Traditional Culture and Bureaucracy: Management Challenges in the

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Pacific

Presented to the Pacific and Asian Affairs Council Honolulu, Hawaii

March 24, 1998 By Papalii Dr. Failautusi Avegalio Research Fellow, Pacific Islands Development Program, East West Center

This presentation is focused on tapping into strengths of traditional leadership structures by modernizing and designing them into contemporary organizations. Past efforts have been relatively ineffective due to attempts to transform the leadership structures by westernizing the structures, then tapping it as a resource with predictable consequences.

Today, the vast majority of working adults in the Pacific, work in formal organizations or bureaucratic systems that were designed in the 18th Century for the 19th Century and effectively implemented in the 20th Century. A carry-over from former colonial administrations, these organizational structures are philosophically grounded in classical and scientific management theory or machine concepts of western efficiency and precision. Established throughout the Pacific at the heels of national claims of territory, bureaucratic staffers, managers and non-host country economists were transferred to the region to establish the infrastructure for colonial or territorial administration. Additionally, this vanguard instituted and implemented management models created in the west that ignored the social cultural aspects of the host Pacific territory by viewing it as a constraint thereby failing to understand and tapping it as an asset.

Today, the adage that government efficiency is an oxymoron commonly accepted in the countries from whence it was created underscores a common if not universal experience of the stultifying influence of bureaucracies on people, regardless of culture. The truism that a Chuukese, Fijian, Samoan or Chamorro employee may appear lethargic, unproductive and lazy during working hours to a non host country supervisor schooled in the principles of Scientific Management, [including Pacific Islanders educated overseas who return to their islands also often become indoctrinated to this way of thinking] is common knowledge. Yet, when not at work and in their villages, these same workers willingly commit themselves to tasks of varying complexity such as spending hours perfecting the construction of a canoe, weaving finely detailed mats, synchronically interacting with multiple protocols of tradition to several groups simultaneously, tracking elusive schools of fish miles from shore and laboriously clearing and planting acres of taro and bananas. The significant imbalance in energy displacement and commitment is significantly influenced by the environment within which a human interacts. One is more a natural connection with the wholeness of ones existence. The other is functioning in a formal organization designed with a focus on separateness from the whole and governed by the principles of mechanical efficiency.

Factory workers in Chicago, Federal workers in Washington DC, and staffers in a large corporation who work in similar formal bureaucratic systems exhibit the same duo behaviors. There is the propensity for compliant, routinized behavior in the work environment, with drastically different behaviors that are more energized with significant efforts to connect beyond ones self occurring outside of the work environment. In both scenarios the depth of potential energy is not tapped, developed nor encouraged in formal organizations. Check your brains in at the door before entering is a common quip among those whose creative, innovative and energetic impulses are repressed or denied in bureaucratic environments. Workers in general want to give more than work environments of formal bureaucracies are willing to permit. The challenge is to seek or construct alternate organizational designs that can do so.

In the case of Oceania, much of the energy that emanates from a heritage of open ocean navigators lies dormant among the employees, political leaders and managers of formal bureaucracies. To tap into it, is to redesign the formal organization with renewed commitments to integrate into its systems traditional culture, knowledge and leadership structures. Modern organizations are beginning to learn from their mistakes and are recognizing the value of traditional practices and beliefs. Such recognition does not mean that one can rely on these beliefs and practices to solve every organizational development or management problem. Some local practices are not sustainable or practical in certain commercial contexts. However, they can provide a foundation for development initiatives when adapted to contemporary economic circumstances. In this context the Pacific islands need to modernize, not modernize. To continue the status quo is to court abuses of political power at the apex which reigns over a system designed for dependency and compliance towards centralized control, power and authority.

Bureaucratic designs reinforce dependency and submissiveness. Research of American industries, hospitals, schools, corporate institutions, etc., by Chris Argyris a leading organizational theorist, noted that formal bureaucracy encourages employees to be passive, dependent, and subordinate; hence employees behave immaturely. Keeping people immature is built into the very nature of the formal organization. It is not difficult to conjure images of managers who constantly use threats, fear and intimidation like an imposing parent in attempts to motivate productive behavior from child like employees whose very immaturity is encouraged by the very system which employs them.

