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China is playing a pivotal role in establishing its economic might and presence equally among developed countries and the poorest countries in the world. China has invested a lot in the African continent in various sectors such as infrastructure, transport and other such industries. By far the African countries have benefited a lot from the investment made by the Chinese government, and both the African countries as well as China have mutually benefited from these trade activities. The Chinese government, apart from its investment activities has also tried to bring in its culture identity into these African countries, so as to make them more appealing and significant in this part of the world.
This all makes it very important to understand the various cultural differences between these two parts and see how the cultural factors influence the way business is done between them. According to Reuters (2010) the low cost Chinese products are easily accepted in the poorest countries in Africa, as it is accepted elsewhere in the different parts of the world. Some of the most striking resemblances of African culture and Chinese culture are both the societies are dominated by male counterparts more than females, governments are more authoritative, spiritually oriented and deeply integrated family values. According to Idehen (2010) unlike West which ruled most of the African countries, Chinese had no presence in Africa at all until recently when the African countries followed the path of liberalization. Hence most of the African youth are culturally influenced by the western countries in terms of the dressing, movies, music etc, and coming to business and trade African countries still prefer the American and the British style of management. This is where differences between African and Chinese culture start to arise.
According to Africa Business Pages (2010), the diversity of cultures across Africa is not an obstacle to successful business, but rather an opportunity to explore and understand the various nuances of personal and professional relations. Chinese companies should understand the importance of understanding deep rooted personal roles that play a vital role in doing business with African countries. A best way to deal with this is to understand the various concepts of doing business along with understanding the traditions and culture of the African countries.
China is a leading economic power, that is making its presence felt across the world, and the Africans are so culturally attached to the west that they visibly follow them in spite of the negative traits that have been propagated by them during the colonization times. However the Chinese should lead by example and prove to Africans how they have achieved the economic stardom without following a western style of management, but rather doing it their own way. This way the Chinese can keep up their momentum going in the African continent stimulated by the highly available African resources. We have understood the tremendous opportunities both the parties have when they do business, but the most important question to be asked is whether the Chinese and African businesses are culturally fit and compatible while working together.
According to Hackett (2009) the culture of organisations from two different parts of the world are very likely to be different, and will comprise of the individual personalities, experiences, perceptions and behaviours. But businesses' workout between two organisations only when the differences especially cultural differences are minimal or if there is a proper understanding, trust and respect towards others culture.
But it is very imperative to understand that some levels of differences are inherent in any organisations when they come from different parts of the world, but organisations should try to minimize any differences and try to work on them. Some of the major cultural aspects that Chinese businesses' have is they use their cultural identity to influence others especially the poorest countries in the African continent. Chinese people generally prefer working with people who they know through references that is they trust in people who are recommended by people who are very close to them. Hence the Africans or for that matter any people outside China should try to build trust among the people of Chinese companies. This is very important step towards a long term business commitment with a Chinese company (Chinese Business Culture and Traditions, 2009).
Normally Chinese prefer to maintain good relations with colleagues even outside the business; they tend to share more personal things with others such as interests, activities, hobbies etc. This is an important thing that African business people should keep in mind, because the Chinese give value to good relations more than what's written in the agreements, this will also lead in building both personal and professional relationships among the employees of Chinese organisation as well as African organisations.
According to Kwintessential (2010) Chinese people prefer to give top management roles on the basis of age and experience, similar is the case with African organisations which prefer to have a hierarchical structure of organisations based on seniority. In this aspect both the organisations agree on seniority based organisational structure.
In African organisations, senior managers take a very strong role in leading from the front, and the communication of information is flown from top management to bottom level through circulars or by letters. The senior managers direct their subordinates in a polite but orderly fashion and the subordinates also do what the manger asks them to do and nothing beyond that. However this doesn't mean lack of efficiency or being proactive but a sign of respect to their supervisors. In return the managers will also be very affectionate towards their subordinates, and sometimes give advice relating to any personal matters along with work related issues (World Business Culture, 2009).
In china the management style also embraces a hierarchical structure where the directions are given by senior managers to subordinates, similar to that of African organisations, hence the Chinese management style also tends to be more direction oriented, where senior management gives direction to subordinates who in turn follow the instructions and report their supervisors. In these matters both the Chinese and African organisations are both culturally close.
When it comes to running meetings in African organisations one should consider some very practical aspects, one should make sure that there should be someone who is appointed by the company to pickup from the airport or hotel room, because personal safety is a very real issue in most of the African countries, because most of the countries are threatened by rogue elements. Meetings are also not conducted by phone or through video conferencing because of the unreliable infrastructure in most African organisations. Meetings generally start with some chats on general issues and may include personal issues also. Social interaction is given lot of prominence in these African organisations. One more thing about meetings is they normally start after the scheduled time; hence one should have good amount of patience levels.
