Woodrow W. Denham
Completed January 1998
Revised November 2002
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As we enter the 21 st century, the world is becoming a global village based on rapidly integrating worldwide systems of communication, transportation and technology, while at the same time it is fragmenting along civilizational lines into warring states based on differences in religion, attitudes and values. This article addresses problems posed by these two strikingly different developments as they relate to the delivery of academic information services in Middle Eastern and South Asian universities. It describes some of the cultural problems that face Western IT managers working at these universities and considers the limited utility of Western cultural relativism in these settings. Its objective is to stimulate constructive discussion of cross-cultural management problems that tend to be avoided in that region because it is not politically correct to acknowledge their existence.
Keywords: technology transfer, information technology [IT] management, academic information services, applied anthropology, ethnocentrism, cultural relativism, globalism, Middle East, Arabia, Bangladesh, Islam.
As we enter the 21 st century, global society is in some sense developing in two directions. On the one hand we hear a great deal in the media about the “global village” based on rapid expansion of communications, transportation, banking and all aspects of technology that serve to integrate and at least superficially to standardize the way the world works. On the other hand we know that European colonialism and the Cold War have ended and the integration that both of them imposed on the world has been replaced by what Huntington (1996) calls a clash of civilizations. From this perspective the world is fragmenting along civilizational lines that were suppressed for five hundred years, and the re-emergence of traditional attitudes and values within each of the world’s seven or eight major civilizations yields divisions, tensions, even wars along the fault lines between civilizations. On the one hand we are moving closer together; on the other we are moving further apart.
This global phenomenon, which has local manifestations in the daily lives of Western information technology managers working in the Moslem World, is the focus of this paper. The transfer of technology from West to East is an essential ingredient in producing the global village, but its effective management and utilization by people of different civilizations brings to the fore a host of conflicting attitudes and values that lie squarely on the boundary between the West and Islam. Reconciling conflicts between the forces favoring global integration and those favoring global fragmentation is a prerequisite for effective IT management and technology transfer in the region, but the problems addressed here are limited neither to technology transfer nor to relations between the West and Islam. Rather, they are examples of much broader problems in cross-cultural communications along the world’s civilizational fault lines at the beginning of the 21 st century.
This case study deals with universities in the developing world that hire information technology (IT) managers from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand because those people are believed to have the technical and managerial skills required to do the jobs effectively. Contracts ordinarily embody expectations that the managers will aim to meet international IT standards whatever they may be, and that the IT services they establish will persist after they depart. All too often things do not work out that way.
For an American IT director working in an American context where his/her superiors, colleagues and staff generally share his attitudes and values, meeting such expectations can be demanding, but it is essentially pretty straightforward. S/he determines what needs to be done and how to do it, organizes and manages the resources to get it done on time and within the budget, and does whatever needs to be done to insure that it will persist into the future. If he discovers that some members of his team have attitudes and values that are inappropriate for the job, he works with them to get them on the right “wavelength”; failing that, he replaces them with people whose attitudes and values are more suitable.
The same IT director in a non-Western context has a fundamentally different job because his superiors, colleagues, staff and suppliers are, almost by definition, on a different wavelength. They probably do not share most of his attitudes and values, and in fact may hold attitudes and values that diametrically oppose many that the IT manager deems essential for accomplishing the job he was hired to do. Hence an American IT manager who aims to succeed in some non-Western settings can either do his best to perform his technical and management jobs despite the incompatible attitudes and values that envelop him, or define his job in cultural as well as technical and management terms, and attempt to change some of the problematic attitudes and values of the people with whom he works so that they are compatible with emerging international standards in IT service delivery.
If as a good cultural relativist he accepts indigenous attitudes and values that interfere with effective implementation and operation of the technology, the project may falter early in the piece and ultimately fail, in which case he will be blamed for being an ineffective or incompetent manager, and may be dismissed. But if he attempts to change the problematic attitudes, he is likely to be accused of being culturally insensitive or culturally imperialistic or even racist, and may be dismissed. The task is not easy and the likelihood of failure is high.
For an earlier discussion of some of these ideas in the context of delivering IT based in-service teacher training programs in the developing world, see Denham 1997.
The paper is addressed to senior academic administrators, deans, faculty members, IT directors and consultants who work or plan to work at universities in developing countries, and to social scientists and others who are concerned with cultural as well as technological standardization in the global village.
It is a report on applied ethnographic fieldwork conducted at educational institutions in the Middle East and South Asia between 1989 and 1997. Funding was provided by my employers who shall remain anonymous here.
Specifically, my comments derive from a year’s work as a computer curriculum designer and policy analyst at an elite Arabic prep school in Saudi Arabia, three years as director of academic support and client services at the computer center of a university in one of the smaller Arabian Gulf states, and one year as director of information services at a university in Bangladesh. Although these countries and institutions differ greatly in an astonishing number of ways, all are in the Moslem World, they are fairly near each other in the Middle East and South Asia, and all of them display striking similarities with regard to the management problems they present to Western IT managers, regardless of the fact that the countries of the Arabian Peninsula are among the wealthiest in the world and in that regard are highly atypical of so-called Developing Countries, while Bangladesh is among the poorest of the Developing Countries.
In the remainder of the paper, “East” and “Eastern” refer specifically and quite narrowly to Saudi Arabia, the smaller Arabian Gulf state where I worked, and Bangladesh, while “West” and “Western” refer more broadly to North America, the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, etc.
My views have been shaped by my cultural and intellectual background as an American, my doctoral training and professional experience as a cultural anthropologist, my commitment to university teaching, and my experiences as an IT manager. As an anthropologist, I view the development of IT-based academic support services at universities in the developing world as directed culture change; therefore, I view Western IT directors or managers who work in those countries primarily as development workers rather than as technical experts, and I focus here on cultural rather than technical issues.
In each of the Eastern academic institutions where I worked, I was an independent contractor working directly for and with nationals of the countries in question; i.e., I was not an employee of an American firm or a representative of a Western governmental or non-governmental organization. Hence I engaged in participant observation in a sense and to a degree that many anthropologists only aspire to when they spend a year or two working with “their people” in the jungle, on a tropical island or among an ethnic minority in an American city. Furthermore, I “studied up” at all times, for most of the Eastern people with whom I worked were among the elite of their countries, who unanimously considered Western managers and technical experts to be highly skilled mercenaries who were their social and religious inferiors.
