hugely between companies, therapy areas and brands, but there are some fundamental aspects to what they all do. In essence, the job of marketing teams is to align the company to the market. This involves three primary tasks; understanding, deciding and communicating.

Marketing teams must translate this information about their market and company into knowledge, understanding and insight, and then use this to decide on allocation of marketing resources like sales time and promotional budgets. Then they have to communicate these decisions to sales teams and agencies. This is a simplified model, but it is realistic enough to help us understand the impact of culture on our cognition processes.

Power distribution beliefs may influence how I make sense of group decision making. If my team includes four or five different attitudes to this, we are likely to have different views on our customers' decision-making processes. A decision-making task is supposed to be rational and objective, but the reality is that all management decisions are partly subjective and emotional. That non-rational part of the decision – perhaps our views on an advertising concept – will be influenced by our views on elements such as gender roles and individuality. When a team seeks to reach consensus on these 'soft', qualitative subjects, the differences in culture will get in the way.

Communication, especially across borders and interdepartmental boundaries, is susceptible to all five of Hofstede's cultural dimensions. Appeals to collectivism will sound alien to an individualist audience and heavily structured programmes may appeal to one group and alienate another.

Marketing is perhaps the most culturally-influenced of all the business processes in your company.

Working culture
Corporate culture can be also be strong: brand managers from different countries may have very similar values but national culture is pervasive. The most common way to attempt to manage cultural differences it to obliterate them by homogenising the team's views. Naïve managers attempt to do this by enforcing new habits and ways of working, encouraging one way of working and punishing another. This is not culture change, it's artefact modification. It does not lead to real cultural change, but to what one academic called "resigned behavioural compliance."

More effective cultural change seeks to modify the underlying values and beliefs. This is a long process that depends on strong leadership using cultural symbols and rituals, but it is more effective than simply meddling with the surface layer of a company culture.

A less common way of managing cultural differences is to use them as a tool. Much management research has shown that heterogeneous management teams make better decisions because they avoid falling into the 'group-think' that 'cloned' teams tend to do. Wise leaders therefore use different cultural perspectives to get a richer understanding of the market, make more nuanced decisions and communicate in a richer way that is more universally understood.

It takes skill to extract the value of heterogeneity without too much conflict, but it is rewarded with better decision making. 

The Author
Dr Brian D Smith is a research fellow at OUBS - Europe's largest business school, and runs PragMedic - a specialist strategy consultancy

To comment on this article, email

1st December 2009


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