Most people grow up using the word „literacy“ to refer to an ability to recognize words on a page, or in the simplest vernacular, to read. Yet today, literacy has come to mean so much more. Our abilities as individuals and as a culture depend on our understanding of a continual growth toward literate thought and recognition of it in societal norms. It requires an understanding of cultural and literacy landscapes based on example and acquired knowledge from several areas in order to gain a global perspective. Robert Rosen in his book Global Literacies discusses the acquisition of business acumen as literacy on several levels including personal literacy, social literacy, business literacy and cultural literacy requiring a „collaborative individualism“ to use the applied knowledge for the benefit of those around us.1
No longer is simply „getting along“ good enough to be a world-class organization. It is acquired from acting in concert with personal beliefs derived from historical precedent and cultural expectations to grow an organization. Rosen believes that it is provided through executive leadership by which „good leadership is a major catalyst for growth; bad leadership can be the primary cause for business failure.“2 It is one of the hard realities of businesses that focus leadership efforts on the numbers of the business and cause them to overlook other areas, or literacies, that will advance the organization beyond average performance toward exceptional growth.
How can these literacy theories be put into practice for businesses today? Rosen poses five good questions that are applicable to all businesses regardless of size, the market being served, or the country in which it operates. These five universal business questions are as follows:
1. Where are we going?
2. How do we get there?
3. How do we work together?
4. What resources do we need?
5. How do we measure success?
Corresponding with the questions as listed, the business must have and recognize why the business exits, or the purpose. The business requires a road map or plan to move it forward. The business must exploit internal and external relationships though networks to gain knowledge of competitive advantages and core competencies. The business must define and refine the resources that it will need in order to remain competitive through innovation and differentiation. Finally, it must know what has to be measured in order to be successful. Each element is a necessary part of becoming a globally literate company.3
Leaders today, more than ever, must be constant students of world economics. The focus on economic growth has for many years been the driving force behind the privatization or deregulation of many industries and markets. Many countries have allowed physical borders to disappear and politics to be secondary as national economies take shape and expand. This has required countries to recognize the steps needed to be taken to first, to become competitive and second, to stay competitive. Functional competitiveness relies on eight specific quantitative and qualitative factors which Rosen states as follows:
o Openness: Is the economy open to international trade and finance?
o Finance: How well developed are the financial markets?
o Technology: What is the quality of the technological infrastructure?
o Labor: Is the labor market efficient and flexible?
o Government: What is the level of government regulation of the economy?
o Infrastructure: What is the quality of the physical infrastructure (e.g., transportation and utilities)?
o Management: Is the business management trained in modern techniques?
o Institutions: How impartial and stable are the judicial and political institutions?4
Assuming the recognition of the above areas listed, each area has a plethora of circumstances that must work in concert for the organization to gain and sustain momentum in the competitive marketplace. Which literacy is more important to understand and implement? The answer lies within certain aspects of every literacy discussed based on a sense of history. Without recognizing the past, it is difficult for companies today to recognize business patterns that are emerging. The world is providing a new and unprecedented chaos for leaders that has not had to be managed in quite some time, if ever. The chaos is forcing unprecedented change on organizations and their leadership requiring fast response time and flexibility to maneuver through the turbulence.
Jason Jennings and Lawrence Haughton wrote a book that dealt with the speed requirements of today’s business organizations. They put it this way:
„Most business people are so busy working for their business or in their business that they never find the time to wok on their business. Thus, they fail to anticipate what might happen or what they might be able to make happen.“5
It is with an understanding that leadership and organizations must recognize within their business literacy that navigating through the chaos requires a sense of history. Without historical precedent, future survival becomes difficult and future success an improbability. Rosen calls this being a „historical futurist“6 requiring „business-literate leaders…[to] explore and celebrate the past, understand and own the present, and imagine and create the future…each phase [building] on the next.“7
Does any single literacy outweigh the others? If so, which one, or must they all work together to drive the organization’s literacy quotient? Depending on the situation that arises, leaders have to determine the literacy landscape of the facts that govern decisions for their organizations. Many leaders may have indeed inherited a „leadership-resistant architecture“ reflected by a „conspiracy of busyness“8 that provides multiple challenges for them. The associates that are part of the organization may appear to be working, or busy, but not necessarily providing the forward motion needed to create positive business inertia. As such, their organization will tend to behave more on the level of an „ecosystem where more have access to the whole, and [their] people support and nurture one another with trust“9 though the actual functionality of the organization is in question. This is in stark contract to the rugged individualism that was reflected in the growth fueled by technology companies over the last two decades.
Other leaders may have a completely different set of circumstances with which to work requiring not only creative approaches, but creative decisions that take into consideration the literacy biases of the organization. This may be based on any one of a number of factors suggesting that the type of leader at the top of the organization as well as the type of organization itself, are subject to a historical and social literacy bias. Only when the business performs a self-assessment as to the values and true culture that is part of the landscape will the organization ensure that decisions are indeed correct for on-going survival and forward progress of the business.
