Deeper cultural assumptions: the nature of time

The perception and experience of time are among the most central aspects of how any group functions. When people differ in their experience of time, tremendous communication and relationship problems typically emerge. Consider how anxious or irritated we get when someone is late, when we feel our time has been wasted, when we feel that we did not get enough “air time” to make our point, when we feel “out of phase” with someone, someone is taking up too much of our time, or when we can never get our subordinate to do things on time or to show up at the right time.

In an analysis of time, Dubinskas (1988, p. 14) points out its central role in human affairs: “Time is a fundamental symbolic category that we use for talking about the orderliness of social life. In a modern organiza­tion, just as in an agrarian society, time appears to impose a structure of workdays, calendars, careers, and life cycles that we learn and live in as part of our cultures. This temporal order has an ‘ already made ’ character of naturalness to it, a model of the way things are.” Or, as Hassard (1999, p. 336) puts it: “While our sense of temporality is founded on the biology of the human organism, it becomes refined and ordered by participation in society and culture.”

Time is not a unidimensional, clear construct. It has been analyzed from many perspectives, and a number of these are particularly relevant to group and organizational analysis because of the ubiquitous problems of schedul­ing, allocation, and coordination.

1. Basic Time Orientation

Anthropologists have noted that every culture makes assumptions about the nature of time and has a basic orientation toward the past, present, or future (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961; Redding and Martyn-Johns, 1979; Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars, 1993). For example, in their study of the various cultures in the U.S. Southwest, Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck noted that some of the Indian tribes lived mostly in the past, the Spanish-Americans were oriented primarily toward the present, and the Anglo-Americans were oriented primarily toward the near future.

Time orientation is a useful way to distinguish some macrocultural national differences. For example, in their cross-cultural study, Hofstede and Bond identified a dimension that contrasted a past/present orientation with a future orientation and found that economic development was corre­lated with a future orientation (Hofstede and Bond, 1988; Hofstede, 2001). Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars, based on their own survey, found that among Asian countries, Japan is at the extreme of long-range planning while Hong Kong is at the extreme of short-run planning.

At the level of the organization, we can distinguish companies that are primarily oriented to (1) the past, thinking mostly about how things used to be; (2) the present, worrying only how to get the immediate task done; (3) the near future, worrying mostly about quarterly results; and (4) the distant future, investing heavily in research and development or in build­ing market share at the expense of immediate profits.

Cultural assumptions about time influence the role that planning will play in the management process. For example, one high- t ech company I have worked with operated by the assumption that “only the present counts.” Employees worked extremely hard on the immediate tasks that challenged them, but they had little sense of past history and did not care much about the future. People in the planning department complained that plans were made in a ritualistic way; planning books were filled with things to do, but nothing ever got implemented.

Many organizations live in the past, reflecting on their past glories and successes while ignoring present and future challenges. They make the basic assumption that if things worked in the past, they must be good enough to work in the present and future and do not need to be reexamined. That assumption can indeed be valid if the technology and the environment have remained stable, but it can lead an organization to destruction if new environmental demands and technological changes require changes in how the organization defines its mission, its goals, and the means by which to accomplish them, as the DEC story illustrates (Schein, 2003).

How future oriented an organization should be is the subject of much debate, with many arguing that one of the problems of U.S. companies is that the financial context in which they operate (the stock market) forces a near-future orientation at the expense of longer-range planning. From an anthropological point of view, it is of course not clear what is cause and what is effect. Is the United States, culturally speaking, a near-future-oriented pragmatic society that has therefore created certain economic institutions to reflect our need for quick and constant feedback, or have our economic institutions created the short-run pragmatic orientation? In either case, the important point is that these cultural assumptions about time dominate daily thinking and activity to the point where a U.S. manager may have a hard time even imagining the alternative of a long-range planning process such as is typical in some Japanese industries.

