21 March 2008

That's just the way it is...

One of the biggest cultural differences between the West and this particular post-Soviet Central Asian republic is the comparative lack of attention given here to the study of organizational practices and dynamics, by which I mean decision-making processes, management theories, team-building, communication, supervisory strategies, mission awareness, quality assurance, short- and long-term planning, etc.

For the last three decades in the West, an enormous amount of resources has been plowed into research to determine which practices allow organizations—both public and private ones and in all spheres of activity--to operate more effectively and efficiently. Granted, this work was ignited in large part by the corporate “global race to the bottom” beginning in the mid-1970s to cut production costs and boost profits, but the emphasis on implementing “better” organizational and personal principles is commonplace in the West. Trainings, workshops and seminars for decision-makers have been part of the institutional culture of almost every workplace of 25 or more employees for the last couple of decades.

Because most of the research was market-driven, there does not appear to have been any similar development in the command economies of the former Soviet Union. In fact, many of the institutional practices don’t appear to have changed much since independence 16 years ago, an assessment based largely on what locals have told me. My limited experience over the last year and a half, almost entirely in higher education, tells me most decisions are unilaterally made by the bosses, despite some occasional lip service that is paid to “process,” e.g., collaboration, cooperation, and team work. The “big boss,” which is a position of authority not necessarily leadership, doesn’t feel any necessity to explain his or her decisions to any of the underlings, most of whom are passive, reluctant to even seek any clarification, perhaps because it might seen as insubordinate, and probably because it’s contrary to safe career planning.

If you add to this the deep respect that Central Asians hold for their elders—and that’s all elders, not simply the wise ones—you are left with an institutional culture that has a remarkably high tolerance for bad decisions. The directives will be followed because it’s culturally inappropriate to question the authority of your elders, even when their decisions are ill-informed or made without consultation with anyone who might have better knowledge.

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