The cultural context of learning

A comparative study of three different SCM approaches

R. Meenakshi Sundaram, Sameer G. Mehta

The Authors

R. Meenakshi Sundaram, Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, Tennessee, USA

Sameer G. Mehta, Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, Tennessee, USA


A comparative study of three different approaches on a hypothetical supply chain model is presented. The three approaches investigated are: independent; semi-integrated; and integrated. In the independent approach, it is assumed that decisions are made independently at three different levels. Decisions are assumed to be made at two different levels in the semi-integrated approach. In the integrated approach, all decisions are assumed to be made at a single level.


Although there is no consensus towards the definition of organisational learning, many agree that the core of organisational learning is the process of understanding and gaining new insights (Argyris and Schon, 1978; Fiol and Lyles, 1985; Senge, 1990). Learning in international joint ventures is perceived as a means of knowledge transfer (Child, 1994; Child and Rodrigues, 1996) and gaining collaborative know-how and collective experience (Hamel, 1991; Simonin and Helleloid, 1993). However in joint ventures formed between developing countries and developed countries, learning is largely a one-way process. Western partners tend to assume superiority in both technology and management, and can feel that they have little to learn from local partners. In Chinese-Western joint ventures, while transfer of technological know-how has been generally smooth, transfer of Western management practices has been confronted with resistance from local employees. One reason has been that learning is often dominated by the rational drive to achieve organisational effectiveness without sufficient attention to cultural differences, which has created problems of mutual understanding.

In this paper, we examine the learning process in Chinese-Western joint ventures as well as the cultural context where learning is taking place. We start with a brief discussion of the issues involved in collective learning, and then discuss learning in international joint ventures, particularly Chinese-Western joint ventures. Based on our research study with a number of joint ventures in China, we identify the areas where learning is taking place as well as barriers to learning and change. We suggest that organisational learning in joint ventures is culturally dependent: understanding the different modes of managing and organising is important for partners from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds to engage effectively in collaborative learning.

The thinking on organisational learning that informs this study

Since Simon (1976) formally introduced the concept of organisational learning some 40 years ago, it has been gaining popularity both with academics and practitioners. Despite this, no single theory or model is widely accepted. In an extensive review of the organisational learning literature, Easterby-Smith (1997) identifies six disciplinary perspectives that currently contribute to the theorising of learning. Our study is located within the psychology and organisational development "discipline", and there are a number of existing areas of theory within this discipline that frame our research.

First, there are different "types" of learning that can occur in organisations, providing different levels of analysis for the outcomes of learning. Argyris and Schon, (1978) have developed a three-fold typology of learning: single-loop, double-loop and deutero learning. They describe single-loop learning as error-detection-and-correction process, whereas double-loop learning, in addition to error-detection-and-correction, also involves change of the values of an organisation's "theory-in-use". Deutero leaning is learning how to learn: it indicates organisational members' cognitive change as a result of reflecting and inquiring into their previous learning experiences. Our focus within this study is on ways in which joint venture partners might create possibilities for double-loop learning, as well as the implications of this for learning how to learn.

Second, we are concerned with a shift in the conceptualisation of learning from the individual towards the organisational, particularly in the context of the cross-cultural differences that underpin various ways of applying management thinking. Organisational learning is very often used as metaphor derived from our understanding of individual learning (Kim, 1993; Dodgson, 1993). Writings on organisational learning either examine how individuals learn in organisational contexts or explore ways that theories of individual learning can be applied to organisations or both. For example, some claim that an organisation learns through the learning of its individual members (Argyris and Schon, 1978; Simon, 1991). Kim (1993) suggests that although the term "learning" remains essentially the same at the organisational level, the process is fundamentally different. A possible way to transfer individual learning into organisational learning is through "shared mental models". Schein (1993) emphasises the importance of shared mental models in organisational learning, as well as acknowledging that the evolution of new shared mental models are inhibited by existing cultural rules about interaction and communication. These cultural rules can undermine communication and create "defensive routines".

Third, the politics of organising that create defences against learning, particularly in the complex interactions between members of different national cultures. The rational drive to improve learning does not necessarily lead to an open engagement between different mental models. The politics of organising mean that such attempts can give rise to considerable anxiety and uncertainty. Under these circumstances, defensive group patterns can emerge. The encounter between people in organisations is a political process, and it is possible that transactions between individuals

... serve to act out or re-stimulate power struggles, and intense emotions associated with power and differences ... The intensity of these emotions, and anxiety about how to deal effectively with power relations in groups and organisations, means educational or learning groups have an interest in defending against and avoiding these issues (Vince, 1996, p. 47).