The rate of external change is accelerating. Environmentally as well as economically. With major problems like nuclear and industrial pollution, overpopulation, the destruction of the atmosphere, the extinction of plant and bird species it seems as if we blindly befoul our Pacific oceanic environment in the name of economic development and industrial progress.

Traditional cultures are founded on the caring for and the balance with nature. To tap the traditional wisdom by integrating it by design into more flexible governmental structures would provide a source of balance are representation of a dimension that is rooted in centuries of empirical observation.

To meet the uncertainty and environmental changes of a dynamic global condition, government calls for self sufficiency, local capacity and economic development strategies are in the forefront of developing island governments. The long term and sustained impact of bureaucratic work environments may slow any trends towards those goals. Much of the drag can be attributed to a collective conditioning towards dependency and passivity created by government bureaucratic structures in the Pacific for over a century. Saul Gellermans’ studies on organizations report that organizations that foster dependency (high use of rules, regulations, procedures and policies, i.e., RRPP’s) in addition to extending greater perks and benefits which enhance security may in fact make people more docile and predictable. Interestingly enough, merely providing more perks, higher salaries and more benefits does not necessarily increase employees productivity. In fact, if creativity or initiative is necessary in their jobs, an overemphasis on dependence and security can significantly thwart such behavior. Entrepreneurial, creative and innovative capacities vital to the revitalization or stimulation of development of any kind, is significantly drained from formal bureaucratic organizational systems, of which as high as 90% of a Pacific Islands work force is engaged.

The difficulty and challenges associated with attempts to change conditioned organizational behavior from dependent-compliant-passive government employee to a business person assuming a role in a privatized government function would be similar to taking a dependent immature child from its parent rather then weaning it from the parent. One causes trauma the other if done right builds confidence. It is horrifying to contemplate the proposed strategies of several island administrations focused on downsizing government through privatization of government functions to government employees. Without a substantial investment in long term strategic training, continuous technical business development support and education through [preferably local] institutions of higher education, government employees affected by such a strategy may face severe challenges just to survive basic viability.

Traditional cultures of Oceania whose heritage is open ocean navigation, brings that heritage of risk taking, precision, skill, creativity, innovation, vitality, social balance, connectivity and spirituality that, until recently is seldom tapped much less designed into modern organizations. Such qualities can be revitalized where waning and strengthened where it thrives. When acknowledged, respected and tapped as a source of energy by designing it into modern organizations, meaningful and sustainable development and modernization of island economies can occur. By exploring methods of combining the efficiency focus of the formal organization or bureaucracy, with the effectiveness dimension of traditional culture, a reconciliation of the two often conflicting dilemmas can be achieved. A synthesis of the two can result in a balanced organizational design that draws from the strengths of both perspectives while minimizing their weaknesses. The either/or insistence associated with dominant formal organizations and governmental relations at the local and federal levels, can be averted by committed investments in the modernization of leadership structures of traditional cultures. Modernization provides the knowledge, skills, tools, means and support to enable traditional leaders and elders to contribute to the national experience as conduits of heritage, traditional wisdom, cultural vitality and connectivity to the greater universe.

A massive shift in the perception of reality is underway, according to physicist Fritjof Capra. Thinkers in many disciplines, he notes, "are beginning to move away from the traditional, reductionistic, mechanical world view to an ecological, holistic systems paradigm." The way that physicists view the world has shifted from Newtonian/Cartesian assumptions about the nature of the universe to Einsteinian/quantum mechanics assumptions. Recent discoveries of quantum mechanics tell us that the material world appears to be a complex web of relationships, with everything affecting everything else. Theoretical physicist David Bohm notes, "The notion of separate objects is an idealization that is often very useful, but has no fundamental validity. All such objects are patterns in an inseparable cosmic process, and these patterns are intrinsically dynamic."

