The term ‘culture’ generally refers to a complex set of values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, customs, systems and artifacts which are handed down from generation to generation through the process of socialization and which influence how individuals see the world and how they behave in it. Defined in this way, culture can be seen to have at least three important features:
_ it comprises both material (e.g. human artefacts such as buildings, literature, art,
music) and abstract elements (e.g. rituals, symbols, values);
_ it is socially learned and transmitted over time; and
_ it influences human behaviour.
As a concept, ‘culture’ is often applied in a variety of circumstances at both the macro and micro level: terms such as ‘western culture’, ‘Asian culture’, ‘European culture’, ‘New York City culture’, ‘youth culture’, ‘pop culture’, ‘entrepreneurial culture’ and ‘research culture’ are just some of the examples of its usage in the modern world. What they have in common is that they imply certain shared aspects of human belief, understanding and behaviour that link individuals together into some form of definable group and/or range of activities.
In a business context, it can be easy to underestimate the degree to which a person’s perceptions, attitudes and behaviour can be shaped by cultural influences, some of which may be relatively enduring (e.g. certain ‘core’ values and beliefs) while others may be more open to change (i.e. secondary beliefs and values). In the United States, for example, American citizens believe in the right of individuals to bear arms and this is enshrined in the US Constitution. The buying and selling of handguns and rifles is thus acceptable within American society, despite the fact that they are frequently used in violent crimes including robbery and murder. In other countries, trade in such weapons tends to be seen as highly questionable by most people and is usually heavily regulated by the government to certain types of weapons for use in acceptable pursuits such as hunting or rifle shooting. Cultural differences such as this can, of course, apply not only to the kinds of goods and services that are consumed (e.g. eating horse meat in France is acceptable but not in the UK) but also to other aspects of both the production and consumption process and this can have important implications for an organisation’s behaviour.
_ Who decides what is bought, how it is bought or where it is bought (e.g. in some cultures women have predominantly been the purchasers of household products).
What colors are acceptable (e.g. the colour associated with bereavement varies across cultures).
_ How far harmonization of products and marketing activities is feasible (e.g. the
EUs perennial debates over what constitutes an acceptable definition of certain products such as sausages, Feta cheese, chocolate).
_ What factors can enhance the prospect of a sale (e.g. bribes are acceptable in some cultures).
_ How business is conducted (e.g. the length of negotiations, the meaning of a handshake).
_ The method of communicating with the target audience (e.g. in the UK a single shared language allows organisations to use national media).
_ How customer enquiries/complaints are dealt with (e.g. UK businesses using call centers in India often give their operators British names and train them to talk about everyday British preoccupations such as the weather and sport).
In effect, culture not only influences an individual’s response to products and the nature of the buying and selling process, but it also exercises a significant influence on the structure of consumption within a given society. For companies which can gain acceptability on a global scale, despite cultural differences between countries, the potential benefits are huge (e.g. global brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nike).
While the so-called ‘Americanization’ of consumption is not to everyone’s taste,other forms of cultural exportation are often more acceptable and can prove highly lucrative for the country concerned. In the UK, for example, overseas earnings from culture and arts-related tourism make a significant contribution to the country’s ‘invisible earnings’ and many other countries benefit in similar ways.
A society is rarely, if ever, culturally homogeneous. Within every culture subcultures usually exist, comprising groups of individuals with shared value systemsbased on common experiences, origins and/or situations. These identifiablesub-groups may be distinguished by nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, age, class,geographical location or some other factor and their attitudes, behaviour, customs,language and artefacts often reflect sub-cultural differences. At times such differencescan be relatively easily accommodated and ultimately may become institutionalized through the legal and/or political process (e.g. the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies). At other times sub-cultural differences can be the source of a considerable degree of conflict between various sub-groups, resulting in serious divisions within a society and even in war and genocide.
The UK provides a good example of the notion of cultural diversity and can be used to illustrate how this can influence the demand for goods and services. In addition to nationality groups such as the Irish, Scots and Welsh, the country has provided a home for successive generations of immigrants from around the globe and this has created a rich mix of ethnic and other sub-groups, often concentrated in particular parts of the country and having their own language, traditions and lifestyles. In Leicester, for example, where a significant proportion of the population is of Asian origin, there is a substantial Asian business community, part of which has developed to cater specifically for the local ethnic population (e.g. halal butchers, saree shops), as well as attracting custom from the wider community (e.g. Indian restaurants). Many Asian businesses in Leicester are small, family owned enterprises, employing members of the extended family in keeping with cultural traditions. Aspects such as the organisation and financing of the business, its network of relationships and the working conditions for staff are also frequently influenced by cultural values, traditions and norms, although changes in these areas are becoming more apparent, especially among second and third generation Asian-owned enterprises.
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