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Developing a Culturally Synergistic Approach to International Human Resource Management

Maddy Janssens
This paper offers international human resource (IHR) professionals guidelines how to decide which IHRM approach to choose. In choosing among an adaptive, exportive, or integrated IHR approach, IHR managers may want to consider three decision criteria, e.g. forces for global integration and local adaptation, the cultural component of HRM, and the power dynamics within the MNC. To develop an organization that values cultural differences, IHR professionals may choose a culturally synergistic approach to IHRM. This approach has the potential of designing new combinations of HRM practices and simultaneously attends to the three decision criteria.

large U.S. based company acquired several years ago a small, successful Belgian company. While headquarters (HQ) initially managed the merger in a very decentralized approach, they recently moved towards a more centralized approach. It was the strong belief of the company’s president that the global world has no geographical boundaries, which led to the implementation of several uniform policies, not only in the core domain of R&D but also, in the area of human resource management (HRM). An example here
Dr. M. Janssens, Katholicka Universiteit Leuven, Dept of Applied Economic Sciences, Naamesestraat 69, 3000 Leuven, Belgium .


was the corporate message that turnover in the Belgian plant was too low. It was HQ’s belief that a dynamic and resultoriented company has a turnover of approximately 15%. Because turnover in the Belgian affiliate was even lower than 5%, the Belgian HR department was informed about the following decision. They had to work out a performance appraisal system with forced choice to weed out the bad performers. All employees had to be evaluated during the following year and the evaluation scores needed to reflect a Gauss curve. Those employees who had the lowest scores were presented with a choice: improve or be fired. The Belgian HR team hired a consultancy organization to implement the appraisal proDeciding An IHRM Approach


cess. The results of this international HR decision were anxiety among most of the Belgian employees, an intensification of rumors and an increase in uncertainty about the position of the Belgian unit within the whole company. This story indicates one of the major questions of international HRM: when to impose HR policies and when to adapt them to the local context? The story further illustrates the negative consequences when HQ doesn’t consider the cultural component of a HR practice or when they are not sensitive to the power position of an affiliate. Therefore, the purpose of the paper is to provide HR practitioners with guidelines of how to decide when to adapt and when to impose, as well as how to implement a culturally synergistic approach. We develop these guidelines by first synthesizing the different theoretical models of strategic international HRM. From these models, three different approaches to IHRM can be identified: an exportive, an adaptive and an integrative approach. We discuss these three options, with its different advantages and disadvantages. To decide which IHRM approach to choose, we present three criteria that drive the decision: local versus global forces, the cultural component of HRM practices, and power dynamics. We discuss why and how these three criteria may help the decision making process and then apply them as guidelines to the Belgian case. In the second part of the paper, we introduce a culturally synergistic approach to IHRM. Based upon the models of cultural synergy (Adler, 1997; Hoecklin, 1995) and problem solving (Schein, 1999), we first discuss how this
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approach has the potential of designing new combinations of HRM practices instead of only transferring best practices from HQ to affiliates and vice versa. We further develop this IHRM approach by identifying its different steps and formulating guidelines of implementation. A culturally synergistic approach offers the potential of considering simultaneously the need for global integration, the cultural embeddedness of HRM practices and the importance of the affiliates’ power and autonomy. Its purpose is to support IHR managers in developing an organization that values differences.




Which Options Do IHR Managers Have? In developing guidelines on how to decide on IHR policies, we start from the models of strategic international human resource management (SIHRM). This work (Adler & Ghadar, 1990; Evans & Lorange, 1989; Milliman, Von Glinow & Nathan, 1991; Schuler, Dowling, & De Cieri, 1993; Taylor, Beechler, & Napier, 1996) has mainly taken a macro, strategic perspective focusing on the determinants of SIHRM systems in a multinational company (MNC). The early models focused primarily on strategy as the main factor, arguing that the central issue is not to identify the best HRM policy per se, but rather to find the best fit between the MNC’s overall strategy and its HRM policy (Adler & Ghadar, 1990; Milli-

This all may lead to an ethnocentric orientation from HQ and as a consequence. the HQ’s international orientation (Hedlund. the host country’s cultural and legal environments (Adler & Ghadar.. More recent models have specified other internal as well as external factors to explain MNCs’ choices of IHRM systems. 1996).. reflecting the local environment. 1996). 1991.. Schuler et al. This approach emphasizes integration across all affiliates. an integrative SIHRM orientation attempts to take ‘the best’ HRM approaches and uses them throughout the organization in the creation of a worldwide system. the MNC’s international life cycle and experience (Adler & Ghadar.. an exportive SIHRM orientation is one in which the parent firm’s HRM system is being transferred to its different affiliates. However. and therefore having missed opportunities with respect to learning.. The focus here is on substantial global integration with an allowance for some local differentiation. Milliman et al. 1996). 1993. However. The third. et al. In addition to strategy. Schuler et al. Each affiliate will have spent time and resources to design a HR policy without having consulted other HR managers for best practices. ignoring the possible local differences.. the different determinants of IHRM seem to be the industry in which a MNC is operating (Schuler et al. Taylor and colleagues (Taylor et al. 1993). 1986. The major advantage of such an approach is that HRM systems may be completely in tune with their local context. exportive and integrative. 1996). policies or practices either from the parent firm to its affiliates or between affiliates (Taylor et al. Because each HR department is focused on its own context. when each af- filiate determines its own HR policies. 1993. In one of the most recent SIHRM models. Taylor et al. 1990.. An integrative approach combines both characteristics of the parent company’s HRM system with those of its international affiliates. 1991.. the organizational structure (Schuler et al. These orientations determine the company’s overall HR approach to managing the tension between integration or the pressure for internal consistency and differentiation or the pressure for external consistency. Differentiation is being emphasized with almost no transfer of HRM philosophy. 1993... disadvantages may occur. 1993). 1996). Taylor et al. affiliates will show feelings of rejection towards the imposed practice. developing a highly internal consistent MNC (Taylor et al.. Transfer of HRM policies and practices occurs and Deciding An IHRM Approach 431 . 1996) have identified three different SIHRM orientations in MNCs: adaptive. 1991). 1996). An adaptive SIHRM orientation is one in which each affiliate develops its own HRM system. there may be also a duplication of efforts with no attention to economies of scale or synergies in terms of learning from each other. Schuler et al. There may exist a lack of coherence within the MNC if. and the resources or strategic role of affiliates and certain employee groups (Taylor et al. different performance criteria are considered in the employees’ appraisal in different affiliates.. Milliman et al. for instance. Taylor et al.. the downside of such an exportive IHRM approach is its inflexibility... The second.