Emotions and power relations are therefore an integral aspect of both individual and organisational learning. It is important to provide learning environments that enable sub-systems within organisations to work with these issues towards their own understanding of the possibilities and difficulties of learning and change. Despite the anxiety and uncertainty provoked by working through emotions and power relations, and through engaging in such processes, organisations can develop real possibilities for promoting mutual learning.

Our perspective is that organisational learning is more than the sum of individual learning in organisations. Given the interplay between politics and emotions in organisations, there is a need for internal processes of communication to allow individual members of an organisation to hold on to uncertainty and anxiety, to transcend rather than to revert back towards existing power structures and relations. Dialogue seems to provide one avenue for improved communications among organisational members and to engage them in processes that can promote mutual learning (Schein, 1993; Isaacs, 1993). Isaacs sees dialogue as:

A sustained, collective inquiry into the processes, assumptions and certainties that compose everyday experience. Yet this is experience of a special kind, the experience of the meaning embodied in a community of people (Isaacs, 1993, p. 25).

Dialogue is an attempt to set individual experience and action within the context of collective thought and shared assumptions, and the living social processes that sustain them. Dialogue involves learning about context and the nature of the processes by which people form their paradigms, and thus taking action.

In summary, the thinking that frames our approach to organisational learning in this paper involves the possibility for learning that goes beyond the current, cultural "theories in use" that are imported into joint-ventures by both partners. It also involves a shift of emphasis from individual towards collaborative learning, thereby creating an environment for learning between different cultures. The interaction between joint-venture partners is invariably an expression of organisational politics and power relations. Dialogue is a process of communication within organisations that can bring different power relations to the surface and help them to be worked through.

Organisational learning in international joint ventures

Easterby-Smith has suggested that organisational learning with an international perspective is an under-researched area (1997). The importance of learning in the management of joint ventures has only recently emerged in the literature. Hamel (1991) sees international joint venture as a collaborative process of learning transfer. This learning may take the form of specific and identifiable skills or technologies, or may be tacit knowledge related to assumptions and beliefs. This form of collaboration between different firms is an important means of supplementing strengths and covering weakness. It can lead to a number of tangible and intangible benefits, including learning specific skills and competencies, learning about inter-firm co-operation, or simply learning how to learn from collaboration (Simonin and Helleloid, 1993). A firm's achievement of these benefits largely depends on its collaborative know-how and collaborative experience. However, it is also likely that partner's learning experience can be asymmetrical. This is particularly true in joint ventures formed between developing countries and developed countries such as Chinese-Western joint ventures where learning is largely a one-way process.

In studying joint venture management in China, Child (1994) identifies three types of learning and change. The first level is the technical, which involves the acquisition and implementation of new techniques such as TQM and market forecasting. The second level is the systemic, which refers to the introduction and operation of new systems and procedures, like production control and budgeting systems, as well as those defining responsibilities and communication. The third level is the strategic, concerning the mindsets of senior managers, their criteria of business success and their understanding of significant factors for achieving the success. He sees the first as the lower level of learning that does not necessarily lead to change in behaviour. Learning at the systemic level requires change in workplace behaviour and relationships, and therefore is seen as threatening the existing norms of conduct. Implementation of change in this area is likely to be confronted with resistance from local employees. According to Child, learning as strategic understanding is most important for inducing cognitive change in the Chinese managers necessary for the market economy. However, there is a paradox in transferring strategic understanding. In many joint ventures, local managers are very often excluded from strategic process because of the conflicts it might bring up.

Child's analysis offers useful insights to the complexities and politics of managing international joint ventures. He acknowledges the different forms of institutional influence on people's thinking and behaviour, and indicates the need for both Chinese and Western managers to adapt. We have identified similar processes in our research on learning in Chinese-Western joint ventures. In addition to this, we feel that understanding the cultural context in which learning occurs is an important issue involved in such processes. This will not only involve a sensitivity to the impact of cultural and institutional constraints on learning and change, but also to identify the defensive routines and avoidance strategies that inhibit learning and change in an intercultural context. This will make it possible for joint venture partners not only to adapt, but also to transform through mutual learning.

The cultural context

In an effort to speed up economic development, the Chinese government implemented an "open door policy" to introduce advanced technology and management systems from abroad. Joint venture with Western countries is seen as one of the important avenues of achieving this. Although transfer of technical knowledge has been doing well, implementation of Western management systems has resulted in much conflict between Chinese and Western partners. As Child (1994) notes, in the case of China, apart from inherent problems in all international joint ventures such as goal conflicts, differences in business understanding and technical expertise, there is the further complication of the fundamentally different cultural and political-economic systems. These differences create problems of mutual understanding and present both sides with the need for considerable adjustment and learning.