As head of academic support and client services at a university computer center in a small Arabian Gulf state, I was one of about a dozen Western trained managers and technicians who were charged with upgrading the university’s information technology after many years of neglect. The group included the IT director, the assistant director, myself, the managers of the applications development and networking teams, senior systems programmers and key members of the technical teams. We were installed on top of an existing staff of about forty people that included a smattering of nationals and Egyptians in senior positions, plus a technical and administrative staff comprised of people from other Arabic-speaking countries, plus Iran, India and Pakistan. English was the lingua franca.
I served as the computer center’s liaison with deans and faculty members in all of the faculties, and was responsible for working with the director to make sure that the computer center’s programs provided the kind of support that the faculties needed to do their jobs. My responsibilities included developing a university-wide user training program and in-service technical training programs for computer center staff and faculty-based technical support staff; managing the university’s software site license program; establishing and managing a help desk and a university-wide user support program; developing a multifaceted public information program including seminars, forums, product demonstrations, and newsletters; managing workshops and conferences; working with vendors; etc. I had a staff of one national, about eight non-national Arabs, and a varying mixture of perhaps a dozen Arabs and South Asians who worked as part time technical trainers.
As IT director at a university in Bangladesh, my job had three major components: getting all of the existing IT systems and services to work properly after years of benign neglect as the university was being established, developing a broad range of new systems and services with existing or readily available resources, and developing long term plans for the future of IT at the university. I reported to the President and worked closely with him and the Board of Governors, as well as with deans, faculty members, senior administrators and IT vendors. Again I was placed above an existing technical staff of nine Bangladeshi nationals and four Bangladeshi student volunteers. Most of the faculty and professional staff were fluent in English.
At the school in Saudi Arabia, I worked with the CEO, senior Arabic administrators and senior faculty most of whom were fluent in English.
Three institutions in three countries constitute a minuscule sample from such a huge region; however, having lived and worked in the East for several years, I have had opportunities to discuss these matters with people who have worked at many other institutions there. While I am unwilling to over-generalize on the basis of so small a sample, I am confident that, with regard to the matters in question here, these three are broadly representative of similar institutions elsewhere in the region.
It would be easy to read the following pages and conclude that the problems are so profound and pervasive that they nullify all efforts to achieve the technology transfers discussed here. Such is not the case. The problems are indeed serious, but people of good will can succeed to some extent in the face of them. Yet the level of success could be much higher and the ease of achieving it could be much greater if the problems addressed here could be reduced or eliminated. Such is the anticipated justification for publishing this article.
Academic IT services are difficult to operate successfully almost everywhere, but may be especially troublesome in some developing countries. Problems such as poverty and political violence are obvious, while others are less obvious but equally challenging, and derive in large part from the region’s social structure, religion, history and system of values. From a Western perspective, they include unreliable national and institutional infrastructures, defective security, ineffective management structures, cultural constraints on program content and operation, corruption, and a wide range of attitudes and values that seriously interfere with a Western IT director’s ability to deliver the services that he has been hired to deliver. Problems such as these are not unique to the developing world, but in some places they are pervasive rather than exceptional, each may be quite severe, all can occur at the same time, and they may interact in the extreme.
The following examples illustrate many of the ways in which the central problem of this paper manifests itself in the Arabian Peninsula and Bangladesh. I have selected some examples that characterize the Arabian Peninsula and some that are especially prevalent in Bangladesh, but most are found to some extent in both. The examples constitute a brief rather than an exhaustive catalog of the kind of problems that Western academic IT managers will encounter in the region, and will do well to discuss with their superiors and colleagues before and during their employment, if that is possible.
In recent centuries, the Western intellectual tradition has espoused the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity, but the Eastern intellectual tradition has not. Western managers who have imbibed willy-nilly of the spirit of the French Revolution are almost certain to have problems with the rigid social stratification that has long characterized the East. The social features to which I refer include India’s Hindu caste system, Bangladesh’s Islamic near-approximation to a caste system, strong residues of the elaborate civil and military bureaucracies of the Mogul and Ottoman Empires and the British Raj, all-powerful ruling families in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and a tradition of slavery there that was replaced by a system of contract labor from technologically advanced countries and from the poorest developing countries only thirty-five years ago. The implications of rigid stratification are far from identical in the Gulf r egion and in Bangladesh, but the similarities are striking.
Multi-tiered pay scales provide some clues about stratification. With a Ph.D. and many years of experience, I received a salary and benefits, in all cases paid on the Western pay scale, that were good but not outrageous by Western standards. But in the Arabian Gulf state where the national pay scale is very high, my Western-scale salary was a tiny fraction of that of the university’s senior nationals, the same as that of a young national who joined my staff right out of a two-year certificate program at a nearby technical school, two to four times that of non-national Arabs on the staff, and over ten times that of the departmental tea boy from South India who was paid on the indentured laborer scale and had worked at the computer center at the same salary for more than a decade.
In Bangladesh where the Western scale was higher than the national scale, my salary was more than a third higher than that of the Bangladeshi Vice President, three to five times that of national faculty members of the same academic rank (associate professor), and eighty-one times that of the tea boy. A Westerner who believes in equal pay for equal work may come to understand how such disparities arose, but he almost certainly will never learn to like them, and they understandably generate hard feelings all around. In Bangladesh, Western educated and experienced nationals resent the discrimination that yields huge pay cuts for them when they return from North America or the UK to work in their own country, and in the Arabian Peninsula, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians and other Arabs resent being paid significantly less than Western managers and technical staff whom they consider to be their cultural inferiors.
Western IT managers in Eastern institutions may feel (perhaps correctly) that they themselves are nothing more than servants regardless of how large their responsibilities and salaries may be. Rigid social stratification contributes greatly to this feeling, most unambiguously and with the greatest degree of personal insult in Saudi Arabia where passports are confiscated upon arrival and held by employers until their expatriate employees enter the departure lounge at the airport, under escort by their employers, at the end of their contracts. The feeling is exacerbated by the top-down management style of many senior administrators, the IT director’s usual lack of access to the inner workings of the decision making process, and the animosity that any perceived criticism of the managerial status quo may elicit from those above. The bottom line is that Western managers in the East are assigned a place in the hierarchy and are expected to both know it and stay in it.