2. Monochronic and Polychronic Time

Edward Hall, in several very insightful books about national cultures (1959, 1966, 1977), points out that in the United States, most managers view time as monochronic, an infinitely divisible linear ribbon that can be divided into appointments and other compartments but within which only one thing can be done at a time. If more than one thing must be done within, say, an hour, we divide the hour into as many units as we need and then do one thing at a time. When we get disorganized or have a feeling of being overloaded, we are advised to do one thing at a time. Time is viewed as a valuable commodity that can be spent, wasted, killed, or made good use of; but once a unit of time is over, it is gone forever. Hassard (1999) points out that this concept of “linear time” was at the heart of the industrial revolu­tion in the shift to measuring productivity in terms of the time it took to produce something, insertion of time clocks to measure the amount of work done, paying people by the amount of time they work, and emphasizing the metaphor that “time is money.”

In contrast, some cultures in southern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East regard time as primarily polychronic, a kind of medium defined more by what is accomplished than by a clock and within which several things can be done simultaneously. Even more extreme is the cyclical concept of time “as phases, rather circular in form. One season follows the next, one life leads into another” as seen in some Asian societies (Sithi-Amnuai, 1968, p. 82). The manager who operates according to this kind of time “holds court” in the sense that she or he deals simultaneously with a number of subordinates, col­leagues, and even bosses, keeping each matter in suspension until it is finished.

This distinction is usefully applied by Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars (1993, 2000) to nations and organizations in terms of whether they are more focused on sequential thinking (monochromic clock time) or syn­chronization of activities (polychronic). They point out, for example, that the Japanese approach to car manufacturing is based on making as many of the sequential activities of a product line as possible into synchronous activities so that at the point where a given part, such as an engine, is inserted, a number of different engines can be ready to fit into the different models that may be coming down the line. Supplies have to arrive “just in time” so that the costs of keeping things in inventory are minimized.

How a culture views time is, of course, related to other cultural themes, such as the importance of relationships in getting a job done. If relation­ships are thought of as being more important than short- run efficiency, there is likely to be more emphasis on polychronicity. Punctuality or the rapid completion of a task may not be valued as highly as dealing with all the relationship issues that are brought up in relation to the task. Monochronically oriented managers can become very impatient and frus­trated in a polychronic culture when their bosses give attention to several subordinates at the same time, or in a more relationship-oriented culture when they must give time to social events before business can be discussed.

Though there is an emphasis on monochronicity in the United States, polychronic time concepts do exist in U.S. organizations, and cyclical time concepts are introduced, especially by workers in monotonous jobs (Bluedom, 2000). A doctor or dentist, for example, may simultaneously see several patients in adjacent offices, and a supervisor is usually totally avail­able at all times to all of his or her machine operators. Parents and home­makers may simultaneously cook, clean house, and deal with each of several children. In an airport check-in line, an agent will ask whether any of the people in the line are scheduled for an immediate flight and pull them out of the line so as not to hold up the flight departure. When Alpha Power was required by a court order to become environmentally responsible, electrical workers were told that cleaning up an oil spill from the emergency truck was just as important as fixing the hospital generator; in effect, these tasks had be viewed synchronously, not sequentially. Production workers in monotonous jobs creatively introduce new and informal activities to provide breaks with various meanings to give the day a more rhythmic and cyclical form. The use of cell phones while driving has become a major safety issue raising the whole question of when several things can be done at the same time.

Time concepts also define in a subtle way how status is displayed, as illustrated by the frustrating experiences that Americans and northern Europeans have in Latin cultures, where lining up and doing things one at a time are less common. I have stood in line at a small post office in Southern France only to discover that some people barge to the head of the line and actually get service from the clerk. My friends have pointed out to me that in this situation not only does the clerk have a more polychronic view of the world, leading the clerk to respond to those who shout loudest, but that a higher-status person considers it legitimate to break into the line and get service first as a display of status. If others live in the same status system, they do not get offended by being kept waiting. In fact, it was pointed out to me that by staying in line and fulminating, I was displaying a low sense of my own status; otherwise, I would have been up at the head of the line demanding service as well.

