Technology Management and American Culture: Implications for Business Process Redesign

Article excerpt

Seeing beyond corporate cultural boundaries is a necessary first step toward effective process integration and corporate transformation. But to ignore national culture is to invite failure.

OVERVIEW: Culture creates barriers to business process reengineering. Three distinctive levels of culture must be recognized in process redesign-national, corporate and work group culture. American national culture has the most profound influence. Individualism and autonomy are key features of American culture that work against the logic of process integration and commonization by rewarding individuals for pursuing their own self-interests. This tendency also generates a lack of trust, which in turn creates barriers to sharing electronic data. Reengineering difficulties are exacerbated by an American fascination with technological solutions, and a view of new technology as a "silver bullet" that yields benefits automatically. Often, process redesign cannot be implemented without culture change. Culture can be influenced by exposing internal groups to external pressures, ensuring employee participation in reengineering, recognizing that training alone does not achieve culture change, redefining group boundaries, managing anti-champions, building trust, and leveraging the strengths of national and corporate culture.

To compete effectively in world markets, many American corporations are attempting to redesign basic processes in ways that enable closer collaboration or integration of Marietta Baba is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University, in Detroit, Michigan. She is founder of the department's graduate program in business and industrial anthropology. She has been on loan to the National Science Foundation during 19941996 to direct the launch of NSF's new industry-funded research program on Transformations to Quality Organizations. She holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and an MBA. E-mail address: Internet:75031.322@compuserve.com

Donald Falkenburg is professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Wayne State University. Previously, he was vice president for research and acting president of the Industrial Technology Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He has a Ph.D. in systems engineering.

David Hill has an executive background in information management, manufacturing and international trade obtained through a variety of operating assignments with General Motors Corporation in the United States and abroad. Most recently, he was executive in charge, Corporate Information Management. He holds an M.S. in mechanical engineering. internal functions and/or external relationships. Integration of business processes often is equated with the introduction of new information technology (IT). Investing in IT, however, does not guarantee benefits. In a review of several recent studies, Majchrzak reported failure rates for the implementation of computer-automated technology in American industry that ranged from 30 to 75 percent (1).

One explanation for these difficulties is that IT is only an enabler of better business processes; as an enabler, it cannot of itself achieve process improvement. Adler and others have reviewed in detail changes in workforce skills, work procedures, organizational structure, strategy, and culture that must accompany the introduction of advanced computer-automation if corporations are to realize the full benefits of IT (2). Culture in particular is mentioned frequently as an important factor affecting redesign efforts, but its nature and implications typically are not understood sufficiently to provide a base of knowledge for planned culture change.

In this article, we address this need by exploring the role of culture in business process-redesign, and by providing suggestions for managers who are engaged in implementing new information technology aimed at process change. Although cultural factors may affect virtually any element of a process redesign initiation (e. …

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