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Global academics: teaching and managing across cultures

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Article Sections

  1. Managing in context
  2. Teaching
  3. Insights gained

By Margaret Adolphus

In the early twenty-first century, being an academic seems to go hand in hand with being a global citizen. Look at the CVs of managers or faculty in higher education, and you will see that many have had at least one stint in a different country.

What insights have they gained from the experience, and how has it affected the way they teach or manage? I talked to a number of academics within the Emerald community (mainly editors and advisers), and one or two outside it. The result was a fascinating insight into what they regarded as different, what they learnt, and what they felt they brought to the situation.

Managing in context

It is one of life's eternal puzzles – when you are working and/or living in a different culture, to what extent do you adapt and to what extent do you retain your own style? Do you fit in, or do you regard yourself as a change agent, bringing something different?

"There is no meaning without context, and therefore you have to adjust your management style to the culture, context, the belief systems and the way in which different countries operate", Howard Thomas, dean of the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University and Emerald academic adviser.

"You should never lose completely where you come from, you should always remember you are rooted – even if only distantly – in the culture in which you were born", Nicola Hijlkema, vice-rector for international relations at the Estonian Business School, Estonia.

Howard Thomas (quoted above) has been described by Della Bradshaw of the Financial Times as part of the "rarefied club of serial deans" as well as being "arguably the only dean to have held the top job at business schools on three continents" ("Warwick dean heads for Singapore", 17 August 2009).

Thomas stresses that you need to understand and adapt your style to culture and management systems. He cites as an example his present position in Singapore, where the environment is "somewhat more bureaucratic and more hierarchical, but people are very hardworking, polite and risk averse".

In his experience, they prefer short, formal meetings and like one-on-one meetings to discuss and examine issues more thoroughly.

Thomas clearly finds the challenge of adapting to other cultures stimulating, and a learning experience. Others may experience frustrations with the prevailing educational culture, as in the case of Leo Jago, co-editor of the International Journal of Event and Festival Management, who came to the UK from Australia to manage a tourism research centre at Nottingham University.

Jago found that the system of assessing performance based mainly on publication gave little incentive to academics to do research in a centre which prioritized industry links.

And because home working is so common among British academics (who are also too scared of drink-drive laws to enjoy the Friday afternoon socials which are a feature of Australian academic life), it can be difficult to establish a collaborative research culture.

Being a change agent

What if your job involves not so much managing a school that is world class, but acting as a change agent? Nicola Hijlkema speaks seven languages and has over 30 years' experience managing the international departments of various higher education institutions (HEIs).

She also has antennae sharply tuned to all aspects of cultural difference, from where to put the sugar paper wrapping in a bar to what constitutes formal and informal address and what to expect from meetings, and has always tried to fit in as much as possible on her various postings.

Given her portfolio, however, she may need to bring about change in an environment which emphasizes quality at a national, as opposed to international, level.

She only stayed two years at one particular establishment, because they were fixated on comparing themselves only to their French competitors, despite the fact that she was hired to promote them internationally.

And long experience of running departments across Eastern and Western Europe, as well as a stint as director of business school services at the European Foundation for Management Development, and seven years representing a leading US school in Europe, has led her to reflect on the importance of systems and procedures, and the need for management training for academics.

She finds that the English tend to be more disciplined when it comes to having proper minutes for meetings as a record of decisions, not to mention putting new programmes through the necessary hoops – "in other countries, some schools just decide to do it and then find the mistakes afterwards".

Fortunately this more structured approach is gradually gaining ground with her current school, although one colleague has likened her to a Soviet Commissar!

Neither has she ever felt the need to modify her own open managerial style, in favour of a more "closed" approach which fears "giving things away". She favours sharing information, giving people responsibility, and training them up so that they can deputize for her in her absence, or even possibly succeed her when she moves on.