In Praise of Cultural Bias

Information and knowledge management models that exclude the influence of national and regional culture seriously undercut their potential effectiveness.

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Historically, the world’s wealthiest and most influential economies have developed on the basis of strong regional and national cultural biases. In the 19th century, for instance, the United States established itself as a first-rate industrial power by developing the “American system of manufacture” based on standardized and interchangeable parts. In the first half of the 20th century, U.S. manufacturing practices were further honed in Detroit and widely adopted modern office systems were developed in Chicago. Later, U.S. post-industrial giants clustered on the West Coast, where the distinctive flavors of San Francisco and Seattle shaped their successful cognitive and technical style. Throughout the world, all business, innovation and even cognition are based on localized cultural context. This doesn’t mean they have no value in the global marketplace. Quite the contrary: Cultural idiosyncrasy is a spur for global innovation.

It is curious, then, that the information industry steamrolls ahead, paying relatively little attention to the implications of national and regional culture. All information systems, from databases to expert systems, including decision and executive support systems, communication and collaboration systems, contain built-in cultural biases. There’s nothing worth doing that doesn’t have a bias. New biases generate new breakthroughs. Yet, Western analytical assumptions about information and knowledge and their management currently dominate both information and knowledge management (IKM) research and development.

Culture Antecedents of IKM

The relationship between region and culture and information and knowledge is subtle and sometimes perplexing. Knowledge is social in nature. Drawing from psychology and cultural history, researchers have argued that the considerable social differences that exist among cultures affect “the ways by which people know the world,” in the words of University of Michigan psychology professor Richard E. Nisbett. Culture affects the very concept of knowledge — what counts as knowledge in the first place and the degree of certainty ascribed to it. Culture also affects the cognitive process itself. As David Rooney of the University of Queensland Business School has contended, “Insofar as ideas, theories and beliefs form a shared phenomenological background in which people think and act, this context is decidedly cultural.”

Consider how the cultural differences between the ancient Greek and Chinese societies imbued each with a fundamentally different understanding and application of information and knowledge. The Greeks espoused the notions of personal agency, resulting in the categorization of objects and events, governing rules and causal models —all for the purpose of systematic description, prediction and explanation.


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