For instance. the major disadvantage is that a so-called best practice may still be ill suited for a particular context. training. a Belgian company in the film. culture. For instance. the selection criterion often set for this employee group is global awareness or global mindset. 2001) advice IHR managers to set up a contingency matrix for IHRM. However. The pragmatic value of such a matrix is that it can be used to organize the existing body of knowledge and experience and to constantly remind IHR professionals that different HR tasks may require different choices for different countries. IHR managers may have the option to choose for a mix of the three approaches. referring to an openness to other cultures.. North America and Europe. chemical and pharmaceutical industry. compensation.can go in any direction. The horizontal row of the matrix represents the different sample of HR tasks such as recruitment and selection. labor relations. Consequently. in practice. training. the different countries of the MNC are being placed. sociology. choices may differ for the different tasks or employee groups. 1996). UCB. from one affiliate to HQ or between affiliates and vice versa (Taylor et al. either by exporting the HQ’s approach or by an integrated approach. While this program for higher level managers reflects an integrative approach. the three regions in which the company is active. The three orientations of an adaptive. which may differ for higher and lower level managers.. Along the vertical columns. Luthans and colleagues (Luthan et al. multiple language skills. IHR professionals may also decide differently with respect to certain employee groups. and human relations. reflecting an overall approach towards IHRM. tolerance and flexibility (Harris & Morran. Its purpose is to broadly develop these managers by offering expertise in different functional areas as well as intercultural communication and negotiation skills. exportive or integrative approach represent three basic choices for IHR managers. Corporate HR further decided that the 3-week program takes place in Asia. and job design. Another example refers to training & development. and development for lower level managers reflects an adaptive approach with local HR managers being responsible for this HR task. While the advantage of this approach seem to be the spreading of good practices. they selected trainers coming from these different areas as well as local experts from each region to discuss its cultural. political and socioeconomic context. the question of 432 Journal of World Business / 36(4) / 429 – 450 how to develop global managers seems to lead to an integrated HR approach for this employee group. Moreover. Many companies emphasize that their senior managers must not only possess technical skills but also need to have a broad understanding of history. developed its own ‘global leadership program’ for its higher level managers. 2001). Which Criteria Drives the IHRM Decision? After having identified the different options of IHRM in terms of an adap- . When HR practices are designed for higher and senior level managers. they will probably encounter a need for consistency worldwide. Because the IHR function consists of several tasks and is oriented towards different types of employees.

We therefore include global and local forces as a first criterion of how to decide. The reason is that a multidomestic strategy places primarily demands of local adaptation and as a consequence the MNC consists of relatively independent affiliates. HowDeciding An IHRM Approach 433 . This strategy may favor an exportive HRM system across all affiliates. the cultural component of HRM. In all models. IHR managers may want to start examining the degree to which the MNC’s strategy itself is favoring global integration or local differentiation. While these two criteria serve as guidelines to decide on the most effective IHRM practice given the contextual factors. which will help integrating. 1991). and the legal environment. 1996 for a review). 1996) propose that MNCs who follow a multidomestic strategy are more likely to adopt an adaptive orientation. the international life cycle of MNC and affiliates. Following Porter’s (1986) two generic MNC strategies of multidomestic and global. we refer to the different SIHRM models (see Taylor et al. 1989). 1989. This strategy will be supported by an adaptive IHRM system reflecting the different local environments. On the other hand. This criterion is crucial because the type of relationship between HQ’s and affiliates will influence to a great extent the acceptance of the decision by the affiliate HR managers. local forces refer to the need for responsiveness or differentiation of each affiliate to operate effectively in its local envi- ronment. the strategic role of certain employee groups. Rosenzweig & Singh. for example. a global strategy requires a high level of coordination and control of activities (Bartlett & Ghoshal. On the other hand. MNCs who follow a global strategy are more likely to adopt an exportive or an integrative approach.. there is the postulated need for an SIHRM system to address the tension between the dual imperatives of global integration and local responsiveness (Bartlett & Ghoshal. two factors seemed to be crucial.tive. exportive.. In examining the different SIHRM models. exportive and integrative approach. top management’s belief. The second crucial factor in almost all SIHRM models is the cultural context of HQ and its different affiliates. The purpose of this discussion is to indicate how these factors may affect the decision of which options to chose. While global forces refer to the need for integration or interunit linkages. the next question is how to decide which option to choose. Taylor and colleagues (Taylor et al. Examples of these forces are most of the critical determinants of the SIHRM models. or integrative approach refers to the different global and local forces operating in the MNC. we add a third criterion that takes into account the power dynamics within the MNC. Global versus Local Forces A first criterion in deciding on an adaptive. We limit our discussion here to the following factors: MNC’s strategy. We will now discuss these three criteria more indepth and then illustrate the relevance of these criteria by applying them to the story of the Belgian affiliate. which brings us to a second criterion. For a more complete discussion of possible global versus local forces.