Hofstede (1995) argues that the influence of national culture is important to management for three reasons. The first is political and institutional. Nations differ in formal institutions such as forms of government, legal systems, educational systems, labour and employer's association systems, and the ways they are used. The second is sociological. It concerns the identity of people, and part of the "who am I", in contrast to those with different identities. The third is psychological. People's thinking is an effect of their life experiences, which are not the same across national borders. Activities like management and organisation are therefore culturally dependent. "Management is not a phenomenon that can be isolated from other processes taking place in a society" (Hofstede, 1993, p. 89).

Hofstede proposes five dimensions in the study of national culture. They are power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term vs. short-term orientation (Hofstede, 1991). In relation to the Chinese context, we have found that power distance and uncertainty avoidance have particular implications for an understanding of defence mechanisms and avoidance strategies in learning and change. We will illustrate this with examples from our study of Chinese-Western joint ventures.

Power distance is defined as "the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally" (Hofstede, 1991, p. 262). Traditionally, the Chinese social system was largely characterised by differential power relations. According to Confucius, there were five social relationships, namely those between sovereign and subject, father and son, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, and friend and friend. In each pair, the former had absolute power over the latter. Such system values harmony and stability, which should be achieved and preserved by each person observing the power relations and act accordingly. Despite the fact that China under communist government has been through enormous changes, Confucian influence still permeates both the organisational life and private life of the Chinese. In Chinese state enterprises, initiatives on the part of employees are not encouraged. It lies with the superior to define the tasks of their subordinates. This has created a high level of dependency on superiors to handle problematic situations.

Uncertainty avoidance refers to "the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations" (ibid.). People tend to see an uncertain situation as potentially risky. In Chinese culture, uncertainty avoidance is used as a means of avoiding losing face and being punished. In state companies, punishment is exercised far more often than incentives. Any mistakes may cause employees lose their monthly bonus, whereas there is no reward for outstanding performance. This partly explains why Chinese managers are reluctant to take responsibility and assume authority in decision-making processes.

Currently Chinese managers' patterns of behaviour in joint ventures tend to be portrayed as follows:

  • dependency on higher authorities in decision making;

  • reluctance to assume responsibility;

  • non-risk taking; and

  • poor communication across boundaries.

While this pattern of behaviour is regarded as natural in Chinese organisations, Western managers may see it as a problem that has to be solved. Although for Chinese managers the need to change is self-evident, it is difficult to unlearn the old norms and behaviours and to change overnight. There is the pressure from the social system on Chinese managers to behave in a certain way, which is open to the possibilities that it mirrors the conditions in which Chinese managers work in the state enterprises. But this is often unappreciated by Western managers who try to force change to happen. Their effort to implement change by force often ends with resistance or at best, temporary change.

The following examples from our research study shows how local managers confront a forced mode of change.

Example one

Joint-venture "B" (JVB) has been operating in China for over a decade. As the first joint venture of the industry set up in the country, it has been successful in meeting its business objectives and, has several times been awarded "Excellent Joint Venture" by both local and central government. Behind the widely recognised success, JVB has got a high turnover of foreign general managers. At the time of the study, the general manager we interviewed had served for more than two years, the longest expatriate manager in the joint venture. The average survival of his predecessors was nine months. Most of the problems he experienced were with the Chinese senior managers, who used to work in state companies. What was typical of their behaviour was that they never disagreed with the foreign manager. At company meetings, they did not normally initiate any proposal, nor did they say no. But after the meeting, they just "didn't do". They often failed to raise issues that needed to be addressed. They tended to conceal their problem until it became really serious and they could not hide it any more. Heads of different departments did not like to work together and share information. They all kept their own secrets and accomplished their own goals.

The general manager was very frustrated with the situation. Things were happening too slowly. He felt that he was debilitated by Chinese managers' inaction and failed to perform his role and exercise his power effectively. Instead of doing things he felt more important, he would have to spend a lot of time and effort to persuade people, which is for him more than reasonable. One of the changes he tried to implement was to get managers from different functional departments to work together. So when a Chinese manager came to him with a problem, he would first ask whether he had spoken with the relevant department. If not, he would say, "Go and talk, I don't have the time. If you can't come to any solution, you can come to see me". His rejection was intended to encourage teamwork, but it was not always effective. Sometimes the problems only aggregated.

Naturally, the foreign manager saw the way Chinese managers behave as problematic and needing to be changed. Our feeling, however, is that the Chinese managers were not entirely to blame for the problems he had experienced. As we have argued earlier, for Chinese managers, in this case old managers in particular, change of any kind will threaten their existing norms of conduct, involving a certain degree of uncertainty and risk that they are not always prepared to take. In the above situation, the foreign manager's rejection of Chinese managers, although well-intended, might have been perceived as being rude and unsupportive, and only served to distance him from the local managers.

