Culture has an uncanny effect on individuals as they come together in a social setting and get involved in working towards a common set of goals. This is further compounded when efforts are made to replicate business strategies and tactical measures that have been successful in one cultural arena to a culture within a foreign setting. This brief examines the culture within organisations in Saudi Arabia and critically assesses various areas of influence of the cultural disparity such as the role that women play within an organisational setting there. It tries to draw parallels between the Saudi and other Western cultures and identify inherent areas of strength of the Saudi culture and other facets where there is room for improvement. It then goes on to apply these theories and concepts to a real-life organisation based in Saudi Arabia, namely the King Abdul Aziz University and the staff (including faculty and non-teaching staff) working for the University.
The melting pot that represents workplace Culture
Definition of culture
According to Hofstede (1993, p5), ‘culture can be viewed as the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another’. However, what is also important to note is that this grouping or categorisation of individuals could be along a number of facets, for instance, the nationality they belong to, the organisations they work for, which could manifest in the form of a common culture, work ethos and processes followed for achieving certain results. Hofstede (1991) reasserts this, pointing out that these influences could be at multiple levels including the national, regional, ethnic, gender-based, generational, social and finally organisational. The dominant cultural forces that act upon individuals in a work setting are the national and the corporate cultures. If the organisation is a distant subsidiary, then the local workplace culture of the subsidiary could be viewed as a third dominant force acting on employees there (Raz, 2009).
The study of the organisation based on cultural parameters has been popularised since the early 1990s by the works of Alvesson (1993) and Hofstede (2005). It is the nature of these cultural forces that act on the individual, and the predominance of one over the other that conditions these employees and collectively constitutes the overall workplace culture that evolves over a period of time (Raz, 2009). Every subsequent individual joining the organisation then goes through a subtle process of acculturation where he imbibes the organisation’s norms, values and processes, and becomes one of the collective organisational units. The notion of organisational culture is hence, an open-ended, evolving set of ‘relatively uniform and enduring values, beliefs, customs, traditions and practices that are shared by the members of the organisation, learned by new recruits and transmitted from one generation of employees to the next’ (Buchanan & Huczynski, 2007, p623). It is open ended, since as Drummond (2000) observes that while a number of metaphors may be used to shape our thinking of what an organisation represents, no metaphor can fully explain any given phenomenon.
The predominance of national culture
In most of the cases, the predominant force would arguably be one’s national culture simply because one is associated with the national culture over a longer period of time. This is the reason it becomes important to study the areas of divergence between different nations and their cultures, before attempting to apply solutions that worked in a different cultural setting to overseas offices and the employees there. Specifically for Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Arab countries in general, one of the most significant influence on the national culture of its inhabitants is that of religion. Islam, which is the national religion of Saudi Arabia and all practices that are strongly associated with Moslems have a significant bearing on how individuals react to external stimuli.
Saudi Arabia – a contextual background
Saudi Arabia has risen in prominence and economic prowess over the past three decades, with the country having made the most of the natural oil resources that it has at its disposal. The industries that now contribute over half of the country’s GDP are related to oil and gas extraction, refinement and other processes related to oil (Madhi & Barrientos, 2003). In view of the sudden spurt in industry, Saudi Arabia has also had a significant rise in employment, which could not be accommodated by native population there. As a result, close to 40% of the workforce at Saudi Arabia constitute foreign migrants (Madhi & Barrientos, 2003).
Focus on the national culture in Saudi Arabia
Some of the known cultural traits of Saudi Arabia that will be discussed at length in this brief are outlined here. The first and most striking feature is the influence that Islam has over the national culture among citizens here (Bjerke & Al-Meer, 1993). As a result of Islam acting as a coagulant among residents here and the family values that it upholds in the face of all other priorities, Saudis are known to be highly committed and attached to their families. This is apparent from the fact that familial backgrounds are often used by Saudis to connect better to each other when they first meet.
A second trait of the Saudi culture that has also been documented by Ali & Al-Shakhis (1989) is the highly developed work ethic among Saudis, based on field research conducted by them on working population. This can be explained in two possible ways, firstly the fact that long-term economic prosperity cannot be taken for granted in countries like Saudi Arabia which is deplete of industries other than those based on limited natural resources of oil. A second explanation also draws its origins from Islam and the fact that the notion of hard work and participation in commercial ventures is upheld by Islam, thus reinforcing the industrious behaviour and importance given by Saudis to the jobs that they are employed in.