According to World Business Culture (2009), in Chinese organisations, it is very important to give respect to elders irrespective of the position a person holds, generally people expect respect for their age, seniority in the organisation, the company they work in and standing up in respect of a senior person is a way to show respect. In meetings normally business cards are exchanged if that is the first meeting. Chinese people will like if the business card is printed in the Chinese language apart from the national language of the African country. Chinese people also prefer to give a hand-shake when they meet others and it is always good to not to look in the eyes as a mark of respect. Chinese people prefer to have multiple meetings to settle or talk into issues rather than a single long meeting. Chinese believe that meetings are the best way to build relationships. It is also worth noting that rarely does a decision will be taken in a meeting, but it may be taken sometime somewhere else. Here to like in African organisations, patience holds the virtue. Chinese people also like to give and receive gifts in a formal business environment such as in meetings, and this should be seen as a business tool rather than a mere exchange of activities.
So in comparing meetings of both the African organisations and Chinese organisation, the cultural aspects remain mostly same with exceptions to variances such as the respect, language and gifts.
In the matters of team working, the Africans are hugely relationship oriented; they are highly adaptive in working in groups and in a team environment. Although the initial adjustments in working in teams may be a time taking process, because of the many factors such as incompatibility, social interventions such as religion, tribal or even language which obstruct the smooth process of working in teams. However once a team is formed it is always better to keep the team intact rather than meddling with it frequently, and the teams will perform only when a good leader is appointed to lead the tem, who can clearly define the roles and responsibilities to team members.
In Chinese organisations, the hierarchical levels are too many and all the employees remain consensus oriented and that make them best team players, mostly all Chinese organisations have teams which do specific tasks, hence the whole cultural emphasis in working in groups, that is people work in teams, and leave the individual goals and needs at a side. However in this type of culture an individual could not grow by himself and should always concentrate in working in teams. Hence standing out from the crowd can prove disastrous in Chinese organisations.
In comparison to Chinese and African organisations, culturally speaking Chinese people are intrinsically oriented in working in teams than the African counterparts; this may be a major factor that needs to be addressed in case of a merger between Chinese and an African organisation.
Africa has many languages and dialects that are widely spoken across the continent, and in such language diverse continent, English has become the unifying business language which can be understood by most of the people, although the fluency levels may vary from an individual to individual. The Africans speak in a much respected tone and show courtesy always in business dealings, however sometimes one may be surprised to see family matters come into business matters, such as family matters, hobbies etc may be asked. However this should be taken as a signal for friendship and warmth nature of Africans. Africans also in non verbal communication, use a long and firm handshake.
Chinese people speak English to a very little extent and the fluency levels are very patchy. Hence communication remains a major problem, as the communication process remains very slow and a tedious activity and when it comes to understanding the script it is even more difficult and involves many days of extensive learning to understand, speak and write Chinese language. The chances of misinterpretation, misunderstanding and mistranslation can be very common.
When it comes to saying no during business communication, the Chinese find it difficult to say 'no'. therefore their head nodding can mean anything 'yes' or 'no', which gives the other person a lot of confusion.
One can find delivering a bad news directly to the person very difficult and people use intermediaries to communicate bad news so as to preserve the goodwill in the relationships. Chinese are also known to be impassive, but this is just the misinterpretation of Chinese body language by other western countries.
In the business communication scenarios the African and Chinese culture fit is very far and remains to be seen as a major obstacle in the way to successful business relationships.
Dressing is also a very important part of doing business, in most of the African countries, men usually wear dark suits and women wear dark demure business style suits, and in most parts of the Africa it is very hot through most part of the year, hence light clothing is preferred. Chinese people also have changed their dressing preferences over the years; they prefer to wear western suits than the traditional Mao jackets they wear. The way one dresses reflects an individual's personality, especially in professional life, in this aspect both the people from Africa and China dress elegantly.
Following points all show both the African culture and Chinese culture are very similar and the cultural fit between them is very close, however there are some cultural differences that can be minimized and following are some of the ways in which cultural understanding between the two groups of managers
Chinese organisations give lot of importance in building personal relationships along with the business relationships; hence the African group of managers should be told how important it is for them to maintain coordinal relationships with their Chinese counterparts, similarly the Chinese should be aware of the constitutional and corporate corruption which is to moderate extent visible in the African organisations.
The African mangers should be aware of the Chinese top level management's link with the communist government, because most of the Chinese organisations are influenced by the government's directives. The Chinese group of managers should also understand that the decision making power solely lies with the top level management and hence it should not put too much pressure on them to get decisions.
Both the group of managers from the African organisation as well as the Chinese organisation should be clearly informed on how the seniority, traditions and culture reflect the business operations in case of the merger and both the parties should allow sufficient time to learn and get used with their respective cultures and finally should be told to respect each other's culture and traditions.
Differences in culture will always lead to some problems and when it is the case of two countries from two different continents then the problems tend to be more and complex. However the cultural difference should not be treated as barriers for international trade but a great opportunity for both the organisations to use their respective strengths to gain mutual benefits. Chinese organisations are mostly influenced by their government in major decision making processes; hence there are instances where major business relations are politically motivated. The African countries have very high corruption rates, which can severely affect the international trade, however the Chinese and African organisations should in spite of these factors and the above mentioned factors that were discussed earlier should put all efforts to ensure that cultural barriers are removed or minimized when it comes to business.