Sub-Cultural Differences in Information Ethics across China: Focus on Chinese Management Generation Gaps*

By Martinsons, Maris G.; Ma, David | Journal of the Association for Information Systems, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Sub-Cultural Differences in Information Ethics across China: Focus on Chinese Management Generation Gaps*


Martinsons, Maris G., Ma, David, Journal of the Association for Information Systems


Abstract

We combined scenarios based on information ethics issues identified by Mason (privacy, accuracy, property, and access) with questions based on the stages of moral development proposed by Kohlberg to empirically test two theories rooted in sociology: generational subculture theory and life-cycle theory. Evidence from more than 1,100 managers across China strongly supports generational subculture theory by revealing significant differences in information ethics among the Republican, Revolutionary, and Reform generations. The generation gaps suggest that events such as the Cultural Revolution as well as the implementation of both the Open Door Policy and the One-Child Policy have shaped the information ethics of Chinese managers. We also discovered fundamental tensions between Western moral philosophies (based on rules, democracy, individual rights, and personal freedoms) and the traditions of Chinese culture (based on relationships, hierarchy, collective responsibilities, and social harmony). The ethical dimensions of the evolution from traditional China to modern China, and from particularistic trust to systemic trust, are discussed. Combined with previous Chinese management research by Martinsons, our study implies that it will be difficult to resolve data privacy and intellectual property issues. It also raises concerns about cross-cultural research such as GLOBE and Hofstede that rely on narrow demographic samples. Further research is recommended to examine the information and knowledge management of Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y (or Millennial Generation), and other sub-cultural groups, in order to determine the generalizability of "doing the right thing".

1. Introduction

As management educators, business consultants, and academic researchers based in (the People's Republic of) China, we have become increasingly concerned about ethics. We perceive that many of our students and clients and even some of our professional peers tend to neglect or inadequately consider the ethical aspects of their decisions and actions. Advice to behave more ethically often falls on deaf ears.

As relatively experienced members of our respective professions, we perceive that younger people tend to be particularly ignorant or dismissive about ethical dilemmas when they involve the "management" of information and its associated technology. A fellow professor studying the One-Child Policy in mainland China recently expressed a similar concern, saying "I seriously doubt that those born after 1980 have any sense of shame or respect". Others portray the younger generation in China as self-centered and pampered (Zhang, 2009).

As scholars deeply interested in history, we recognize that these are not new or unique perceptions and portrayals. Elders in societies throughout the ages are likely to have held similar viewpoints. However, our specific concerns about the ethics of the younger generation in China have been reinforced by the following: thefts of intellectual property by technicians repairing computing equipment under the supervision of young managers (cf. Lee and Patel, 2008), the misappropriation of copyrighted materials associated with the Beijing Olympics by youthful "entrepreneurs" (Zhang, 2008), and widespread cheating on college entrance exams (cf. Xinhua, 2009) as well as many other educational tests.

As social scientists, we have acted upon our concerns by conducting specific research. With respect to the ethics of managing information, we believe that it is critical to move beyond speculation, anecdotes, and personal biases. We aimed to systematically gather and analyze objective evidence that is useful for discussion and policy making. Consequently, we undertook a large-scale study of managers across China. This article reports on the sub-cultural differences that we found, with a specific focus on the generational gaps in the information ethics of these key decision makers. …

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