g. As a first powerful signal. the current CEO of Coca Cola. 1998) which instigated corporate HQ to emphasize intercultural communication and negotiation skills. a Belgian brewery follows the multidomestic strategy of the ‘World’s Local Brewer’ and consequently adopts mainly an adaptive HR approach. to select international trainers. Heenan & Perlmutter. When differences in the local environment create the need for differentiation. Interbrew. a former CEO of this company— coming from a French company in a global industry—strongly believed in centralized decision making and decided on an exportive approach in all areas. Top management is a key factor in determining the overall international strategy and its implementation approach (e. strongly believes in a localized approach. 1979). administration and HRM. Despite the drive towards internal consistency. the European affiliates are not led anymore by U. Their belief in the generalizability or specificity of policies and practices is a driving force of MNC’s choices (Hedlund. 1995). In recent interviews in European newspapers. the company decided again on the decentralization of sales. the CEO’s belief seems to move the company away from an exportive approach to an adaptive one. IHR professionals may want to decide on allowance for local differentiation. Afterwards.S. local forces are also present which may lead to the decision to be simultaneously globally integrated and locally responsive. & Brett. He believes that ‘size and innovation come from exploring cultural diversity’ (Janssens. Although the company is operating more in a global market. IHR managers may decide on the choice of transferring best practices across affiliates and HQ. With respect to HRM. HQ was responsible for recruitment and selection in the affiliates. One of the most influential factor of these local forces is the legal environment of the affiliates which will force a MNC to adapt certain HR practices to the local labor laws (see below).’ being sensitive towards the local environments. MNCs following a global strategy may also choose to adopt an integrative approach. 1986.ever. Other CEOs may believe in an integrated approach or the transfer of best practices across the whole company. Another important factor to consider is the life cycle of the MNC and its affiliates. Two years later. Doug Daft. In contrast. For instance. an IHR manager described the consequences of this centralized approach as a dramatic increase in overhead costs. Milli . For example. Roth. and to rotate the training program across different regions. and a global 434 Journal of World Business / 36(4) / 429 – 450 corporate culture program was installed. he strongly expresses the importance of ‘thinking locally and acting locally. 1990. a slow decision making process.. heavy workload at HQ and promotion based upon visibility in HQ. the integrative nature of the ‘global leadership program’ of UCB was strongly supported by the CEO of the pharmaceutical division. and consequently their experience (Adler & Ghadar. Keunen. Besides allowance for local differentiation. However. expatriates but by home country nationals. Factors that are likely to affect this decision are top management’s belief and the international experience of the MNC.

Another factor to consider is the strategic role of certain employees’ groups. they will receive feedback about the appropriateness of their approaches and may change their policies. Taylor et al. Chinese employees are appointed to Belgian colleagues performing a similar function. trains Chinese employees in HQ. they need to be transferred across all affiliates. 1991.. For example. While limited experience of the MNC and its affiliates as well as the strategic role of certain employee groups all indicate the need for control and integration. According to him.. which may favor the choice of an exportive approach.. Newly internationalizing companies may choose to adapt an exportive approach.. Bekaert. 1991). Not only the life cycle and experience of the MNC as a whole but also that of specific affiliates is an important factor to consider. For example. 1996). Newly acquired affiliates or green fields still need to be integrated into the MNC. it was a first step in assuring the transfer of the company culture and socializing the Hungarian employees. MNCs that encounter performance problems in international affiliates will usually move towards a more adaptive IHRM approach over time (Taylor et al. Or MNCs that encounter good practices developed in affiliates may move towards an integrated approach. In contrast.. However. During their time in Belgium. His task was to set up and monitor the selection procedure for new hires. and the development of a personal network which makes it easier for Chinese employees to contact HQ when they are in China confronted with problems or questions. For example. an exportive approach is often accompanied by sending out expatriates. although Interbrew adopts mainly an adaptive IHRM approach. Their belief in their product and management practices or the high level of uncertainty may lead them to use their own practices at the outset (Rosenzweig & Singh. a very important force towards local differentiation is the legal Deciding An IHRM Approach 435 . As MNCs gain more experience. an exportive approach may also consist of transferring people from affiliates to et al. Because their contribution is critical. As illustrated in this example. British American Tobacco sent a Belgian HR manager for a temporary assignment to its new affiliate in Hungary. 1996). training programs for other functions such as marketing and sales are locally decided. they will experience a higher level of control. For example. Because competences related to the brewing process are considered to be the core competence of this 14th century old brewery.’ According to the corporate IHR manager. a Belgian steel company with affiliates in China. Schuler et al. they opt for an exportive approach with regard to training for employees in technical brewer functions. 1993. Taylor and colleagues (Taylor et al. the advantage of this approach is a greater willingness of the Chinese employees to adopt the HQ’s approach and procedures. The training consists of following their Belgian colleagues as they perform their job—it is called a ‘shadowing job. 1996) propose that an exportive approach will be adopted for the group of employees who are most critical to the MNC’s performance.