The prevailing view among academics and practitioners is that, in the joint venture relationship, adjustment lies on the Chinese side because it is Chinese management that needs to make the major transition towards market economy. When Western partners see themselves as superior both in technology and management, they will feel that they have little to learn from their Chinese partners. In an effort to implement change necessary for the success of the joint venture, they tend to ignore the anxiety and uncertainty this change might cause in the local employees. They are angry at the inaction on the part of the Chinese managers, but they often also fail to appreciate the cultural and social system that has produced such behaviour.

Example two

Not all joint ventures we have studied adopt a forced mode of implementing change. In Joint Venture "D" (JVD), we have identified a different process of learning and change. In this joint venture, although foreign managers were experiencing similar problems as those in other joint ventures, they were trying to understand the thinking and practice of local managers. Instead of assuming superiority and distancing themselves from local managers, they would work closely with them over different functional areas. In order to work more effectively in China, the general manager in this company also committed himself to an hour each week on learning Chinese language and culture. Apart from a close working relationship, they also socialised with local managers outside working hours. In this way, it made it possible for both Chinese and Western managers to get a better understanding of each other and built up trust. They impressed the local managers as being "very Chinese". At work, they encouraged local managers to take initiative, supporting them whenever they encountered difficulty. Over time, local managers were no longer afraid of making mistakes, and they were delighted with their change, not only in the body of knowledge they had learned, but also their ability to assume authority. For example, in a discussion on the company's marketing strategies, they were able to draw the attention of the foreign managers to the particularity of Chinese consumers, which was largely ignored in previous marketing strategies.

This example demonstrates an alternative approach to the development of Western management in Chinese-Western joint ventures. It involved willingness on the part of foreign managers to understand the local managers' position, providing a supportive environment that helped to overcome their anxiety rather than change them by force. Organisational learning in Chinese-Western joint ventures can be a collaborative process, in which both partners are engaged in learning by working through difficult issues. We summarise our understanding of improving organisational learning in international joint ventures as follows:

  • Organisational learning in international joint ventures is an intercultural activity; it is different from learning in a single cultural context.

  • Learning in an intercultural context requires sensitivity to the differences in cultural values, and the transferability of management theory and management practice to a new culture.

  • Learning in international joint ventures can be a two-way process rather than a one-way process: it involves learning and change from both partners rather than one partner imposing "knowledge" on the other.

  • An important issue in the process of learning in international joint ventures is to work through anxieties and uncertainties rather than avoiding them. This involves creating an environment for dialogue that reflects the specific cultural context.

  • To achieve "strategic understanding", joint venture partners will have to engage more overtly in processes of dialogue. The effects of dialogue often mean that organisations find it easier to face the conflicts that underlie attempts to work together, as well as improving possibilities for mutual learning.


In this paper, we have argued that understanding cultural context is important for organisational learning in international joint ventures, particularly Chinese-Western joint ventures. Current thought and practice on learning in Chinese-Western joint ventures can create prejudices against local managers and favour a one-way process of learning and change. We infer from our initial research study of Chinese-Western joint ventures that finding ways for working through the anxieties and uncertainties that cultural difference engenders is important in creating opportunities for learning and change that are relevant to both local and foreign managers. The improved management of joint ventures is conditional on processes of mutual or collective learning that can be created by joint venture partners, and it is this that will continue to be a focal point for our further research.


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Isaacs, W.N., 1993, "Taking flight: dialogue, collective thinking and organizational learning", Organizational Dynamics, 22, 2, 24-40.

Kim, D.H, 1993, "The link between individual and organisational learning", Sloan Management Review, 35, 1, 37-50.

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Simon, H, 1991, "Bounded rationality and organisational learning", Organisation Science, 2, 125-34.

Simonin, B.L, Helleloid, D, 1993, "Do organisations learn? An empirical test of organisational learning in international strategic alliances", 222-6.

Vince, R., 1996, Managing Change: Reflections on Equality and Management Learning, The Policy Press, Bristol.

Further reading

Argyris, C., 1990, Overcoming Organisational Defences, Allyn and Bacon,, Needham Heights, MA.

Argyris, C., Schon, D.A, 1996, Organisational Learning II: Theory, Method, and Practice, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.

Bateson, G, 1972, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Paladin, London.

Inkpen, A, 1995, The Management of International Joint Ventures: An Organisational Learning Perspective, Routledge,, London.

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