At the same time, however, one of the major assets that Western managers bring to Eastern IT departments, and one of the reasons why Eastern executives sometimes prefer Western managers, is that in some sense they are outside of the social networks that structure most or all of the relationships within the university and the larger society of which it is a part. By virtue of their not having ties of kinship and marriage with just about everybody in the organization, they are not vulnerable to the vast array of social demands that often go with family relations in collectivist Eastern societies. The downside of that condition, of course, is that lacking family ties, they have very little leverage within the organization.
Rigid social stratification can be equally problematic with regard to management issues within the IT department. For example, providing access to IT services for all users may be incompatible with rigid stratification, especially with regard to distributing hardware and providing access to Internet and email services. The standard procedure of allocating the newest and best equipment to those of the highest rank regardless of whether they need it may make it impossible for Western trained faculty who require increasingly powerful equipment for their research to gain access to it. Furthermore, senior faculty members and senior administrators who view access to email and the Internet as privileges associated with their rank may oppose junior faculty and student usage of the services even when there is no budgetary or technical reason for their opposition.
The Western IT director on the other hand may argue that learning to use the technology must be an integral part of everyone’s education, and that arbitrarily excluding junior faculty and students from using the systems on such grounds is incompatible with his role as IT director. At the very least it means that Eastern university students and junior faculty may have a lot less access to basic services like email and the Internet than do their peers in Western universities for cultural rather than technical reasons.
Western IT managers may emphasize collegiality and teamwork among their staff, encourage technical and managerial input from all of their staff members regardless of their seniority, reward good performance and expect high productivity from all of their staff even when the director is out of sight. If that is their management style, they are likely to encounter stiff resistance, not from low ranking subordinates who appreciate it and respond very positively, and only partly from high ranking subordinates who initially may see it as a threat to their positions but later come to see its advantages. It emerges most strongly from superiors who see it as a threat to their own positions of power which are ascribed rather than achieved and are maintained in large part by coercion and exploitation of people below them, and who on a larger scale see it as a subversion of the traditional social order. Colleagues in other departments tend to be of two minds since they may appreciate the resulting improvements in IT services, but also fear that the old social order may suffer. This issue can severely undermine the productivity of the Western manager and militate against his effectively utilizing his Eastern staff on a daily basis. Compromises between these antithetical management styles will not please anybody and may not work.
In the Arabian Gulf region, one of the major concomitants of rigid social stratification is a combination of great personal pride and an unassailable belief among young nationals that nationals are born leaders and managers. These attitudes present major stumbling blocks for the region’s senior political and government leaders who see the myth in them. They understand the importance and urgency of nationalizing the labor force and are making great but only minimally successful efforts to train young nationals to replace Westerners who currently occupy most positions of responsibility in government and business, since nationals are not qualified to fill them now.
Political leadership in the Gulf region emphasizes the formation of consensus , but in the lower echelons intense competition is the norm and cooperation exists only whe n and if it is imposed from above. The result is a common complain t among Western managers to the effect that “t hese people simply can’t work together”. It is a pervasive problem that cannot be solved by making all of the nationals into managers for that would still require a purely expatriate workforce for them to manage.
From the perspective of a Western IT manager, something like intellectual paralysis occurs when young nationals refuse to participate in management training on grounds that it is beneath their dignity, and the university’s administration refuses to fund any training for expatriates on grounds that they were hired as experts who by definition do not need training. This situation means that almost the only IT staff training that can occur is provided in-house by senior staff to junior staff. However, policies being what they are, junior staff are refused promotions and pay raises regardless of their new knowledge and skills, so they resign and move to better jobs elsewhere and their empty positions remain vacant indefinitely. The end products of these rigidly hierarchical attitudes are IT facilities whose staff members need a great deal of on-going training in order to keep up with changes in the technology, but in which professional IT staff training is rare or nonexistent, and in fact can be counterproductive when it leads to resignations by lower status people with newly acquired skills.
When the son of a VVIP and a student in Economics 101 sends one of his retainers to the computer center to requisition three or four members of the computer center staff to spend a month preparing his term paper for him, the IT manager has at least two problems. If he has a small staff and ethical reservations about assigning them to prepare a student’s term paper, his knee jerk reaction may be to oppose the request. On the other hand, his staff know that writing the student’s term paper offers a golden opportunity to gain favor with him before he graduates and moves directly into a position of great political power, so they fight furiously to participate in the project. East is East, the vice chancellor says “do it”, and some IT services must be shut down abruptly and indefinitely while the chosen staff members gleefully prepare the student’s term paper. But if they do it well, it may end up later as a factor of some importance in shaping national economic policy, so the sensible IT director helps out when he has some free time.
The IT director may provide inputs to administrative decision makers, and may eventually receive outputs from those decision makers, but all too often he does not have access to the process by which the administration gets from the one to the other. If the IT director has little or no chance to shape decisions as they are being made, his valuable knowledge and skills are wasted, and the decisions ultimately reach him like oracular statements from a black box. Yet the Western IT manager is an outsider who may never be admitted to participate in - or even see - the inner workings of the university’s decision-making machinery. Will he accept the fact that his skills are being wasted and that important things are being done to him rather than with him, will he expend a lot of energy fruitlessly trying to get into the inner chambers of the temple, or will he develop workarounds perhaps through personal contacts with sympathetic and knowledgeable members of the Board? How he handles the problem will have a major impact on his overall success.
Unlike Western universities where creativity and innovation are expected from all members of the faculty and staff regardless of how junior they may be, many Eastern institutions are organized on the assumption that initiatives come down from above, and the administration may be unable or unwilling to cope with initiatives that come up from below.
Directives for program changes that come down from above (perhaps far above) have the force of law. If they are workable, their origin means that the IT director can implement them almost immediately. If they are poorly conceived or impossible to implement as often is the case, the IT director cannot discuss the problem with the source and say “I don’t think that will work”, or “Let’s do it another way”, for that would be viewed as an insult to the source. So he has two main options: he and his staff can respond very slowly in hopes that the capriciousness that so often creates problems in the East will in this case solve the problem, or he can attempt to gain access to a high status person who has the ear of the source and can point out the flaws very quietly, without anybody’s losing face, in which case the directive may vanish or be amended. Either way, the process can be slow and painful, and it stands a good chance of failing.