the government decided in 1994 on a ‘stop in pay increases’ to control labor costs which forbid companies to offer salary increases. an integrative approach. practices with respect to selection. compensation or other HR tasks. there is still the question whether the coordination is imposed by HQ. we discuss the cultural component of IHRM separately. or whether coordination is achieved by transferring local best practices across the company. feedback from affiliates.environment of the affiliates. social inspection in France is increasingly controlling companies to ensure that the effective working hours of higher level managers don’t exceed the legal working hours per week. newly acquired affiliates or greenfields. socialization. So. 1980). The Cultural Component of HRM The cultural context of HQ and the different affiliates is another crucial factor. Because it is the capability of the individual person that will drive the selec- . hiring and firing. may be completely accepted by people coming from an individualistic culture. For example. Schuler et al. forces that indicate a need for local adaptation are a 436 Journal of World Business / 36(4) / 429 – 450 multidomestic strategy. The policy of not hiring family members. for instance. For example. a first challenge for IHRM professionals is assess the different forces that instigate the need for global integration and local responsiveness. 1991. top management who believes in context-specific practices. and the critical role of certain employee groups. cultural differences are main drivers in deciding which HRM practices can be globally used and which HRM practices need to be locally adjusted. 1993. mentioned in almost all SIHRM models (Adler & Ghadar. Differences in cultural values reflect different assumptions about the nature of the relationship between employers and employees and therefore lead to different interpretations and employees’ experiences of what ‘good’ HRM practices are. 1996). Milliman et al. 1997). While this factor can be considered to be one of the local forces. less experience of the MNC.. Consequently. performance appraisal. and the legal environment. an exportive approach.. Forces that seem to indicate a need for company-wide coordination are a global strategy. Two forces that seem to differentiate between these two IHR approaches are top management’s belief and MNC’s experience in learning from different practices. Taylor et al. IHRM systems will evidently need to take into account specific country laws with regard to labor relations. training. While these forces indicate a need for control and integration. These two examples illustrate how local laws are not only restricted to lower level employees. In contrast. top management who believes in generalizability.. as sometimes assumed. but may set important conditions to the management of higher level employees. We do so because culture is considered to be the main reason that the same HRM policies are not producing the same effects in different affiliates (Schneider & Barsoux. reward systems and career development may all be experienced differently in individualistic than in collectivistic cultures (Hofstede. Or in Belgium. 1990.

or integrative approach is effective. they think that the whole process is just a scam. If a two-way communication process is not possible. Following Kim and Mauborgne (1993).tion decision. A challenge for IHR professionals is therefore to be sensitive to the power dynamics and understand feelings of reluctance. Affiliate managers will also value the ability to voice their opinion and work back and forth with corporate HR in decision formulation. So. people from a collectivistic culture may experience this HR policy as ‘strange’ because in-group members are likely to be more trusted and will show more loyalty. if affiliate managers have the ability to refute a decision or receive an explanation for the final decision. Consequently. any other possible factors leading to biased decision making are being eliminated. a second challenge for IHR managers is to understand the different cultural assumptions embedded in HRM policies and evaluating their likely impact. It may happen that the decision is strategically correct from a HQ’s perspective but that the different affiliates have another opinion about its need or relevance. IHR managers need to ask themselves questions about the appropriateness of HR practices: Who to hire? What kind of socialization practices is acceptable? What determines career success? How important is individual versus team effort and result? Such questions are very likely to be answered differently in different cultures. exportive. Finally. Being able to assess the cultural context is crucial in deciding which HR policies can be globally exported and which need to be locally adapted. a political arena where strategic decisions reflect not competiDeciding An IHRM Approach 437 . affiliate managers will be more inclined to accept a HQ’s decision if HQ shows familiarity with the local conditions. Explaining final decisions is further important because an intellectual understanding of the rationale makes affiliate managers more inclined to implement those decisions. Therefore. Otherwise. if a two-way communication process is set up. It is a vital step in avoiding the possible alienation or low morale which comes from imposing HR policies that are ill-suited to the local culture (Schneider & Barsoux. at least they need to be able to point out possible misperceptions or wrong assumptions made by HQ concerning local conditions or operations. this third criterion of political component focuses on the acceptability of the decision by the affiliates. This awareness of the political dynamics brings us to the importance of the process of decision making. affiliate managers will judge HQ to be competent and sincere. In contrast. those decisions will be more respected. affiliate managers appreciate a consistent application of decisionmaking rules across affiliates. When decisions are being made with understanding of the effects and impacts for that affiliate. and if decision making is consistent across affiliates. The Political Component Because of Power Dynamics While the global and local forces and the cultural component are criteria that help to decide whether an adaptive. 1997).

To conclude. the discussion of the need for local adaptation is likely to hide a political subtext.Table 1 International Human Resource Management Approaches Adaptive Approach Conditions A multidomestic strategy Top management’s belief in context-specific practices Negative feedback about the appropriateness of exportive practices Legal environment Differences in cultural values Advantages Disadvantages Localization. as indicated before. First. it is often cultural differences that affiliate managers point to as the main reason for local adaptation. Second. even with attention to the decision making process. they may want to examine the different local and global forces leading to a judgment whether these forces ask for local variation. a pretext for retaining local control. 1993). These guidelines may help corporate HR managers to make decisions about international HR practices as fair as possible. a third challenge is to correctly assess the underlying political concerns that may influence the discussion of where integration is possible and where local responsiveness is needed. adaptability Fragmentation. or for global diffusion of best practices. In addition. Finally. feelings of rejection Integrative Approach A global strategy Top management’s belief in sharing experiences Encountered good practices in affiliates Spreading of good practices Ill-suited for a particular context tive and economic dynamics but the dynamics of political interplay (Kim & Mauborgne. The reason lies in the mere fact that each party wants to reserve the power and autonomy to do things as they see fit. internal consistency Inflexibility. IHR managers may want to consider three types of criteria when deciding on an IHR practice. as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. So. Table 1 gives an overview of these different conditions leading to an adaptive. exportive or integrative IHRM approach. The advice from Schneider and Barsoux 438 Journal of World Business / 36(4) / 429 – 450 (1997) is to approach such comments as subjects for dialogue rather than accept them as a given. duplication of efforts Exportive Approach A global strategy Top management’s belief in generalizability First stage of internationalization For newly acquired affiliates or greenfields For strategic critical groups of employees Standardization. it is very likely that corporate HR will experience resistance and reluctance towards their decisions. So. Comments such as ‘but that will never work here in Belgium’ are then used as an excuse. It is also for this reason that an exportive HR approach is very likely to lead to feelings of rejection. IHR managers need to understand the cultural embeddedness of HR practices to evaluate their likely impact. IHR managers need to be sensitive to the political concerns . for HR policies to converge. However.

