Managing local practices in global contexts
Managing local practices in global contexts

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Managing local practices in global contexts

6 Conclusion

We have covered a lot of ground in this course – yet, at one level, the message is simple: knowledge involves knowers – people – who learn how to think and act in the here-and-now of specific contexts. Practice situated in specific contexts is rarely if ever idiosyncratic, utterly individualistic or random. Rather, it is shaped by past practice. Informal and explicit formal rules – the institutional ‘rules of the game’ (North, 1990) – enable and constrain particular activities.

Many aspects of practice embody a taken-for-granted quality that we only notice when people do something that offends against accepted norms (for example, when somebody outrages public opinion as a result of unacceptable views or actions). Hence, the rules that maintain order and reduce uncertainty in everyday practices are not necessarily obvious (even to the practitioners themselves) and they are often neglected in accounts of how to manage and change things. Although this might be acceptable in cases where everybody has a viable understanding of the context in question, people who suddenly encounter contexts where the rules of practice are different could find it difficult to make sense of what is happening (for example, the American who is suddenly transferred to Japan might struggle to make sense of apparently simple things). Shifting across cultural contexts makes us all practical ethnomethodologists (people who seek to understand the folk methods in use in different settings) as we try to understand the rules that we might transgress so easily.

Whereas North (1990, p. 46) saw progress from less to more complex societies as a unidirectional march (albeit lengthy and uneven), from unwritten traditions and customs to written laws that facilitate increased specialisation and the division of labour, the power mediated by tacit knowing can act as an unseen barrier to convergence. For example, in Japan and China, mutually binding understandings within close-knit relationships can be more important than explicit rules. Yet, emotional persuasion of the type that operates in Japan's workplace ba or China's guanxi relationships tends not to be a dominant element in the stories that English language textbooks present to explain how to achieve a difference: the practice of power. Instead, there is often a tendency to privilege rational accounts of what ought to happen and logical explanations of why such and such has happened. Leaders are expected to articulate explicit policies, rise to the occasion, act quickly, take charge and, if necessary, be held to account for their actions. However, the growing interest in communities of practice helps to highlight the disparity between formal accounts of what ought to happen and what actually happens in practice.

Although accounts of management and business practice might speak, perhaps disparagingly, of the old school tie, or the old boys club, these informal accounts of how power is used are often taken as a violation of ‘rational’ norms – despite their widespread prevalence. Thus, the ideal of best practice in an efficient organisation is often presented in terms of rational rules in a bureaucratic hierarchy. While Taylor's scientific management has provided a convenient vehicle-of-opportunity for those who wish to critique capitalist modes of production, the principle of abstracting relevant information from a specific context and making that information available to the right people, bears a strong family resemblance to many contemporary accounts of knowledge management. However, rational argument can be a very weak form of power: many eminently rational and logical plans are rejected for seemingly irrational reasons.

The belief that everything can be reduced to single, rational explanation denies the possibility of learning from different viewpoints and rationalities – as our study of French bread-making processes demonstrated. Ignoring the informal communication processes that mediate the practice of power can lead to an ostensibly rational account, but denying the influence of other perspectives can be a significant barrier to sensemaking. This is especially important in cultures such as Japan and China, where highly nuanced gestures and signs – including the significance of what is not said – might not be commensurate with UK, US or other Western expectations about rationality.

In Japan, the key to a successful career is to enter a high-ranking university – ideally, the University of Tokyo. Graduation is virtually assured to those who pass the challenging entrance exams, and Japan's most prestigious employers will recruit their permanent employees from the highest ranked universities. Cohorts join these elite organisations together and progress though their careers together. Thus, not surprisingly, Japan's company-as-family workplace ba typically take the idea that ‘the organisation is the people’ very seriously and encourage their people to both work and socialise together – thereby generating highly aligned tacit knowing that helps the collective to act in a coordinated way. However, the participation of company members in after-hours activities is not so much a reflection of the formal power of organisation, but of a wider disciplinary authority mediated by Japan's institutional rules of practice: embedded social expectations reflect the idea that obligations to colleagues at work come first. Obligations to the organisation that Japanese employees take for granted might surprise those who are used to life in, for example, Anglo-Saxon cultures. Our case study of French bread also illustrated that work practices are constructed within a social context: trying to rationalise such practices according to universal standards can cause important viewpoints situated in the perspectives of the actors (rather than those of the rational analyst) to be overlooked or ignored.

How would you explain your organisation to a stranger, a Robinson Crusoe figure cast up at the office door? Many people might resort to a graphical representation of an organisational structure or an official account of what people ought to be doing. A tour of the organisational facilities might reveal buildings, desks and people – but the esprit de corps that emerges from organisational practices cannot be objectified and put on display for the visitor's regard. Ultimately, making sense of knowing-in-practice depends on possessing knowledge that is meaningfully aligned with that practice. Although much has been written about universally applicable rules and fixed meanings, constructivist approaches to communication, learning and sensemaking direct attention to the importance of context.

Crusoe's encounter with Friday represented the meeting of two radically different cultures: Crusoe's belief in the spirit of Calvinism was pitted face-to-face with cannibalism. At first sight, neither party's rules of practice made much sense to the other – yet, their joint engagement in daily living practices was instrumental in the generation of a shared repertoire of ‘knowledge tools’ that they remembered and held in common as a resource for enabling future practice. While Crusoe's global adventure represents a dramatic contrast in the values and expectations of their respective cultures, less exaggerated differences between different communities of practice – and their ‘imagined’ extensions as nations, religions and so on (as discussed in Section 3.1) – are intertwined with globalisation. People are simultaneously members of myriad nested and overlapping communities; as Wenger (2003) pointed out, you do not cease to be a parent when you go to work. In working through this course we have come across many examples of insiders who possess a capacity for tacit knowing that appears to be highly aligned with that possessed by their colleagues. Thus, team players who know each other well can appear as if they are ‘in each other's minds’. However, the context-specific dimension of tacit knowing is often overlooked in traditional, English language management and business textbooks.


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