Cultural Differences: Different Time 'Zones' (Part-1)

In the quest of building a strong global identity, organizations are realizing more and more culture related issues which, when used as a covert foundation in policy formulation and planning, would aid in aligning organizational goals with regional differences. Time perspective is one such element of culture, which influences the way members of a culture tend to approach decision-making in consumer as well as business activities. The difference in the time perception leads to the difference in the outlook of the employees towards work and people. The issue of time in the study of culture can been used in International Human Resources Management (IHRM) researches to measure country and group level effects that can be discriminated between countries and groups and thus help explain variance in the behaviors of organization and people. The dimension of time-perspective could be added (Bond, MH et al 1987) as the fifth dimension of culture related to work organization. The other four dimensions are Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity and Uncertainty Avoidance (Hofstede and Bond 1984), as defined by Geert Hofstede's most popular framework of studying international culture.

Philip R. Cateora and John L. Graham ( 'International Marketing', 10th edition, Pg. 130) define the classification of perspective of time into Monochronic and Polychronic time. M-time or monochronic time perception of a culture implies that people tend to concentrate on one thing at a time. It is typical of low-context cultures like that of North Americans, Swiss and Scandinavians. They divide the time in to small units and are concerned with promptness. M-time is used in a linear way and is experienced as being tangible, in that we save time, spend time or waste time.

The concept of polychronic time or P-time is characterized by simultaneous occurrence of many things and by "a great involvement with people". P-time allows for relationships to build on and context to be absorbed as part of high-context cultures like that of India and other South Asian countries. The completion of human transactions is considered more important than holding to schedules.

The author has made an attempt to analyse the HRM practices of USA, India and Japan, in the context of cultural-differences in the perception of time. The choice of these cultures have been based on the fact that traditionally USA is recognised as a M-time culture, India as a P- time culture, while Japan is a mix of M- time and P- time behaviour. However these cultures do not exist in isolation, and the time perception in these cultures is being influenced and changed by cross-frontier trade and other interactions.

The implications of the difference in the perception of time in different cultures can be organization wide, individual directed or task centric.

Influence on Organisation

Those issues, which effect planning, scheduling and unionism have an organization wide effect and are in turn influenced by culture based perception of time.

The P – type culture takes short-term view of organization and its goals, while an M-time culture takes a long term view and emphasizes long term organization planning. For an organization that is planning to set up operations in P-type culture, it would have to acquaint the employees with its long-terms goals and align them with their personal goals to introduce a long-term vision.

Reworking the reward system to emphasis on attainment of long term planning goals would also reinforce the same. A culture having a mix of P and M type behavior shows long term planning and a strategic role of HR in planning. Rules are codified and decision-making is allowed adequate time.

For any organization with international operations unionism is an essential part of its external environment, which is often guided by the law of the land. M-type culture takes an adverse view of unionism. On the other hand, P-type culture has cooperative unions and collective bargaining and worker participation is the norm. A mix of P and M type culture shows enterprise unionism, which is positive and cooperative in nature and worker participation is encouraged.

The information about prevalent unionism is of use to both employees and management since this defines their interaction and extent of worker participation in management.

Decision making is another aspect of organization which in M-type culture, perceived as more bureaucratic with rigid rules, is appreciated if it is quick; while P-type culture is more flexible and accepts a long decision making process. In contrast, the mix of P and M type culture emphasizes the role of HR in the decision making. The rules are formal and codified and decision making is allowed adequate time. By acquainting its expatriate managers with these perceptions an organization would gain in situations like negotiations.

Influence on Individual

Aspects like individual's performance appraisal, reward and perspective towards employment are some issues, which are influenced by culture-based perception of time.

Performance appraisal can be based on individual achievement or it can emphasis group performance. An individual in an M-type culture concentrates on his own performance since group achievements are not the primary goal, while in a mix of P and M type culture, group performance is an important criteria for performance appraisal. In this issue the organization can be guided by societal norms and values. The interval between performance appraisals is also dependent on perception of time and a culture with long decision making cycles might require a longer performance appraisal cycle.

The issues like career planning, hiring policy and succession planning are dependent on average employee tenure in the organization. In both P-type and the mix type culture, employees presume a lifetime employment. This leads to easy succession planning and a need based hiring policy, which relies heavily on personal interviews as a selection criteria. In contrast, an employee in M-type culture would in all probabilities work for more than one employer in his lifetime and hence a structured hiring policy. Another area of ​​difference between different cultures is wage determination. In P-type culture wages are based on industry-cum-regional parameters, and seniority is an important parameter in determining wages. Wages in M-type culture is skill and merit based. In a mix of M and P type culture wages are based on both seniority and merit. To avoid dissonance this factor is to be kept in perspective to draft an effective compensation policy in different cultures. Since most organizations want to avoid a geography based pay differentiation, a non-monetary remuneration can be offered.

Influence on Task

Task definition and task related skill development is also influenced by culture related perception of time.

Tasks in P-type culture are loosely defined giving flexibility to the employee while M-type culture has rigid definition of task. In the mix of P and M type culture job definition is simple and broad. This difference could mean job dissatisfaction in organizations operating in different cultures but following a uniform job definition.

The perception about training is also culture based. P-type culture considers training to be of little importance and training is on the job. In M-type culture formal training is imparted. In the mix of M and P type cultures, train-ability is emphasized with both on-job and off-job trainings being imparted. Thus the issue of training and skill development in different cultures will have to be tackle differently, more so because cultures also promote multi-skill or specialization development. P-type culture and the mix of M and P type culture, associate job rotation with job satisfaction hence employees are multi skilled. In M-type culture employees are specialists in specific tasks. This difference would be specially emphasized in case of blue-collared workers.


A good case for comparing the three cultures is the statistical comparison of importance of company breeding in the US and Japanese managerial labour markets by Takao Kato and Mark Rockel. It states that there is a clear difference between the time taken for new recruit to reach the position of CEO in the two countries. On an average, in USA it took 20 years while in Japan it took 27 years in. Seeing that most of the CEOs in India reach that position after 25 to 30 years in the organisation we can extend the study to aid in comparing the three cultures.

This difference in promotion is quite apparent in terms of real time. But another criteria to be considered is that Japanese organisation stress on hands-on on-job-training for the development and training of a CEO hence the emphasis remains on the long-term objective.

The survey points to the fact that the managerial labour market of Japan tends to nurture more long-term relationship between managers and the firm than that of USA. The CEOs in USA laid lesser emphasis on knowing the firm and its employee, owing to comparatively lesser stress on consensus building.

In the traditional Indian firms with the emphasis on relationships, the promotions were typically based on seniority thus often the CEOs were appointed even as they were just a few months away from the stipulated retirement age.


The deeply entrenched perceptions, which have even shaped cultures, would be difficult to melt to mould together in one universal time-perception. But the desire to seek or introduce homogeneity in these matters are uppermost in the minds of a managers dealing with various issues of international HRM, ranging from managing of subsidiaries to training of expatriates. The slow progress towards acceptance of similar mixed time- perceptions at least in the place of work is visible.

While on one hand the Japanese promote dynamism, future-orientation, hard work and adherence to rules, on the other hand importance is placed on relationships, broad job descriptions, decentralization and respect for seniority.

HRM practices in USA are showing a similar trend, be it in greater tolerance of trade unions or in forays in building corporate loyalty. Similar trends in India are being forced towards a more monochronic approach to wards work, by advent of competition for the state owned enterprises from the private sector firms, including MNC.

Source by Puja Karki

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