Van den Brande. employment relationships in Belgium are characterized by a psychological contract of high loyalty. Also most Belgian employers favor long-term relationships offering in general long term. While this may apply in the U. a U. In the area of HRM. Janssens. Of course. the cultural and political component of this decision can explain why this IHR decision was leading to negative reactions. The expected freedom and influence coming along with this strategic position was consistent with the decentralized management approach of the past. open-ended contracts (Sels. 2000). Given this cultural context.of the affiliates to make the decision acceptable. the company moved into the direction of an uniform approach applying the same policies for all affiliates. imposing an appraisal system reflecting a Gauss curve on the Belgian affiliate to ensure a dynamic and result-oriented company. In addition. Besides the cultural component.S. As the story indicated. the resistance towards the IHR decision can be further understood by the power dynamics within the MNC. Deciding An IHRM Approach 439 . it is understandable that a performance appraisal procedure with a threat of lay-offs is a violation of psychological contracting in Belgium and leads to negative reactions among Belgian employees. & Overlaet. one can question whether a two-way communication process or a discussion about the cultural appropriateness of the performance appraisal procedure would have removed all negative reactions. this specific IHR decision was unilaterally made by HQ with no possibilities for input from affiliates or an explanation from corporate HR why and how a dynamic and result-oriented workforce was linked to the company’s strategy and/or culture.S. which in it was leading to feelings of rejection towards HQ. low exit. Although the IHR practices supported top management’s belief in the transfer of uniform practices. On average. Examining the first criteria of assessing global and local forces. However. an esti- mation that confirms the preference of Belgian employees for job stability and security. the recent centralized approach was a threat for the autonomy and control of the Belgian affiliate. MNC adopted an exportive approach. effective company is not free from cultural values. we apply the three different types of criteria to the IHR decision in our original story. it seemed mainly the CEO’s belief in a boundaryless world that drove this decision. context. Such a high company-employee bonding makes a turnover of 5% very acceptable. Assessing the IHR Decision in the Belgian Case To illustrate the relevance of the developed guidelines. In general. 96% of employees stay in their same job position. The belief in the relationship between a 15% turnover and a dynamic. HQ believed that a turnover of 15% was the signal of a dynamic and result-oriented company and affiliates with a lower turnover were forced to use an appraisal system weeding out bad performers. The Belgian affiliate considered itself as a local innovator and therefore claiming an important strategic role within the whole company.

claiming at that moment also back their autonomy. is rather ambitious because it tries to seize the opportunity of mutual dialogue to experiment with creative variations.Given the changing power dynamics within the MNC. Third. the discussion above indicates that MNCs are confronted with the challenge of simultaneously considering global integration and local adaptation. To develop this IHRM approach. Managers first define the problem to be solved from the perspectives of all cultures involved. Adler’s (1997) synergistic approach to problem solving involves three fundamental steps: (1) describing the situation. and (3) developing new culturally creative solutions. This idea of cultural synergy can be found in the work of both Adler (1997) and Hoecklin (1995). So. Hoecklin. the balance is being achieved through transferring best practices between HQ and affiliates. Among the three options. we would like to develop an approach that designs new combinations of HR practices. they culturally interpret the situation by analyzing and explaining the patterns that make each culture’s behavior logical from within its own perspective. This approach. While Adler takes a problem-solving approach to cultural synergy. a pure exportive or adaptive IHRM approach doesn’t seem advisable to choose. structure and process without violating the norms of any single culture. Hoecklin adopts a value-added perspective to cultural synergy. an exportive and an integrative IHR approach. a culturally synergistic approach to IHRM. Models of Cultural Synergy and Problem Solving The idea of cultural synergy refers to the creative potential of cultural differences. leading to new solutions and approaches that transcend the existing differences. we first rely on existing models of cultural synergy in which new outcomes or solutions come from exploring cultural diversity (Adler. 440 Journal of World Business / 36(4) / 429 – 450 . Once they recognize the problem. In this approach.” Synergies are the benefits resulting from a decision that integrates differences and creates a resolution that has more value and benefits than would be produced by a compromise solution. 1995) and on Schein’s (1999) process model of problem solving. it is the integrative IHRM approach that focuses on substantial global integration with an allowance for local differentiation. it may be very likely that the Belgian HR managers would have used culture as a reason for developing its own system. However. 1997. (2) culturally interpreting the situation. The difference between the two models seems to be mainly the first step. instead of only transferring best practices. they develop new culturally creative solutions that foster the organization’s effectiveness and productivity without violating the norms of any cul- DEVELOPING A CULTURALLY SYNERGISTIC IHRM APPROACH Although IHR manages can theoretically choose among three options: an adaptive. According to Adler (1997: 108): “culturally synergistic organizations reflect the best aspects of all members’ cultures in their strategy.