At the opposite extreme, ideas that bubble up from below are intrinsically at risk. For example, since IT is a new and rapidly developing field, policies and procedures developed years ago for managing traditional academic departments may not work today for managing IT departments. Consider what could be a trivial problem: a $10 per month departmental petty cash limit. That limit may be adequate for small departments to buy coffee and tea, but can make it impossible for the IT department to respond quickly when a mission critical computer fails during registration. Resolving the problem by instituting differential petty cash limits for the departments may be difficult or impossible since an image of limited good leads all department heads to demand (not ask, but demand) to be treated exactly the same way regardless of extenuating circumstances that make the IT department significantly different from the history and philosophy departments. Under such circumstances, the IT director’s request for what he perceives as a trivial change in the petty cash policy may fall on deaf ears or elicit the wrath of other department heads who prefer to receive poor IT services rather than to increase the IT department’s petty cash limit.
A Western IT manager almost certainly will feel that he must have control over his staff to respond to changing institutional needs. For example, he probably will be most uncomfortable with policies that require time consuming approvals from the president or a committee before he can re-deploy his staff to handle changing workloads throughout the semester or year. But in this region, it is not uncommon for organizations to require that virtually every action, even those proposed by senior managers working within their own domains, receive official written approval from above. From a Western perspective, such policies leave the IT director “on hold” for much of the time and make him resent what he sees as micromanagement; but from an Eastern perspective, the policies insure that none of the managers will do anything that will surprise or reflect badly on the person at the top, and are based to a large extent on an ancient and profound distrust by masters of their servants.
Generally speaking, a Western IT director is likely to arrive in the East expecting that he will have some control over his department’s future projects, budget and staffing in order to achieve the goals and objectives set for the department. He probably will be shocked when he discovers that such is not the case, but he will do well to accept that fact early in the piece. “Man proposes, God disposes”, and a Western IT director in an Eastern university is in no position to dispose.
The Western worldview based on individual liberty and individual responsibility is fundamentally different from the profound fatalism embodied in the word insh’allah, an Arabic word that freely translates as "God willing". It is a core concept of Islam and is used as an auxiliary verb in virtually every sentence that pertains to the future. A Western IT manager is almost certain to have a lot of trouble in dealing with this concept.
Insh’allah encapsulates an all-encompassing worldview that dominates the Arabian Peninsula and has only slightly less influence in Bangladesh. Since the future is intrinsically unknowable, whatever happens in the future is in God's hands, people have no knowledge and even less control over those future events, and attempting to exert control over the future is to some extent a challenge to God's will. This fatalistic view makes life in the East highly unpredictable most of the time, may make Westerners feel like they are being jerked around mercilessly until they realize that the people who are "jerking them around" are not doing it on purpose and probably do not even realize that the Westerner is having a problem, and can generate a great deal of stress among people for whom control is important.
Insh'allah, if you are a Western IT manager, you will eventually learn to "go with the flow", to change all of your well laid plans at a moment's notice, to improvise like crazy, to forget about schedules, to "be here now" to an extent that is unimaginable in the West, and in general to accept the fact that you have very little control over many of the things that you are fully responsible for controlling when you live in the West. It is a radically different way of viewing the universe and your role in it. When you begin to feel that this is a reasonable way to live, you will have begun to make the transition to living successfully in the region, and you probably will enjoy it. But watch out for culture shock during the transition! This worldview manifests itself in a large number of important ways, and I include only a few of them here.
A Western manager in the East often feels that making schedules for his department is an exercise in futility. When he attempts to obtain schedule data beyond the current term, he almost certainly will discover that no such information exists. If he pushes hard enough, somebody may reluctantly give him some “tentative” plans, but a manager who has been in the region for a while will not bother, for even a firm and final current schedule, to say nothing of a tentative schedule for a far off time like next month, is tentative until the events in question have happened.
The reluctance to make plans in the first place is complicated even further when Eastern managers change plans before evaluating the implications of those changes. For example, registrars and others often change examination schedules for computer courses before consulting the IT director who must manage the technical, room assignment and staff changes entailed by the schedule changes. This is a common occurrence that may disrupt IT operations several times each semester. You are adapting well when you are not surprised to learn from a student that the mid-term exams scheduled in your computer labs this afternoon, all of which required special staffing and installation of custom data sets, have been canceled and rescheduled for next Monday because yesterday’s big cricket match was rained out and will instead begin today at noon. Working with senior administrators to bring this matter under control may offer temporary relief, but ultimately it is a battle that the Western IT manager will lose. He must accept this kind of capriciousness as a “normal problem” and go with the flow regardless of how extensively and frequently it may disrupt other programs.
The problem extends beyond the confines of scheduling. The developing world is full of ephemeral businesses that sell products then go out of business just when support for them is essential. Similarly, undercapitalized vendors often sell products but save money by refusing to train their personnel to support them. Furthermore, lack of spare parts is a common occurrence either because vendors run out of them and fail to replenish the supply, because they have a policy of never stocking spare parts but rather ordering them as needed from the USA, Singapore or Taiwan, or because they expect you to discard rather than repair broken items.
When you take items in for repairs, the shop manager or his employee smiles a lot, says “bukara insh’allah” (“tomorrow, God willing”), and keeps the items indefinitely in hopes that you will forget them, safe in the knowledge that taking him to court for breech of contract is a lot more trouble to you than it is worth. More importantly, these problems may be exacerbated by the fatalistic attitude shared by some university personnel and IT vendors who say that hardware failures should be accepted, and that trying to prevent them, resolve them promptly, get vendors to honor their warranties immediately, or build up a collection of spare parts or “loaner” equipment to serve as replacements when failures occur is to some extent an affront to the nature of things. Such failures may be viewed as manifestations of God’s will, and a Western IT manager’s stated goal of keeping the systems up and running as close as possible to 100% of the time may be viewed as hubris, and may be opposed actively or passively by religiously conservative members of the administration and staff. The bottom line is that a simple hardware failure that you would handle in an hour or two in the West may take weeks or months to repair in the East because of cultural rather than technical problems.