The values and theoretical underpinnings of western organizational thinking revolves around the belief that the parts influences the whole. If a part breaks down, the whole is dependent on fixing that part to function properly. Each part of the whole is separate from other parts, although there are certain relationships and interdependencies among the parts. The cosmos operates mechanically, according to certain mechanical laws and principles. This reductionistic thinking began with Rene Descartes and was articulated triumphantly by Isaac Newton, who developed a consistent, mathematical formulation of the mechanistic view of nature. This approach sees entities as essentially separate from each other, behaving according to mechanistic laws of the universe. From the second half of the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, this mechanistic view dominated all scientific thought. Its assumptions affected all fields of endeavor, from medicine (humans treated as machines, with parts to be fixed or replaced) to organizations (the view of organization as machine).

The Pacific cultural values from the islands of Oceania with a heritage of open ocean navigation, does not perceive life nor the world as separate yet interacting parts of a whole. Everything, including the navigator is part of one large, seamless whole, and everything is connected to and influenced by everything else. Nothing is separate from anything else, despite appearances. Integration and wholeness is the basis of such cultures which sees the earth as a life form and that even inanimate objects contain mana or spiritual essence.

Strategies focused on modernizing a culture instead of westernizing it, maximizes the opportunity of traditional leaders and elders who are the stewards of traditional knowledge of connectivity, to participate and contribute in contemporary developmental issues associated with economic development and political affairs. In this manner, the tendency to marginalize traditional culture and knowledge as separate from the 'modern' business of government and business can be reconsidered by viewing and utilizing traditional culture as reconnecting with the wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors. A wisdom and knowledge which modern science has rediscovered and reaffirmed. The bridge to the future is through the past. By integrating as much as possible the substance of the past with the forms of the future, traditional culture and knowledge can a guiding asset for connectivity, adaptability, developmental balance, modernization and ultimately, survival.

An example of the reconciliation of traditional structures with Western bureaucracy is American Samoa’s bicameral legislature. The Senate is comprised of traditional leaders selected in the traditional manner and a House of Representatives that is popularly elected. This design is an example of reconciling the divergent cultural ideologies of individualism vs. collectivism by taking the strengths of both and creating a third design fashioned by their combined strengths while minimizing the weaknesses.

Understanding the difference between substance and form as it relates to organizational effectiveness and sustained stability, is critical to appreciating the importance of culture and its dimensions in business, government and society in general. Substance is enduring while form is ephemeral. Dee Hock emphasizes the importance and distinction between the two. The failure to distinguish clearly between form and substance is ruinous. Success follows those adept at preserving the substance of the past by clothing it in the forms of the future. Preserve substance; modify form; know the difference. It is important that people of the Pacific preserve the substance of culture in its organizations while clothing it in dynamic forms and organizational designs of the future. It is equally important that non host country nationals endeavor to understand traditional cultural designs of the host country as assets for managing and organization, rather than having to confront them as a barrier in the work place. The closest thing to a law of nature in business is that form has an affinity for expense, while substance has an affinity for income.

As structures need to be rethought; as the environment is becoming more dynamic forcing a greater need for flexibility, so must the way we lead or manage must change. The advent of new forms of technology, dynamic to turbulent economic environments, and the growing awareness of culture as a competitive advantage are growing testimony that structural rigidity in formal organizations no longer works. It is imperative that the barriers which has constrained the voyaging spirit and creative capacities of Oceania’s people be emancipated in organizations through organizational responsiveness, flexibility and redesign. Once considered threats to efficiency, the traditional spirit associated with creative and innovative designing, engineering, and sailing of the voyaging canoe to the far reaches of the globe are now very much keys to competitiveness, long term sustainability, social responsibility and organizational effectiveness as we enter the Ocean of the new millennium.

All the points discussed above are insights which builds on the concept of reaching the future through the past. Modernization not Westernization. The concept of inclusivity or holistic direction must be a serious consideration in planning, designing, developing and organizing strategies for development, growth and modernization in the Pacific. The first step in this process is for organizational leaders to see themselves and their organizations as part of an interdependent web of organizations, institutions, environments and times. A fact that our open ocean navigator ancestors knew and we are rediscoverning: no man, or organization, is an island.

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