As part of the devout following of Islam among Saudis, they are also known to try and strictly adhere to the provisions laid down by Islam on the duties that have to be discharged by each member of the family towards the wellbeing of their families (Moghissi, 2005). Here, the father is clearly seen as the individual donning the role of the provider for the family, taking on the financial responsibilities associated with it. Given that this has the tendency to condition most of the Saudis right from their childhood due to their adherence to Wahhabi Islam (Bowen, 2008), one of the effects is that formal education is taken for granted for boys, girls could be denied the right to education in a number of Islamic circles (Jawad, 1998). This distinct gender bias also extends among the country’s workforce with an overwhelming majority of employees being men. Even though the conditions are much better with primary schooling being compulsory for boys and girls in Saudi Arabia, the gap in education in previous years has left a legacy of lesser career growth opportunities for women in general in Saudi institutions and organisations.
Ironically however, women are known to play a very significant role in educational institutions, with a number of women enlisting as faculties at various universities in Islamic countries the world over (Morgan, 1996). This is also the case at the King Abdul Aziz University, which is the chosen case study for this brief, where some of the formal concepts being evaluated here will be applied and inferences drawn as appropriate.
Organisational culture – an academic critique
The very nature of the subject of culture, the shades of grey that are inevitably associated with the notion and the number of variables that determine the cumulative culture of employees at the workplace has meant that there exist a number of debates on the subject of culture. First of all, there is a wide chasm in terms of how the development of organisational culture is viewed by academicians and practitioners alike. The scientific management school of thought holds that culture at the workplace can be influenced by a top-down approach (Mullins, 2007), and can be monitored and controlled on an ongoing basis. It views culture as one of the cogs in the wheel of the organisation, that needs to be understood and used as part of the firm’s overall strategy. However, there is also a more realistic school of thought that views culture as being facilitated in all directions, top-down, bottom-up and even laterally. This philosophy views culture as something that evolves, and manifests itself in the form of the employees at the firm and their approach to their respective activities.
Different approaches to the constitution of culture
The subject of culture has been approached in different ways by various researchers on the subject. For instance, Hofstede (2005) refers to these cultural traits at the workplace manifesting themselves in the form of values that are shared by employees in the form of common symbols, gestures, heroes that employees look up to, etc. and practices, which govern how these employees go about discharging their duties in the interests of the organisation they work for. Francesco & Gold (2000) quote Sathe as highlighting that the basic building blocks for the workplace culture is a set of assumptions that are made upfront and reinforced every time employees take any steps in line with or in conflict with these assumptions. This is followed by expressed values, or behaviour in a particular manner that is overt for all to see. On the other hand, Francesco & Gold (2000) also quote Schein, who uses the same continuum to explain culture, but maintains that these values themselves are hidden and hence, not visible above the surface.
Contrasting theories on academic models defining culture
Apart from semantics, there are also differences in the way the constituents of culture and how these influence the behaviour of people are viewed by theorists in the field. For instance, Hofstede uses a comprehensive four-point theory, where cultures are measured along four dimensions – masculinity, individualism, inclination to avoid uncertainty and power distance (Mullins, 2007). Hall (1976) uses the continuum of context, classifying cultures as high context or low context and explaining the effects of the same on the individuals coming from any cultural background. Finally, Morden (1999) illustrates the Lewis model, which classifies cultures as monochronic or polychronic, depending on the ability of members of a culture to do multiple activities in parallel, or preferring to do them sequentially. While Hofstede’s theory is the most comprehensive in terms of its ability to personify something as abstract and complex as culture, theorists maintain that it is outmoded (Steenkamp, 2001), and hence no longer as relevant as it was a few years ago. Another criticism of all theories attempting to explain culture is that these theories are all reductive and seek to stereotype the individuals that belong to any culture without trying to develop a zero-based understanding of the nuances of the culture from the ground up (During, 2005). Each of these models will be applied in the subsequent sections of this brief to the chosen case study being analysed.
The role of women within organisations
The next point of contention stems from one of the areas this brief will allude to, namely the role of women within organisations. The conflict here is serious and needs detailed analysis, since on the one hand is the religious document that is held in high esteem by pious followers of Islam, which clearly lays down the role of women in the family. It more or less views the role of women as that of a housewife, tending to their families and placing familial obligations above all other duties. The man is seen unequivocally as the provider for the family (Cornell, 2007). On the other hand however, are the equally important tenets of equal opportunities and the concerns over suppression of women’s right to education and earning their livelihood on their own. While the world has come round to making allowances for women and perceiving a role for female employees within organisations, there still remain serious concerns over the limited opportunities that are accorded to women and the lengths to which organisations need to go to abide by some of the requirements of the shariah, including the ‘Awrah’ and other guidelines prescribed (Roald, 2001).
