— Cultural Sources of Newness

Getting from new to newness, interculturally

Our research program on “cultural sources of newness” is predicated on the assumption that not every new idea gains acceptance as something worthy of keeping and developing. A superfluity of new ideas is needed in the system, and there is always a gap between the creation of something “new” and its selection as worthy of the attribute of “newness.” Recent personal experience in my research is leading me to realize that achieving the status of “newness” can take a long time. Years, sometimes.  Victor Friedman and I started working together in the late 1990s after we met in the context of a 5-year international network project on organizational learning, funded by the Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz Foundation. I invited him to teach a module on action science in a program I was running in a business school directed by Gert Assmus. When Gert later moved on to become the dean of the Leipzig Graduate School of Management (HHL) he invited us to design and teach a new course on cross-cultural management.

Over several years, Victor and I combined our different perspectives and developed an approach to cross-cultural communication that we called “negotiating reality.” We were (and still are) persuaded that the kind of intercultural competence required today is the ability to recognize and use cultural differences as a resource for learning and for the design of effective action in specific contexts. The core elements of such intercultural competence include an active awareness of oneself as a complex cultural being and the effect of one’s own culture on thinking and action, an ability to engage with others to explore tacit assumptions that underlie behavior and goals, and an openness to testing out different ways of thinking and doing things.  We worked with students to help them develop their ability to discover differing views of reality, making it more likely that they can then create common understandings and generate collaborative action.

Our approach was very different from mainstream teaching and writing about cross-cultural management, in which national culture is conceived as a distinct, overarching system for guiding behaviors. We had several concerns with the dominant school of thought, driven strongly by the Hofstede (1980) tradition. (1) It classifies individuals and groups in terms of a single culture, failing to account for the fact that individuals are members of different cultures at the same time.  (2) The unitary perspective assigns a causal link between cultural values and behavior that is too simple and deterministic.  (3) The generality that makes this approach such a powerful tool for quantitative research exacts a price in terms of guiding action.  Researchers in the dominant tradition provide insights into another culture and they conclude that managers should adapt to the cultural norms of their local partners in order to be effective (e.g. Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner, 1997).  This approach treats the application of insight as relatively unproblematic.  It skirts the issue of how people can break out of their own cultural frameworks and expand the range of interpretations and behaviors they can draw on in dealing with situations for which their own cultural background has not adequately prepared them.

Over the five years we taught the course together at the HHL, Victor and I tested our thinking and refined our approach, then we finally decided to write about it to share our learning with colleagues. However, we encountered strong resistance to our approach from reviewers who belonged to the dominant school of thought on national cultures and how to teach intercultural competence. The new approach was rejected by the mainstream in which reputations were built on replications and refinements of the Hofstede-type model. One reviewer went so far as to use Hofstede-type categories to us explain why we had become so mis-guided in our thinking. The reviewer based the analysis on his/her guess at our national origin–assuming that we were Germans because we were teaching in Germany, although I am French and American and Victor is Israeli and American. Ooops, we did not fit the categories and graphs.

In 2011, years after we stopped teaching and writing about negotiating reality because we had both moved into new areas, Victor and I each received invitations as keynote speakers to conferences on intercultural communication. The convenors had read the articles we had finally succeeded in publishing (see below) and they wanted to showcase negotiating reality as a powerful approach that they preferred to the “old mainstream.” I consider invitations to give keynote addresses at international conferences to be evidence that the “new” idea has achieved the status of “newness”.

From new to newness to old to new again….? Preparing the keynotes stimulated us to pick up the threads of what for us had become “our old” thinking and refresh them. Energized by the conference in Helsinki last week, Victor suggested that the time is ripe for us to make the next leap forward in our thinking about negotiating reality in light of the new work we have been doing these past few years in areas as diverse as social entrepreneurship, global responsibility, artistic interventions in organizations, and space… We have an abundance of cultural sources to tap for new ideas, which will continue to catapult us to the margins where reviewers fear to tread. When will the new ideas we hope to generate become newness? In English we say “don’t hold your breath” and in German there is an expression of hope attached to “langer Atem”.  I recommend both.

Our articles on negotiating reality:

Friedman, Victor & Berthoin Antal, Ariane (2005). “Negotiating Reality. A Theory of Action Approach to Intercultural Competence,” in: Management Learning, Vol. 36, No. 1:69-86.

Friedman, Victor & Berthoin Antal, Ariane (2006). “Interactive Critical Reflection As Intercultural Competence,” in: David Boud, Peter Cressey, Peter Doherty (eds.), Productive Reflection at Work, Routledge: London:120-130.

Berthoin Antal, Ariane & Friedman, Victor (2008). “Learning to Negotiate Reality: A Strategy for Teaching Intercultural Competence,” in: Journal of Management Education, Vol. 32, No. 3:363-386.

Berthoin Antal, Ariane & Friedman, Victor (2009). “Die Aushandlung von Realität. Ein Lernansatz für interkulturelle Kompetenz“, in: Gender und Diversity, Politische Bildung 4. Schwalbach am Taunus: Wochenschauverlag: 76-90.


Friedman, Victor J. (2000): “Action science: creating communities of inquiry in communities of practice.” In: H. Bradbury and P. Reason (eds.): The handbook of action research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage: 159-170.

Hofstede, Geert (1980): Culture’s Consequences. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Trompenaars, Fons & Hampden-Turner, Charles (1997): Riding the Waves of Culture. 2nd edition. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.