3. Subculture Variations: Planning Time and Development Time

In a study of biotechnology companies, Dubinskas (1988) found that when biologists who had become entrepreneurs worked with managers who came from an economics or business background, subtle misunderstandings would occur over how long things took, how milestones are viewed, and how the future in general is perceived during the planning process. The managers viewed time in a linear, monochronic way, with targets and milestones that were tied to external objective realities such as market opportunities and the stock market. Dubinskas labeled this form of time planning time.

In contrast, the biologists seemed to operate from something he called development time, best characterized as “things will take as long as they will take,” referring to natural biological processes that have their own internal time cycles. To caricature the distinction, a manager might say we need the baby in five months to meet a business target, while the biologist would say, sorry, but it takes at least nine months to make a baby. Planning time seeks closure; open-ended development time can extend far into the future.

A similar kind of contrast can be seen in the time horizons of electrical engineers and chemical engineers. DEC engineers could plan for market windows because circuit design technology permitted immediate testing of a circuit. Researchers at Ciba-Geigy told me that they could never pre­dict how long the development of a new chemical would take because lab results were often not reproducible at the level of the pilot plant or the final manufacturing plant.

4. Discretionary Time Horizons and Degree of Accuracy

Another dimension of time on which group members need consensus has to do with the size of relevant time units in relation to given tasks (Jaques, 1982, 1989). Do we measure and plan for things annually, quarterly, monthly, daily, hourly, or by the minute? What is considered “accurate” in the realm of time? Does a given task have to be measured in terms of seconds, minutes, or longer units? How long after an appointed time can someone show up and still be considered on time, and how long after the expected time of arrival can a plane land and still be listed as on time? What are the expected timetables for certain events, such as promotions? How much time is it appropriate to spend on a given task, and what is the length of a feedback loop? How long should a task take?

As Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) noted years ago, one of the reasons why sales and research and development (R&D) people have trouble communi­cating with each other is that they work with totally different time horizons.

For salespeople, the time horizon involves the completion of a sale, which could take minutes, hours, days, or weeks. In general, however, even their longer time horizons were much shorter than those of the research people, for whom a multiyear horizon was normal. In other words, research people would not get closure, in the sense of knowing that they had a good product, until a much longer period of time had elapsed, partly because they oper­ated more in terms of development time, as described earlier.

If we now consider the communication process between the researcher and the salesperson/marketer, when the latter says that she wants a product “soon,” and the researcher agrees that the product will be ready “soon,” they might be talking about completely different things and not realize it. For example, at DEC, I constantly heard complaints from the sales department that engineering was not getting the products out “on time.” If I talked to engineering, I was told that the product was on schedule and doing just fine, which often meant “we are only six months late, which is nothing in a several-year development cycle.” Each function got angry at the other. Neither recognized that the judgments being made about what it meant to be “on time” resulted from different assumptions about time units.

DEC and Ciba-Geigy differed in their overall time horizons, probably because of their underlying technologies and markets. The slow deliberateness of the research process at Ciba-Geigy spilled over into the management process. Things were done slowly, deliberately, and thoroughly. If a project was going to take several years, so be it. Time was expressed in spatial terms in a phrase commonly heard around the company: “The first thousand miles don’t count.” In other words, be patient and persistent; things will eventually work out.

Time horizons differ not only by function and occupation but also by rank. The higher the rank, the longer the time horizon over which a man­ager has discretion (Jaques, 1982, 1989), or what Bailyn (1985) has called “operational autonomy.” This period of time is usually defined as the time between formal reviews of whether or not an individual is doing his or her basic job. Production workers may get reviewed every few minutes or hours, supervisors may get reviewed monthly or annually, and top executives may get reviewed only once every several years, depending upon the nature of their industry. Different norms about time arise, therefore, at different rank levels. Senior managers assume that they must plan in cycles of several years, whereas such an assumption may not make sense to the middle man­ager or the worker, whose time cycle is daily, weekly, or monthly.

Different assumptions about discretionary periods can cause difficulty in managing. Bailyn (1985) found that senior managers in one large R&D organization believed that their scientists wanted to set their own research goals (they were given goal autonomy), but because those scientists were perceived to be undisciplined in their management of budgets and time, they were reviewed frequently (they were not given very much operational autonomy). When Bailyn talked to the scientists, she discovered that two of the main reasons why they felt demoralized was that management was “not allowing them to get involved in helping to set goals” (because they were in industry, they wanted to work on relevant problems as specified by management) and that “they were constantly being reviewed and never allowed to get any work done.” In other words, the scientists wanted just the opposite of what management was providing—they wanted less goal autonomy and more operational autonomy.

