Why is it that serious attempts at sharing knowledge across
cultures frequently end in frustration, disappointment and a sense of aggrievement on all sides?
The problem is that people from different cultures have fundamentally different beliefs about the proper roles of bosses and subordinates, teachers and students, and even about the nature of knowledge itself.
Drawing on my research in the fields of intercultural communication and knowledge management, I recently presented two alternative sets of knowledge-related concepts at a lecture I gave at Tampere University of Applied Sciences (Finland). Both sets are valid within certain cultural settings, but neither of them can be easily transferred to another culture. To prove the point, I recounted numerous stories of knowledge-sharing failures in families, in businesses, and in marketing communications.
But there are success stories, too. In the 1980’s, for most people a telephone was as mobile as the length of its wires allowed. But in 1987, Nokia enjoyed a marketing coup when Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the (then) Soviet Union, was photographed in Helsinki using a Nokia mobile phone to make a call to Moscow. The picture appeared in newspapers around the world, and thus a new concept – “mobile phone” – was created in the minds of millions.
But what can we, in the serious business of intercultural education, learn from master marketers?
Following my presentation, Ann Seppänen commented that, “As teachers, we need to realise that ideas and concepts like “critical thinking is good”, “plagiarism is bad” (and many others) are elements of our own particular brand of education. For students who join us from very different educational traditions, such brand-related concepts may need to be created from scratch.” She had certainly embraced my message that teaching and learning have different cultural approaches.
Also, even when foreign students are aware of ‘our’ brand, they will naturally prefer their own. So if we believe our brand has merit, we need to promote our perception of its benefits vigorously. Otherwise, we will never be able to fully engage with our diverse students – they may do it ‘our’ way to earn ‘brownie’ points but they will not be persuaded it is the best way to do things.
Finally, if we ever venture into foreign markets (as exchange teachers, for example), we should not expect our brand to be universally admired and appreciated. The most successful brands, from Nokia to Coca Cola, are customised for each local market.