and structured meetings. Schein (1999) discusses the different task processes in groups and provides guidelines on when and where to intervene in a group to avoid common traps. For instance. seminars. 1997). and (6) evaluations of the outcomes. a team of British and Japanese managers agrees upon the objective of a ‘team spirit/equal status’ culture. 1997. 1995) is proactiveoriented. their Japanese colleagues often refuse to promise delivery times. (2) understanding each culture’s way of doing things in trying to achieve the outcome. often leading back to the first cycle with problem redefinition.ture involved.S. (4) implementing the solution and reviewing the impact from a joint perspective. and (5) refining the solution based on multicultural feedback. Our next step is to translate the steps and insights from these existing models into a culturally synergistic approach to IHRM. The second cycle then involves (4) action planning. The result is a combination of practices reflecting both the English culture that is more attuned to individual performance and the consensual Japanese way of working. and one that occurs after a decision to act has been taken. Schein’s process model distinguishes two basic cycles of activity— one that occurs before to any decision or action. we further draw upon the problem solving model as discussed by Schein (1999). (3) forecasting consequences of proposed solutions and testing proposals. For several practices such as conducting meetings. in the case of a joint-venture. While these two models of cultural synergy offer us the basic steps of a culturally synergistic approach to IHRM. (5) action steps. would be promising delivery within a range of time rather than at specific times. Deciding An IHRM Approach 441 . we further rely upon studies on multicultural teams (Adler. managers refine the solution based on multicultural feedback. The first cycle consists of three stages: (1) problem formulation. While the American sales representatives want to promise their customers specific delivery dates and hours. reviewing perfor- mance and type of work clothes. This solution addresses both the American concern of developing credibility with American customers and the Japanese concern of keeping promises (Adler. A synergistic solution. (3) agreeing to an approach by creating new alternatives or blending approaches which will lead to achieving the desired outcomes. An example of this approach is a conflict between American and Japanese sales representatives in a U. Hoecklin’s perspective on cultural synergy (Hoecklin. company. After implementation. they discuss their different approaches and negotiate the most effective way of ensuring the desired outcome. which assures that neither style is treated superior to the other. This cycle ends when the group has made a formal decision on what to do. For each of these stages. Because this approach will be realized at the operational level by workshops. (2) generating proposals for action. She argues that managers from each culture must jointly work through the following steps to consider the value of culture at the start of a working relationship: (1) agreeing on the specific outcomes that are desired from the interaction.

the Group IHR managers needs to agree on the specific outcome that is desired from their interaction (Hoecklin. 2. A Culturally Synergistic Approach to IHRM The culturally synergistic IHRM approach. the different affiliates may question the need or relevance of an integrated IHRM practice. 1993). 2000). 1997. (3) exploring best practices of different cultures. Developing a Superordinate Goal Once the different HR managers understand and accept the need for an integrated IHRM practice. although the decision to coordinate may be strategically correct from a HQ’s perspective. and (7) 442 Journal of World Business / 36(4) / 429 – 450 . This is crucial because. (5) decision making by consensus. (2) developing a superordinate goal. To ensure the potential value of their cultural differences. 1. they may be more inclined to implement the decision (Kim & Mauborgne. However. As already discussed under the political component of IHRM. consists of 7 steps: (1) felt need for an integrated IHRM practice. agreeing on a desired outcome is one of the most difficult steps because the differences between the HR managers may interfere with doing so. corporate HR managers may overcome feelings of reluctance by involving local HR managers in the development of the integrated plan or at least by giving them an explanation for the decision. (4) assessing the cultural appropriateness of solutions. Felt Need for an Integrated IHRM Practice The approach starts with the first step of explaining the felt need for an integrated IHR practice. Insights on the way multicultural teams function will help us to identify practices that facilitate the inclusion of the different cultural perspectives. as presented in Figure 1. the second step refers to determining the desired outcome. 1995). If affiliate HR managers have an intellectual understanding of the rationale how this decision will support specific organizational strategies. (6) taking action steps. One way to overcome these differences Janssens & Brett.Figure 1 A Culturally Synergistic Approach to IHRM evaluating the outcomes of the action steps.

If the group starts with an appreciative orientation. A helpful guideline to agree upon a superordinate goal may be to formulate the goal as an ‘open task’ instead of a ‘solution. Dominance by an individual or subgroup is generally counterproductive in an international team because it stifles the contributions of nondominant. 1997). Therefore. which only leads to resistance. 1990. most likely. pitfall in this step of exploring possibilities is that the group is being dominated by one person or a subgroup. 1997. the team of HR professionals may want to decide on a principle that creates opportunities for every party to speak up and be listened to. the groups fails to look at a whole array of possible ideas for a desired outcome. formulating the goal in a more divergent way may indicate that no right answer exists a priori. Exploring Best Practices of the Different Cultures Once the superordinate goal is agreed upon. In contrast. reductionistic characteristic. 1999). For instance. Inputs of perspectives are decreasing and therefore also the possibility of learning. If the group starts an early evaluation and start raising questions that highlight what is wrong. it will be more likely to follow up with questions that emphasize what is working and appreciating what is in each culture (Barret & Cooperrider. Insights on multicultural teams indicate that equal power or power according to each member’s ability to contribute to the task is an important condition of stimulating synergies in multicultural teams (Adler. The convergent nature of such a goal is likely to lead to disagreements among the different HR professionals because this particular solution may interfere with their different perspectives on how to reward employees. This rule states that if conversations beDeciding An IHRM Approach 443 . 1987). Cooperrider & Srivastva. the Group HR managers can move on to producing ideas or courses of action that might lead to the desired outcome. low status team members (Janssens & Brett. Janssens & Brett. Although the principle is general. setting the goal of ‘installing a pay for performance system’ is already a very specific practice of a reward system. Another. One way that might help here is to adopt an appreciative orientation. 1997). 3. the specific rules need to be designed by the team itself and can take different forms. Superordinate goals are goals that are broadly defined.’ The desired outcome is here presented as an open task through which the different team members are more likely to see an opportunity to contribute. For instance. 2000). An example can be found in the Body Shop where there is a ‘hard’ rule that governs every to develop a superordinate goal. The purpose of this step is therefore to explore best practices from each culture that are possibilities for a solution. A common trap in this step is that proposals are evaluated right away and that the group lapses into debate instead of developing a dialogue format (Schein. giving only general direction which allows for the incorporation of the team members’ differences (Adler. the goal may be ‘to develop a reward system that increases the commitment of employees.’ A goal formulated as a solution often has a convergent.

