As we continue our blog series on issues of cross-cultural communication, one of the most mystifying can be that of whether the culture has a past, present or future orientation. It is an orientation that can shape every aspect of managerial behaviour and, when the orientations are not matched, the clashes are quite spectacular.
Past-oriented societies are concerned with traditional values and ways of doing things. Tradition is, in fact, highly valued and attempts to mess with that tradition are regarded with a lot of distrust and suspicion. As a result those that are past-oriented tend to be conservative in management and slow to change those things that are tied to the past.
They look to the past – real or imaginary – for inspiration, motivation, sustenance, hope, guidance and direction. These cultures tend to direct their efforts and resources and invest them in what already exists. They are, therefore, bound to be materialistic, figurative, substantive, and earthly.
They are likely to prefer old age to youth, old habits to new, old buildings to modern architecture, etc. This preference of the Elders (a term of veneration) over the Youngsters (a denigrating coinage) typifies them strongly. These cultures are likely to be risk averse.
Past-oriented societies include China, Britain, Japan and most spanish-speaking Latin American countries.
Present-oriented societies include the rest of the spanish-speaking Latin American countries and many African countries. They see the past as passed and the future as uncertain. In other words, what is done is done and tomorrow may never come so we had better be focused on today. They consequently prefer short-term benefits and immediate results.
Future-oriented societies have a great deal of optimism about the future. They think they understand it and can shape it through their actions. They view management as a matter of planning, doing and controlling (as opposed to going with the flow, letting things happen).
These cultures invest their efforts and resources in an ephemeral vision - an ever-changing view of wht the future may hold.
They are, inevitably, more abstract, more imaginative, more creative (having to design multiple scenarios just to survive). They are also more likely to have a youth cult: to prefer the young, the new, the revolutionary, the fresh to the old, the habitual, the predictable. They are risk-centered and risk-assuming cultures.
The United States and, increasingly, Brazil, are examples of future-oriented societies.
The past, present, future orientation of a culture is fundamental to its existance and almost impossible to reconcile with differently held views. Differently oriented cultures will view each other at best as quaint and foolish and, at worst, with considerable contempt.