Applicability of management literature to the Saudi context
Finally, there is also a larger debate of the applicability of management theories that originate elsewhere to countries like Saudi Arabia and business organisations there (Rees & Althakhri, 2008). For instance, most of the theories mentioned above, and other behavioural theories within organisations first originated in the Western countries including the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom. What business firms, especially global companies having their operations across multiple locations worldwide do, is to try and apply these theories to Saudi Arabia and other alien cultures, where the extent of cultural divergence from Western countries is in some cases, so vast, that it raises questions about the very relevance of these theories in the Saudi context (Raz, 2009). Addressing this debate however, is beyond the scope of the present report in the interests of retaining focus on the imminent subject being studied, i.e. King Abdul Aziz University and the role of women working there.
Relevance to the context of a real-life organisation
The previous sections introduced the concepts that will be dealt with by the case analysis of King Abdul Aziz University, and highlighted the significant debates that are currently prevalent on the subject of organisational culture, the relevance of management theory across all cultural environments and certain issues with regard to the perceived role of women in the organisations. This section uses some of the prominent tools and frameworks mentioned above and apply them to the context of the King Abdul Aziz University (hereafter referred to as the KAAU). The objective here is to use these tools and map them back to observations made and information gathered from interactions at the KAAU.
Application of Hofstede’s principles
Hofstede’s model for the study of culture essentially holds that culture of any group of people can be personified by four distinct dimensions, along which each of these cultures can be measured. These include power distance, individualism versus collectivism, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity versus femininity. Due to the paucity of time in conducting field research and assimilating data to draw conclusions on each of these dimensions, this brief will use the work done by Bjerke and Al-Meer (1993) as a basis for reference for the scores that Saudi Arabian respondents demonstrated along each of these dimensions. There are positives and negatives of using this field information. On the positive side, the research conducted by Bjerke & Al-Meer (1993) was administered to a sample audience of 78 students in the MBA programme at King Fahd University, which makes the results comparable with what would be expected for a survey at the KAAU. On the other hand, given the description of culture as something that is in a constant state of evolution, some of the findings from the research conducted by Bjerke & Al-Meer (1993) would arguably be dated, the effect of which will need to be acknowledged as one of the limitations of this work. However, the author did use the techniques of observation and informal interviews with students and prospective employers to further qualify the overall findings and hence, the analysis conducted below.
Hofstede’s first dimension is that of power distance, or the way in which power is used by those in superior positions within organisations, and the extent to which the junior staff at organisations perceives themselves to be less powerful compared to those senior to them. In Hofstede’s (1984, p83) own words, the power distance is indicative of the difference between the extent to which a boss can determine the behaviour of his subordinates, and the extent to which the subordinates can determine the behaviour of their boss. Hofstede’s measures across forty countries revealed that Philippines had the highest power distance of 94, while the Nordics had the least power indices. Saudi Arabia itself had a high index of 73, which to a large extent, is indicative of the Saudi culture and the influence of Islam on its culture.
The high power distance in Saudi Arabia’s case has its origins in the fact that the boss is seen more as a paternalistic figure (Pang & Hui, 2006), who is expected to provide for those staff that report to him. In return, the boss is known to expect a higher degree of subordination, and absolute adherence without question to the decisions made by him. While this does not allow for participative management where the subordinates are actively involved in critical decisions made by managers, this can also be described as a phenomenon that emanates from the culture, where one of the expectations of the subordinates is to be ‘looked after’ and shielded by their boss in return for their unswerving loyalty.
However, given the paternalistic inclination that accompanies the high power distance at Saudi Arabia, the role of the boss is predominantly consigned to male managers and the concept of a female manager having subordinates reporting to them is understandably alien in such a setting. The observations on this facet of the Saudi culture at the KAAU were mixed at best. On the one hand, one of the glaring symptoms is that at the KAAU, it is not acceptable for female lecturers to directly lecture males; this is done through video conferencing or closed circuit television, while it is considered acceptable for male lecturers to lecture female students. On the other hand, the KAAU does allow for meetings to be held with men and women sitting across the table and discussing matters relating to the administration of the institution, which is not necessarily the case at most other Saudi organisations. Similarly, some of the courses run by the University allow for male and female students to be part of the same classroom session, which can be termed as considerably progressive going by the average organisation and its attitude to males and females working or studying together.