Electrical power may be available only intermittently because of technical, managerial, economic and political problems with the national power system. The Western IT manager may not be satisfied with electricity that is available perhaps 80% of the time when the university invests heavily in technology that requires electrical power 100% of the time and expects his department to schedule classes using the technology in the computer labs. He probably will find himself seriously at odds with the university’s senior administrators if they refuse to provide stable and secure emergency electrical power on grounds that 80% is excellent by local standards, and conclude by saying that power failures are due to God’s will and for that reason lie outside the university’s jurisdiction. So IT services continue to be disrupted several times daily for essentially cultural rather than technical reasons.
Little attention may be paid to safety and security systems. If the university cannot or will not protect its investment in IT by installing locks, burglar bars and fire extinguishers, then the Western IT manager who feels some responsibility for those matters may recommend that the university postpone buying equipment on grounds that it makes no sense to purchase the technology only to have it stolen or damaged by disasters they could prevent. But in general the problem of safety and security is viewed fatalistically: if God wants the university to lose its computer equipment, that will happen regardless of what actions the university takes, so worrying about them is wasted effort. Likewise, it may be easy to convince the administration to buy a roomful of new computers for $1000 each because of their educational and public relations value, but a lot harder to convince them to buy a $25 ladder that the staff need to install network cables safely, especially when the university has a history of having untrained laborers stand on furniture and piles of debris to do such work.
For the IT manager, the security problem can reach crisis proportions when he has to divert his staff, budget and tiny collection of spare parts and loaner equipment to recover from damages that were clearly anticipated but were allowed to happen anyway. In this context, preventive maintenance is an alien concept. If someone deliberately breaks a machine, then it is his fault and he probably will be punished; otherwise, failures are viewed fatalistically, and attempts to prevent them from happening may be viewed by some as attempts to thwart God’s will.
Where these conditions prevail, an IT manager whose department aims to provide full service at all times almost certainly will fail, not for technical reasons but because of attitudes and values that violate the spirit if not the letter of his contract. If the Western manager ultimately accepts the Eastern attitudes, his life will be a lot easier but his department’s services will deteriorate.
In the East, if you do something wrong and get caught, not only might you get yourself into trouble, but even more importantly you can bring dishonor on your family. In educational circles, this matter is intensified by a strong tradition of having children and adults memorize and recite the Qu’ran, and they are expected to do it perfectly. These factors, and others, combine to make fear of failure an important component of life in the region, and it provides powerful motivation for doing, and not doing, a great many things that impinge directly on the IT manager’s ability to do his job effectively.
First consider its implications for teaching and learning. In order to learn something new, people must acknowledge the possibility that they do not know whatever it is they must learn. But among Eastern faculty members who have grown up with an expectation that they will memorize everything perfectly, the very act of admitting that they do not know something can damage their self esteem and their standing with their peers and students, and sitting in front of a computer and admitting that they have no idea how to make it work can be devastating. So how can they learn to use it? This is not so much of a problem for younger, more Westernized people who are called “students” and by definition are expected to learn, but it can be nearly insurmountable for older, more traditional people who are called “teachers” or “professors” and are expected to know everything that lies within their domain.
Some faculty members who are afraid to make mistakes or lose face as learners may refuse to participate in any IT-based training - or at least in public training programs - and refuse to work in public computer labs. The IT director must either write them off as lost souls or provide special (therefore expensive) private training for them so they can perfect their skills invisibly before emerging fully formed like butterflies from their cocoons. Western IT managers may get impatient with what they perceive as this “childlike behavior”, but saving face is an extremely important consideration throughout the region and it is understandable that people will go to great extremes to do it well.
Some faculty members who are afraid to make mistakes or lose face as teachers may refuse to teach anything that they do not know perfectly. In its most extreme form, some instructors report that the very idea of saying “I don’t know” to a student would be the social and intellectual equivalent of suicide. I once had an extraordinarily rigid technical trainer working for me who developed course notes for two pieces of software in 1987 and still refused to teach anything else six years later. Technical trainers who have that kind of attitude soon become living fossils in the rapidly changing world of IT.
Next consider some the administrative implications of extreme conservatism. People often say “It is safe to talk but risky to act”, thereby explaining why many potentially valuable ideas are talked to death in endless inconclusive meetings among middle managers who are unwilling to make a decision or recommendation for which they can be held responsible should it prove to be wrong. Almost by definition, the IT director must be an innovator who takes chances to make new services work properly, but taking risks may be utterly alien to the host country’s culture.
Another common expression in the same spirit is: “If you do too much, you will make a mistake.” The implied conclusion is: “So don’t do anything”. Eastern universities almost never promote people regardless of how well they perform, they generally ignore people who do nothing at all, and they almost always fire people who make mistakes. Under these conditions, “don’t do anything” is a perfectly reasonable attitude, but it is incompatible with new program development, innovation, and experimentation, all of which are essential if the IT department is to flourish.
One of my most memorable colleagues at the Arabian Gulf university was a wonderfully pleasant and likable senior Egyptian administrator who the Western staff called “Speed Bumps”, in honor of the large humps built into highways near intersections to force drivers to slow down. His self-assigned primary role in life was to keep any undertaking from moving quickly. Whenever a new project was under consideration, my bottom line was “what must we do to make it happen?”, while his bottom line was “I think we should postpone it because …”. The amount of time and effort required by an IT manager to obtain approval of even modest changes when confronted by this attitude can be monumental. Conservatism is valuable, but too much of it can kill the IT department. A Western IT manager may come to understand this attitude, but almost certainly will never learn to like it.
As is true of bureaucracies everywhere, it is important to leave a paper trail and use it to protect yourself. But there are fundamental differences between paperwork in Eastern and Western universities. In the West, the optimal response to making a mistake is to acknowledge it, apologize for making it, correct it, and learn how to avoid doing it again in the future; in the East, the optimal response is to deny it, point to the paperwork as evidence that you were not responsible, and lay the blame on one of your inferiors whose job, in part, is to accept responsibility for his superiors’ mistakes. Both approaches work well in their native contexts, but neither works well when some of the people dealing with a mistake are Eastern and some are Western.