Furthermore. the group may want to decide on the simple rule that team members from so-called lower status affiliates will present their best practices first. 1997).come heated. As already dis- . So. A specific area of attention for multicultural teams is that of language (Janssens & Brett. 1999). Because the power dynamics in this network were very much determined by the distinction of the rich North versus the poor South. Besides language. This differential status of the affiliates may be reflected upon the status of the different HR managers and consequently create personal or subgroup dominance within the international team. an important criterion is the cultural appropriateness of implementing the HRM practice in each local affiliate. the fourth step is to forecast and evaluate the consequences of adopting a particular HR practice or combination of HR practices. 1987). 2000). By doing so.1 4. It’s a ‘hard’ rule meaning it is being used with no exceptions (Janssens & Brett. safety. pollution. members in this position are sometimes unlikely to even try to participate in team decision making. Affiliates within a MNC can be expected to have differential status or power because of their competitive position. because there is a tendency to judge others based on their language fluency (Louw-Potgeiter & Giles. Although English is generally the business language. contribution to market share or 444 Journal of World Business / 36(4) / 429 – 450 profitability within the global organization. the act in itself is a crucial signal of respect and is likely to stimulate cooperation and trust among the team members. This insight was. she encountered a greater willingness of the higher status mayors to listen to these alternatives and a culture of equal contribution was induced. This process is difficult because the evaluation criteria are often either not clear or there is disagreement on which ones to use (Schein. for instance. Furthermore. used by a person managing a network of mayors from large cities all over the world to improve the organization of cities by addressing issues such as crime. In the context of deciding on an IHRM practice. she decided to let mayors from poor cities in the South present their best practice first. admitting a failure to understand requires a great deal of confidence. contribution of a team member may also be influenced by the status of the affiliate that the team member represents (Janssens & Brett. To avoid this. it is very often the native language of only a few team members. 2000). Team members’ fluency will differ and consequently their capabilities to join and influence the team process. Assessing the Cultural Appropriateness of the Solutions Once a number of ideas for a solution have been proposed. people make a circle so no rank exists and pass a ‘talking stick’ to each other so everybody is listened to. Setting rules or agreeing on how the group will deal with lack of understanding will make people more confident to ask for clarification when they don’t understand (Janssens & Brett. One way the Group HR managers may want to deal with language differences is to develop rules for speaking up and asking for clarification. 2000).

Seeking consensus is also recommended in Schein’s process model (Schein. According to Schein (1999) consensus doesn’t need to mean unanimity. the cultural component of HR practices makes it crucial to evaluate its likely impact to avoid rejection or low morale which comes from using a HR practice that is ill-suited to the local culture. HR managers from hierarchical cultures may view such a prolonged discussion with insiders as inappropriate because it is the outsiders who need to approve. to make all members of the group feel that they had a fair chance to influence the decision. This step may even lead to a reformulation of the superordinate goal because the input from this step may question certain assumptions or alternatives previously taken for granted. An integrative solution to this dilemma would be that preliminary internal consensus is followed by external consensus. or unanimity (Brett. and the group climate has been sufficiently supportive. Fundamental to synergy is a decision rule that requires a large proportion of the team’s members to agree to the decision. Decision Making by Consensus Cycle 1 ends with the group making a decision to move forward on action. If consensus is crucial for synergy and decision making. while HR managers from egalitarian cultures may be used to discuss options until a consensus is reached. Because a synergistic approach to IHRM means involving different HR managers from different cultures. action steps can be taken. 1999) as one of the most effective but also time-consuming methods of group decision making. 5. important in implementing a decision rule in multicultural teams is cultural appropriateness and meaning (Janssens & Brett. Important is also to take enough time because groups typically fail to allow enough time to evaluate the various ideas that they have produced (Schein. the team HR managers may want to develop a decision rule and define how many or which team members must agree for the team to reach a decision. Taking Action Steps As the group reaches some consensus on a proposed HR practice. However. 1999). 1999). Rather it is a state of affairs where communications have been sufficiently open. One of the major pitfalls of this step is to make general plans Deciding An IHRM Approach 445 .cussed. 2001). 2000). Members may agree on consensus as a decision rule but disagree about what consensus means. it is advisable that the specific decision rules also reflect these meanings. or some other pattern that mixes internal and external consensus. For example. either 2/3 majority. 6. Although the iterative nature of this step may take longer and initially appear to be inefficient. By setting such an integration norm. consensus. followed by final internal consensus. opportunities for minority members are increased to express their views and influence the decision. failure to evaluate the proposed HRM practice is otherwise likely to lead to rejection in the implementation phase (Schein.

Setting up a two-way communication process about the desired future direction of HR is likely to lead to less resistance than imposing a specific HR practice on affiliates. This may imply that the HR practice needs to be modified to fit the cultures or the desired outcome better. 1999). or. Instead of imposing a performance appraisal system reflecting a Gauss curve on those affiliates with a turnover of less than 15%. This may not be a sound approach because this person or group has not been involved in formulating the superordinate goal and exploring and assessing the different alternatives. at least.S. Applying the Culturally Synergistic Approach to the Belgian Case To demonstrate this culturally synergistic approach to IHRM.without assigning clear responsibilities to specific members for specific actions (Schein. corporate HQ could have brought together all affiliate HR managers. The first step would therefore consist of providing Belgian—and all other—HR managers with information of why and how a dynamic and resultoriented workforce is linked to the overall strategy or the changing business conditions of the MNC. After implementing the synergistic IHR practice.-Belgian story and discuss how corporate HQ could have acted differently. the group is advised to. 1995). the impact is observed from each culture’s perspective. corporate HR could have developed a superordinate goal together with its affiliate HR managers. They may feel less committed to the HR practice or experience the proposal too unclear to permit implementation. If that is not possible. Therefore. in advance of taking action. corporate HR could have started with explaining the felt need for an integrated HR practice. Evaluation The final step refers to the importance of an adequate evaluation. Once the need for an integrated HR practice is understood and accepted. Following the different steps. Consistent with the logic of cultural synergy. The HQ’s decision originated because of the need for a dynamic and result-oriented workforce but this was never explicitly communicated to the Belgian HR managers. we apply the approach to our original U. 1999). 1999). The group may therefore need to be 446 Journal of World Business / 36(4) / 429 – 450 even psychologically prepared to go back to the initial step of formulating a superordinate goal before rushing into other alternative HR practices. 7. reach consensus on how they will determine whether or not the action steps are achieving the desired outcome (Schein. this evaluation step means that the solution is being refined based upon multicultural feedback (Adler. To ensure this. implementers should be brought into the decision process at the earliest possible stage. they should be completely informed about the discussions and decisions made in the previous steps (Schein. Another danger is that the implementation is delegated to some other person or group in the different local affiliates. Hoecklin. The objective of this meeting would be to agree upon . ideally the HR managers involved in the decision cycle are also responsible for the action cycle. 1997.

