Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Knowledge Sharing across Cultures – a personal view of Debby Swallow’s presentation

Why is it that serious attempts at sharing knowledge across cultures frequently end in frustration, disappointment and a sense of aggrievement on all sides?

According to Dr Deborah Swallow, who gave a presentation at TAMK on November 16th, the problem is that people from different cultures have fundamentally different beliefs about the proper roles of bosses and subordinates, teachers and students, and even about the nature of knowledge itself.

Dr Swallow is a leading expert on intercultural communication and cultural diversity in the modern workplace. Drawing on research in the fields of intercultural communication and knowledge management, Debby Swallow presented two alternative sets of knowledge-related concepts. Both sets, she emphasised, are valid within certain cultural settings, but neither of them can be easily transferred to another culture. To prove the point, Dr Swallow enlivened her presentation with numerous stories of knowledge-sharing failures in families, in businesses, and in marketing communications.

But there were success stories, too. Debby Swallow reminded us that in the 1980’s, for most people a telephone was as mobile as the length of its wires allowed. But in 1987, Nokia enjoyed a marketing coup when Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the (then) Soviet Union, was photographed in Helsinki using a Nokia mobile phone to make a call to Moscow. The picture appeared in newspapers around the world, and thus a new concept - “mobile phone” – was created in the minds of millions.

But what can we, in the serious business of intercultural education, learn from master marketers?

Well, as teachers, we need to realise that ideas like “critical thinking is good”, “plagiarism is bad” (and many others) are elements of our own particular brand of education. For students who join us from very different educational traditions, such brand-related concepts may need to be created from scratch.

Secondly, even when foreign students are aware of our brand, they will naturally prefer their own. So if we believe our brand has merit, we need to promote its consumer benefits vigorously.

Finally, if we ever venture into foreign markets (as exchange teachers, for example), we should not expect our brand to be universally admired and appreciated. The most successful brands, from Nokia to Coca Cola, are customised for each local market.

Ann Seppänen

Pictured: Deborah Swallow
Photo: Kaisa Kukkonen

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