Individualism versus Collectivism
The second dimension of culture is the continuum between individualism and collectivism. An individualistic society like the Western countries is characterised by a high inclination of constituents to exercise their own opinions and judgment, even at the expense of being non-conformist, while a collectivist society like India or China is known to prefer ‘safety in numbers’, sometimes making sub-optimal choices for themselves to conform to the majority.
Saudi Arabia scored highly on collectivism, which is also apparent from the observations made at the KAAU. The observed style of management and leadership also was a unidirectional one, bordering upon dictatorship, the main reasons for which were the high degree of collectivism exhibited by staff at the University. However, it must be clarified at this point that after sustained HRM methods were introduced at the University, there was a perceptible change to the above, with a rise in a consultative approach to management being displayed by the bosses. One explanation for this collectivism could also be the strict adherence to a pre-defined set of values as upheld by Islam among the Saudis, where conformity is important and any deviation from the herd invites censure and rebuke.
A third facet of culture as observed by Hofstede is the extent to which members of any given culture are accepting of or prefer to avoid any form of risk and uncertainty. Not very surprisingly, Saudi Arabia exhibited a high uncertainty avoidance index of 74. The origins of this can be perceived as coming right from historical hardships faced by the country and its citizens with extreme climates and inadequate means of livelihood until the oil revolution started in the 1960s and 1970s in the country (Ali & Al-Shakhis, 1989). As a result, Saudis tend to value their security and place family wellbeing at a premium compared to other individual achievements and financial affluence.
At the KAAU, the strong familial affiliations were apparent as even at the University, when a position became free, the KAAU preferred to recruit family and friends of existing employees rather than recruiting outsiders for the post. Familiarity and avoidance of the unknown were manifest in this ‘tribalism’ approach at the KAAU, where there was a pronounced sense of trust kinship for other individuals that existing employees of the institution were familiar with. A second manifestation of uncertainty avoidance was that there was a distinct lack of comfort among managers in even accepting the notion that their subordinates were capable of functioning independently and making decisions by themselves.
Masculinity versus femininity
Here, Saudis were found to be more on the feminine side, which means that the care for each others’ wellbeing took precedence over materialistic possessions and ambitions for aggrandizement of one’s personal wealth. Applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory to the KAAU (Koontz & Weihrich, 2006), one can readily see that what appeals to the Saudis the most are security and affiliation needs, with the echelons of personal achievement and wealth maximisation taking a lower priority. This was readily seen from the way colleagues at work at the University interacted with each other, far from the notion of distinguishing work from personal lives, as is the case with Western cultures and organisations functioning in these countries.
Other theories on culture
Applying Hall’s single-dimensional paradigm to the KAAU, it can be argued that Saudis are more representative of a high context culture, whereby their personal networks and reference groups are much more influential in the decisions they make with regard to even their official work. Indeed, the family orientation of the Saudis is a distinguishing characteristic of theirs, whereby when two Saudis meet for the first time, they are supposed to try and identify each other by the families that they come from. In such a scenario, companies and institutions like the KAAU would do well to try and strengthen a spirit of camaraderie by encouraging higher level of interaction between families of their employees, possibly by locating a day care within the University premises, having family days once every three or six months, etc.
What could be taken for granted in a Western organisation such as equality of roles and opportunities between men and women would not necessarily apply in a different location such as Saudi Arabia, the main reason being the immense influence of the national culture there. However, the distinct attributes of the Saudi culture such as ‘tribalism’ and stronger kinship do accord some advantages to the quintessential Saudi organisation such as a higher level of trust between work colleagues and a high work ethic. For areas of improvement identified, the measures need to be implemented with caution with a strategic HRM perspective, thus resulting in change by evolution, and not by revolution given the need to respect sensitivities around national culture. What is heartening to note however, at least based on an empirical observation of the KAAU is the fact that a progressive evolution has already commenced among organisations in Saudi Arabia. What is required now is to sustain this metamorphosis and expedite the pace of the same to enhance the abilities and add to the competitive edge of organisations functioning in the Saudi Arabia in particular and other Islamic countries in general.