The challenge will be to discuss the meaning of ‘a dynamic and result-oriented workforce’ instead of arguing about specific indicators such as % turnover. In the beginning. combined with a pay-for-performance appraisal at the end of the year.’ While a turnover of 15% might be a good indicator for HQ. As both indicated by Adler (1997) and Hoecklin (1995). or the redesign of the tasks into semiautonomous groups. later. it will become more informal and considerably less-time consuming because the learning acquired during the initial meetings will become part of the organization’s increasingly global perspective and cross-cultural competence. this will take time and requires an in-depth understanding of the relationship between cultural values and the meaning of HR practices. Each HR manager will share a practice that in his/her experience has led to the desired outcome of ‘taking responsibility’: a payfor-performance system. this step may lead to a reformulation of the HR practice or even of the superordinate goal because the input from other parties may question certain assumptions or alternatives previously taken for granted. Important in this stage is to ensure that all HR managers feel comfortable to contribute. If there is a consensus that. To conclude. Based upon their understanding of their own and each others’ culture. the decision might be to install developmental interviews twice a year in which opportunities for ‘responsibility’ in the job design are being discussed. After the different experiences are being shared. However. the process of a synergistic approach is not a quick fix but instead a systematic process. Deciding An IHRM Approach 447 . As indicated above. when introducing a culturally synergistic approach for the first time. As discussed above. Once the superordinate goal is agreed upon. a training program about leadership. this might be very different for other affiliates. the group should therefore decide on some principles that create equal opportunities to speak up. ‘taking responsibility’ is important. the Group HR managers should discuss the likely con- sequences of adopting a particular HR practice for each affiliate. the process should be addressed explicitly and formally. the next step is to assess the cultural appropriateness of the different proposed solutions. Corporate and affiliate HR managers will need to test out and evaluate the chosen HR overall goal that will lead to a dynamic and result-oriented workforce. the Group HR managers could move to the next step of exploring each other’s best practices. HQ needs to be aware that the process will be time-consuming. As discussed above. To identify such a superordinate goal. as is the case for the Belgian affiliate in which low turnover means commitment and loyalty to the organization. The result however may be a combination of HR practices that is acceptable for all HR managers as well as addresses HQ’s need of a dynamic and result-oriented workforce. the HR managers will need to discuss what they understand by ‘a dynamic and result-oriented workforce. the superordinate goal may be to design a HR practice that will stimulate this type of behavior. for instance. the culturally synergistic approach doesn’t end with this decision. For instance.

affiliates and employee groups. Following the SIHR models. is surely recognized because the approach consists of exploring best practices of different cultures. And finally. F. J.. The advantage of a culturally synergistic model lies in simultaneously considering the need for global coordination. By choosing this approach. Pieper (Ed. In: R. coordination in a culturally synergistic approach consists of a feedback and monitoring process. As forces for global integration and local adaptation are simultaneously present. the result may be a mix of the three IHR approaches across different tasks. NOTES 1. and the importance of power and autonomy of the local affiliates. OH: SouthWestern College Publishing. Cincinnati. The three main criteria that can help making the decision are an assessment of the local and global forces. International dimensions of organizational behavior.). . N. (1990). Global coordination can be ensured by taking the need for an integrated IHRM practice as a starting point and by evaluating at the end whether or not the chosen solution can serve as the integrated IHRM practice. IHR professionals may want to consider a culturally synergistic approach to IHRM. and adaptive and an integrative IHR approach. the recognition of the cultural embeddedness of HRM. organized by Taos Institute with David Cooperrider & Diane Witney. adaptive and integrative IHR approach. HR managers may become actively involved in developing an organization that values cultural differences and in guiding their organization toward a more inclusive worldview. October 1996. Adler. the cultural component of HRM practices. REFERENCES Adler. coordination and control in this case does not mean that HQ itself can decide on the type of HR practice. the cultural component of HR practices and the power dynamics within the MNC. Besides an exportive.CONCLUSION The purpose of this paper was to offer IHR professionals insights and guidelines of how to decide on an IHRM policy. N. Strategic human resource management: A global perspective. 235–260). IHR professionals have the options of an exportive. It therefore goes beyond an integrated approach which refers only to a global diffusion of best practices and not to a new combination. This insight was shared by one of the participants in a 4-day workshop on Appreciative Inquiry. trying to understand how these practices lead to the desired outcome and then trying to create new alternatives by blending and combining practices. Human resource management in international comparison (pp. Berlin: De Gruyter. The second criterion. How448 Journal of World Business / 36(4) / 429 – 450 ever. (1997). & Ghadar. A culturally synergistic approach has the ambition to design new HR practices by recognizing and transcending the individual cultures. Instead. the approach stresses as much as possible a jointly decision making process with equal power as an important condition for stimulating synergies.

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