Jaques (1982, 1989) takes the argument about discretionary time hori­zons even further by noting that managerial competence can be judged by whether or not a given manager is functioning in terms of the time horizons appropriate to the level of his or her job. A production worker thinking in terms of years and a senior manager thinking in terms of hours and days are equally likely to be ineffective in terms of what their jobs demand of them. As an individual moves up the hierarchy into jobs that require longer-range planning, you can assess that individual’s potential for promotion partly in terms of his or her ability to take longer-range points of view. When senior managers operate with too short a time horizon, they are likely to over­manage and fail to plan appropriately.

5. Temporal Symmetry, Pacing, and Entrainment

A subtle but critical aspect of time is the way in which activities are paced. In his study of the introduction of computerized equipment into radiol­ogy departments, Barley (1988) discovered that one of the major impacts of the technology was the degree to which the pacing of the activities of the technicians and the radiologists became more or less symmetrical. In the traditional X-ray department, the technicians worked monochronically as far as scheduling patients and making films. But if they needed to consult a radiologist, the technicians became frustrated by the polychronic world of the radiologists. For example, if a technician needed the services of a radiologist to give an injection to a patient, to conduct a fluoroscopy, or to review preliminary films, the technician would often have to wait. The following quotation captures the asymmetry well.

To locate a radiologist, a technologist often had to search several offices and ask other technologists about the radiologist’s last known whereabouts. Even after the tech found a radiologist, there was no guarantee that he would be immediately available. At the time of the tech’s arrival, the radiologist could be talking on the telephone, discussing a film with a physician, consulting a col­league, or about to assist with another examination. In each instance, the tech­nologist would have to wait. But even if the technologist successfully engaged the radiologist’s attention, he or she still had no firm claim on the radiologist’s time. The radiologist could always be diverted by a number of events, including a telephone call, a consultation, or even another technologist with a request that the radiologist deemed more important. (Barley, 1988, p. 145)

When computerized tomography, magnetic resonance, and ultrasound came into the departments, the temporal orders of the two sets of people became more symmetrical because of (1) the greater duration of each test, (2) the technician’s greater level of expertise in reading the results, and (3) the degree to which the special procedures involved in the new technolo­gies often required the radiologists and technicians to work side by side throughout. Furthermore, the diagnostic procedures in ultrasound could not be done in the first place unless the technicians knew how to read results as they were forthcoming. The technicians acquired, de facto, more operational autonomy, which gave them more status, as did the reality that because of their greater amount of experience, they often knew better than the radiologist how to read the results. The new technologies created a world in which both technician and radiologist worked in a monochronic manner, making it easier to coordinate their efforts and achieve efficiency for the patient and in the use of the equipment.

Polychronically driven work always has the potential for frustrating the person who is working monochronically, as exemplified in the interaction between an air traffic controller (polychronic) and the pilot of a single aircraft waiting for landing clearance (monochronic). Similar issues arise when patients get frustrated waiting in the emergency room because they are not aware that the physician is treating many patients at once. Because the monochronically driven person typically does not understand the mul­tiple demands being placed on the polychronically driven person, there is a very high potential for misunderstanding and inaccurate attributions such as perceiving the polychronically driven person as lazy or inefficient.

The temporal context within which groups work, involving the pacing of activities, rhythms, and cycles of work activities, are obviously relevant to how groups perform and can be the source of frustration if there is insuf­ficient consensus within and between groups (Bluedorn, 1997, 2000). To prevent dysfunctional conflicts in pacing, some researchers have noted that organizations tend to try to “entrain” interdependent activities. Entrainment is a concept taken from the natural sciences and can be defined as “the adjustment of the pace or cycle of one activity to match or synchronize with that of another” (Ancona and Chong, 1996, p. 251).

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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