In order to defend against being blamed for mistakes, preparing ironclad paperwork has a far higher priority than making the technology and services work properly in some Eastern institutions. People tend to be remarkably tolerant, understanding, accepting and forgiving of poor technology and services - far more so than people in the West - but they have zero tolerance for imperfect paperwork. People usually are not fired because the systems fail for those failures generally can be viewed fatalistically, especially if the paperwork is satisfactory; but people will be fired at the drop of a hat if the paperwork is flawed for that is deemed to be a human failing. Understandably preparing the paperwork has first priority and making the technology work properly may have to wait.
Cultural constraints on educational content and process
These problems derive from religious and social values that operate throughout the university and the society at large, and may not present any problems in most areas outside of the IT department. However, because of the intrinsically international, multicultural and rapidly changing nature of IT as we enter the 21 st century, they can create serious problems with regard to both the substance and the operation of the university’s information services.
A clear example in much of the Arabian Peninsula is the requirement for sexual segregation of male and female students on separate campuses or on opposite sides of the same campus with barricades between. This cultural constraint has serious implications for every aspect of IT operations including staffing, allocation and duplication of resources, scheduling of classes and teacher training workshops, design of network services so that men and women students cannot use them to communicate with each other, and so on almost indefinitely. The constraint is understandable within the cultural context, but is one that most Western IT managers will be ill prepared to handle upon arrival.
A related but technically more difficult problem derives from the political importance attached to using Arabic language rather than English language software in the Arabian Peninsula. Fortunately these countries have enough money to drive the development of software in their own language and the development of multilingual software in general, unlike poor Bangladesh that must make do with whatever is available. The requirement to purchase or develop Arabic language software in place of existing English language software often significantly retards the pace at which information services meet international standards in the Arabian Peninsula, and can consume a great deal of time and energy from the IT director. But the efforts may be invaluable and the end results can be quite spectacular, especially with regard to systems used with the Qu’ran and other religious literature.
Use of global resources may be limited by religious and political values. This is especially problematic for Internet services where “proxies” may be used to filter out objectionable materials, and for classroom and in-service teacher training that uses software and databases developed within different cultural traditions. English language teaching materials that refer to pork and alcohol may be prohibited in Moslem universities, so Moslem universities must either censor the offending materials, create their own materials, or support outside organizations that develop culturally appropriate materials. Failure to cope with this issue can generate serious problems in classrooms and in relations with students’ parents, but coping with it may lie outside the expertise of the Western IT manager, and the need to cope with it at all may elicit negative reactions from a Western IT manager who sees himself as a service provider and is unwilling to serve as a censor.
Critical thinking skills are necessary in the field of IT, but teaching and learning them may be politically and religiously suspect or anathema in some Eastern institutions. Using existing information technology and developing new software require analytical and critical thinking skills, while mastering some other disciplines within Eastern universities works best by rote memorization. In particular, the tradition of memorizing and reciting the Qu’ran carries over to some extent to other subjects where it is assumed that the proper way to learn the “correct” answer is to memorize it. Study skills that are remarkably effective for memorization simply do not work for analytical and critical thinking tasks, but teaching analytical and critical thinking skills in a program traditionally based on memorization may be disruptive for teachers as well as students. It may even be viewed as subversive by conservative faculty members and external religious leaders who want students to accept, rather than critically analyze, the materials they encounter in other courses, and fear that the new skills will have unwelcome consequences in old disciplines.
A parallel problem occurs in courses in English as a Foreign Language when program administrators expect students to learn to speak the English language without learning to think English-language thoughts, especially with regard to religion, politics and sex roles. Insofar as the IT director is responsible for providing faculty and staff training, and supporting computer laboratories and other facilities for students, this problem can become a major issue that brings his very presence (or existence) into question.
This problem, like all of the others outlined here, is not unique to developing countries and is not ubiquitous within them; specifically, it is a dominant feature of daily life in Bangladesh, but is reputed to occur only at very high levels in the Arabian Peninsula and to the best of my knowledge is not a significant problem for Western IT managers there. Nevertheless, it is a serious problem in Bangladesh and many other countries in the region, and when it interacts with other problems, it can be devastating for a university’s information services.
The telephone service for the Internet connection does not work, but the university can make it work by paying baksheesh to a clerk at the communications ministry. If the university has a policy against paying such bribes and strictly follows it, Internet services may be seriously impaired for months on end; if it does not have such a policy, or has one but enforces it only weakly, it may receive decent telephone service promptly, but sets itself up for endlessly escalating extortion from that ministry and from other agencies when they learn that the university will eventually pay up.
This problem is exacerbated for a liberal Westerner when members of his own staff defend the recalcitrant telephone clerk. They argue that the ministry pays him a tiny salary with the expectation that he will supplement it with bribes. In other words, his salary and that of his peers are deliberately set so low that they must engage in this kind of extortion to support their families, and his job at the ministry may be viewed primarily as a government license to engage in extortion. Hence, the IT manager’s ability to deliver the kind and quality of services he was contracted to deliver may be at the mercy of a corrupt government whose employees systematically leave services disconnected for months while waiting patiently for the many small bribes that they need to buy food for their children. This case, like so many others that characterize daily life in Dhaka, suggests that the country’s grinding poverty is to a large extent a result rather than a cause of corruption in high places.
Vendors may submit tenders for new computers with one set of prices, then begin telephoning the IT director or members of the IT staff the day after the tenders are opened to offer more competitive prices to the university, plus kickbacks to the staff, in exchange for awarding the contract to them. In Bangladesh, where corruption of all kinds is rampant, this has become a normal part of the bargaining process. As such it is an extreme manifestation of a pervasive Eastern attitude toward bargaining which says that everything is negotiable at all times, even after a contact is signed. This attitude often generates major conflicts between East and West, in the Arabian Peninsula as well as in Bangladesh, when Western employees feel that a deal is a deal but their superiors’ attempt to renegotiate the terms of their contracts after they arrive in the host country. Are these activities to be viewed as part of the normal bargaining process or as unethical “bait and switch” tactics employed against people who have no alternatives but to accept them or resign?
Since corruption is a way of life in Bangladesh (e.g., see Transparency International for details), a university’s purchasing policies must be designed in part to prevent blatant corruption by members of its own staff, but the policies can become so convoluted and intractable that the IT director cannot do anything if he complies with them. So he either stops trying to do anything, or he finds ways to circumvent them, which ultimately produces a different kind of problem. In response to this situation, someone at the university in Bangladesh did a workaround. He was unable to obtain approvals to buy new computers that the accounting office urgently needed, so he “borrowed” some machines from vendors without the university’s authorization, promised that the university would pay for them bukara insh’allah, and tossed the responsibility for them to me the moment I arrived. I never learned just what kinds of arrangements he had made, but it took me almost six months to sort out the administrative tangle that he left behind in his attempt to provide effective IT services to people whose jobs required them.
If there is a solution to the problem of corruption, it lies in the domain of administrative re-engineering within the university, even more radical changes at the level of governmental oversight, and fundamental changes in the ethics of a country that has run amok.
In addition to generating a lot of cynicism and interpersonal conflict, and all too often resulting in the failure of projects, the problems outlined here give rise to a very high attrition rate among Western managers and technical staff who either refuse to renew their contracts when they end, or abscond before they end - except in Saudi Arabia where the fact that their passports are confiscated upon arrival makes it impossible for them to leave without permission.
To the best of my knowledge no statistics are available, but impressionistically speaking, I know of only one Western expatriate who lasted as long as two years at the university where I worked in Bangladesh, seven of the ten Western staff at the institution where I worked in Saudi Arabia left after one year, and all of the dozen or so Western expatriates with whom I worked in the small Arabian Gulf state left within about three years of moving there despite good salaries, excellent benefits and a fine standard of living none of which adequately compensated them for a lack of job satisfaction.
A common sight at the airport in Saudi Arabia was affluent Western managers and technical staff headed for the departure gate wearing Snoopy T-shirts saying “Happiness is an exit-only visa”, meaning that after they departed they would not be allowed to return and they were pleased with that arrangement.
Some of the problems outlined above generate nothing more than annoying misunderstandings or inconveniences, but some are more serious. They derive from fundamental incompatibilities or contradictions between attitudes and values that underlie universities East and West, and until and unless those contradictions are resolved, nobody can provide a full range of information services to these institutions in compliance with generally accepted international standards, or insure that the services will persist into the future.
To put it simply from a strongly Western perspective, an IT director cannot provide IT services to international standards when electrical services fail many times daily and he has no emergency generator, the Internet telephone lines are held hostage by a clerk demanding a bribe, and spare parts are not available anywhere in the country. He cannot manage in changing situations when his hands are tied by policies and procedures that were formalized literally under the Ottoman Empire and cannot be altered to meet the rapidly changing needs of the university. He cannot produce a generation of faculty and students who are analytical and critical thinkers when the institution is not allowed to teach analytical and critical thinking skills. He cannot develop a strong and enduring staff when young nationals eschew management training despite their own government’s strenuous nationalization programs, his superiors will not reward lower status staff members for acquiring new technical skills, and the staff turnover rate among Western colleagues upon whom he must rely most heavily may approach forty percent per year. He cannot provide world class - or even minimally acceptable - services when several members of his small staff suddenly vanish for a month to write a student’s term paper.
Ethnocentrism, Cultural Relativism and Globalism
I have presented these examples from a Western perspective, but it should be obvious that every time a Western IT manager has to deal with one of them, at least one and perhaps several Eastern members of the university’s staff feel the impact of it. Furthermore, the Eastern staff have their own unavoidable difficulties with the Western IT manager because of his alien, and seemingly bizarre, attitudes and values.
In other words, the problem is well known to both Eastern and Western managers in the region, but since it is not politically correct for Western managers to raise the subject with nationals, it is not addressed. Even though its implications are serious and conspicuous, the problem is concealed under a cloak of silence, or a cloak of misleading platitudes that praise Eastern cultures for their many positive features while avoiding the problem addressed here.
Ethnocentrism, both Eastern and Western, contributes significantly to the problem. The development and dissemination of cultural relativism as an antidote to ethnocentrism has been an important intellectual achievement of the West in recent decades. By positing that each of the world’s cultures should be evaluated in terms of its own characteristics rather than being compared (usually pejoratively) with one’s own culture, cultural relativism is an essentially liberal notion that accepts all human cultures, as they are, as legitimate members of the human community, and stands in sharp contrast to ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism and racism. In the West, its value intellectually, ethically and with regard to the formulation of public policy is undeniable. Most Westerners in the East seem to know the concept, but many have serious difficulty in espousing it since it does nothing to help them cope with what they perceive as intense ethnocentrism aimed at them by proud and rigidly hierarchical Eastern nationals who view them as socially and religiously inferior.
To a limited extent Western ethnocentrism began to fade with the demise of the colonial empires, to be replaced in part by cultural relativism. In the emerging global village based on standardized worldwide technology, it is arguable that both Western cultural relativism and Eastern ethnocentrism have outlived their usefulness, at least in anything approaching their “pure” forms. At the same time, however, the emerging clash of civilizations is driving ethnocentrism to new heights around the world.
It is not possible to manage international air traffic control systems, worldwide communications systems, global banking systems, the multinational space program or the global environment when each society or culture is free to do its own thing in its own way. Yet imposing Western attitudes on Eastern people not only raises ethical problems, but also there is good reason to predict that it will fail. Clearly these are social and cultural systems as much as technical systems: the cultural components as well as the technology must be standardized to some extent or the systems will fail locally and be incompatible with other systems globally, but doing it is devilishly difficult.
In a recent work entitled Islam and Human Rights, Mayer (1995:1-18) devotes her first chapter to examining the uses and abuses of cultural relativism by Eastern and Western opponents of the comparative examination of international and Islamic versions of human rights. She notes that Western advocates of cultural relativism tend to be liberals who welcome a broad range of cultural diversity among the peoples of the world, while Eastern advocates of cultural relativism tend to be arch conservatives who use the concept to deflect criticism of their own intolerance of cultural diversity. She acknowledges that it is hazardous to openly criticize traditional ways of doing things in the East, but argues that invoking cultural relativism as a substitute for legitimate comparative analyses is intellectually dishonest.
Although I have a long history of practicing and advocating cultural relativism, I ask you to consider some of the downsides of Western cultural relativism in the context of the issues addressed in this paper.
One of the most exasperating problems that a Western IT manager can experience while working in the East is to have another Western manager arrive on the scene as a visitor or consultant, perhaps as a guest sponsored by a governmental or nongovernmental organization, who no doubt is a good manager in a Western setting but who has imbibed deeply of cultural relativism and will not acknowledge that some culturally approved modes of thought and action in the East present genuine management problems in a global context.
The symptoms are easy to spot. The conversation between visitor and resident, which typically continues with minor interruptions for the duration of the visit, may begin with poverty, during which the guest listens for a while then notes its presence among ethnic minorities in Chicago. A discussion of corruption leads him to contribute something about kickbacks at city hall. Then when somebody grumbles about schedule disruptions due to chaotic electrical load shedding and no emergency power generator, the guest tells a story about the day last winter when the power failed in Chicago.
Individually the visitor’s remarks are innocuous, but collectively they may indicate that he is wearing a cultural filter or blinder that makes it difficult or impossible for him to understand that a handful of hungry children in America is qualitatively different from the astronomically high malnutrition-induced infant mortality rate in Bangladesh; that petty graft is a problem in America but is qualitatively different from a national ethic that permits billions of dollars of foreign aid to be pumped into a country annually so that much of it can be siphoned off by the country’s elite; that the Western world view based on individual liberty and individual responsibility is fundamentally different from the profound fatalism embodied in the word insh’allah; that a once-a-year power failure during a major storm in Chicago is qualitatively different from load shedding as a dominant feature of daily life that contributes greatly to keeping the national economy in tatters.
The visitor truly believes that he is being a good cultural relativist, liberally accepting the people and culture of Bangladesh as they are, and generously viewing the problems of Bangladesh as ordinary human problems writ large. But in this case cultural relativism is a misnomer, for in fact he is ethnocentrically viewing Bangladeshi problems as if they were nothing more than serious Western problems. Not surprisingly, any attempt by the resident IT director to disabuse the visitor of his preconceived notions sounds like an attack on motherhood and apple pie and is certain to fail.
But if the visitor becomes a resident IT director and persists in that view, the relativistic filter gradually disables him. He is doomed so long as he genuinely believes that Dhaka is like Chicago or the Arabian Gulf states are like Arizona. They are not. Certainly there are similarities, but he must never minimize the differences.
In the case of Bangladesh, evidence of those differences is provided by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, the US Agency for International Development, Transparency International, the World Health Organization, CARE, Grameen Bank which is leading the world’s economic revolution toward micro-loans for the poorest of the poor, BRAC (the world’s largest NGO and one of 19,000 NGOs operating in the country), copious and incriminating statistics of dubious quality from the Government of Bangladesh, somewhat more credible and even more horrific statistics from the United Nations Development Program, English language newspapers published in Dhaka, and his own senses if only he will pay attention to them.
As an economic and cultural “black hole”, Bangladesh has a record of absorbing massive infusions of foreign aid of every kind from every source, from the World Bank down to the lowliest IT director, and never showing any evidence of it. Espousing ethical neutrality under the guise of cultural relativism in the face of this mountain of evidence is problematic.
Yet it happens in Bangladesh and is just as likely to occur in the Arabian Peninsula where enormous oil wealth and spectacular economic development conceal but do not materially change the attitudes and values. IT installations in the Arabian Gulf region that are managed according to international standards may be among the finest in they world. Others are characterized by their own managers as “shiny cans of worms”, shiny since the technology may be the finest that money can buy, but cans of worms anyway because of attitudes and values that so often preclude their effective implementation, operation and maintenance.
Whenever I pointed out some aspect of the problem to one of my Bangladeshi colleagues, he invariably smiled condescendingly and said, “But that is the Bangladeshi way”, as if that somehow explained everything and made it all right. But will “the Bangladeshi way” work in the global village? I think not. So long as “the Bangladeshi way” remains unchanged and a point of pride among elite nationals, Bangladesh will remain the world’s basket case, to use Henry Kissinger’s felicitous phrase that stuck in 1973.
The enormously wealthy Arabian Gulf states are in no danger of becoming basket cases for when their systems fail for cultural reasons they simply buy more technology and hire new managers who fare no better than their predecessors. The Arab scholar Edward Said, one of the most knowledgeable and articulate critics of Western attitudes toward the Middle East, recently summed up his own critique of Middle Eastern politics as follows: “In these dark times, it is hard not to go the whole way and condemn ourselves as a people for our congenital inability to get anything right” (Said 1998). That goes too far when it is applied to academic IT services in particular or to the extraordinarily rapid and generally successful culture change that has occurred throughout the Gulf region in recent decades, but it is easy to understand Said’s frustration.
Cultural imperialists, who firmly believe that their own way is the only right way to do anything, eventually failed in their efforts to remake the world in their own image even after investing enormously in what we can agree now was a misguided approach, and cultural relativists are equally subject to failure as we enter the 21 st century. Perhaps a new breed of globalists can devise a middle ground that will work.
As we enter the millennium of the global village, an increasing degree of cultural - not just technical - standardization is required to make worldwide systems work properly. This article is a contribution toward understanding the problem as it pertains to the delivery of international academic information services in parts of the developing world. In it, I have emphasized the importance of acknowledging the problem and discussing it openly, and have presented some examples of the ways in which it manifests itself.
I have not attempted to offer solutions, for I believe solutions should emerge from discussions between representatives of East and West who share a common concern for making academic IT services – and so many other components of the global village – work effectively.
Nevertheless I conclude by briefly outlining some fundamental principals in the management of large scale IT transfer whose violation contributes to the problems outlined here. Examples include the following:
If you want to become an academic IT manager working directly for universities or similar institutions in the developing world, I urge you to shift your focus away from the technology and instead to focus on the underlying attitudes and values of the administrators, senior faculty, instructors and members of the technical staff with whom you must work to make your programs succeed. That part of your job will be far more difficult than the technical part, and it will have far more impact on the overall success of your work.
Denham, Woodrow W. (1998) Preconditions for delivering in-service teacher training: a perspective from Bangladesh. International Council on Education for Teaching: International Yearbook on Teacher Education 1997:(2) 496-510.
Huntington, Samuel (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. London: Simon and Schuster.
Mayer, Ann Elizabeth (1995) Islam and human rights: tradition and politics, 2 nd ed. Boulder, CO, USA: Westview Press.
Said, Edward (1998) < Newspaper article. Lost the clipping! > Dubai: Gulf News.
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