„Different cultures differ on several concepts embedded in pragmatic trust [which poses questions such as]: What is a promise? Should I define self-interest as the interest of myself or of my group? Should I place more value on relationship or on rules? Pragmatic trust requires disclosure.“10
Rosen states that „social literacy fosters the communication of knowledge“ and to be effective the communication must first „clarify priorities and expectations“ telling people what needs to be done and „to create the right tone“ by making the people feels good about the decision.11
A truly global organization functions in an open atmosphere that fosters creativity, experimentation and pragmatic trust through disclosure to grow the business multi-nationally as well as multi-locally. As shown above by Jennings and Haughton, the speed by which a company moves is paramount. The technology flow and increasing amount of information that must be disseminated creates complex business equations that have to be solved in order to prosper. As a result, the aspect of both social and cultural literacy weighs heavily in most decisions leaders make by providing a sense of history necessary to see where the organization has come from and provide the ability to recognize repetitive circumstances within the organization. The future is indeed an unknown. However, effective leadership, by recognizing cultural and social norms, can provide a valid organizational road map to follow, but only by recognizing the input of the organization as a whole.
Is it more important for leadership to set literacy into motion, or can it begin at the lower levels of the organization? Rosen provides a plethora of examples of top leadership interviews and survey questions that support the top-down theory. Not one case is sighted where organizational change is driven from within the lower echelons of the organization suggesting the leadership for change is imperative for forward progress. This is not to argue that workers at lower levels are unimportant to the process of growth. On the contrary, leadership must provide „the best of impatience with a constructive push for excellence [that] creates just enough anxiety to move people forward not paralyze them.“ Rosen uses the example of a rubber band stating that „if you pull it too hard, it breaks. If you don’t pull it hard enough, you don’t maximize the potential of the band.“12 This sets the stage for connective teaching because great leaders are indeed both great students as well as great teachers.
„Work must be a place of insatiable curiosity, a breeding ground for the lifelong development of all employees. Learning emerges from the creative juxtaposition of people, ideas, and technology, not from isolated endeavors of individuals. Connective teaching makes this happen. [It] engages all the skills of personal and social literacy.“13
By recognizing these top skills, both leadership and employees can identify the most significant aspect of working with and influencing others.
Inspiration – Employees need a sense of significance that inspiring leaders bring with them to an organization. The inspiration is supplanted with motivation for internal as well as external success.
Communication – Knowing the intuitive elements of communication, not only the power of the words that are being used, but also the verbal and non-verbal signals within a conversation or negotiation are critical. When used properly, communication provides a strategic framework and context for understanding.
Listening – Hearing both the spoken and unspoken is critical to an organizations success. It means listening with not only the ears, but also with the head and the heart. It means recognizing moods as well as verbal and non-verbal communication
Common Goals and Values – The understanding of common objectives which coordinate with individual and organization value systems are critical to success. Without commonality of approach and understanding, the organizations ability to look forward is stunted.
Teaching and Coaching – Leaders must take a co-active approach to both teaching and learning.14 They must establish a routine that constantly supports team efforts along with the established objectives of the organization. It is a reaffirmation of both individual and collective purpose.
Replacing Conflict with Creative Action – It is functionally unwise to dwell on chaos whether internally produced or externally imposed. By addressing each challenge with creative solutions an organization will instill a sense of pride that fosters positive cultural effects.
Hiroshi Okuda, President and CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan employ these tactics to support his management style. Heavily weighed in Japanese social and historical literacy, he has re-energized and challenged Toyota. Without all the component parts that are mentioned above, the continued success of both his leadership style and the organization’s global prowess would falter.
Are there other literacies that should be considered as part of the equation for success? Certainly moral and ethical literacy are important components of the literacy landscape. They have been sadly overlooked in recent years by primarily corporate leadership within the United States. Why has this not happened in other countries? It is from insatiable greed and lack of moral business training which litters the corporate world with numerous examples of poor judgment and ethical inconsistencies.15
In addition, the political landscape of the world is changing and effecting traditional business models requiring adaptation. War and unilateral action, although not unprecedented in world history but certainly unprecedented in American history, are requiring global businesses to adjust organizational policy and procedures. New issues are emerging as a result such as internal security, external sales efforts, communication style, and global positioning to name just a few.
John Sculley, ex-CEO of Apple Computer, was being interviewed by Warren Bennis concerning reoccurring themes in business. Sculley’s remarks to him are powerful, direct, and poignant.
„The old hierarchical model is no longer appropriate. The new model is global in scale, an interdependent network. So the new leader faces new tests, such as how does he lead people who don’t report to him – people in other companies, in Japan or Europe, even competitors. How do you lead in this idea-intensive, interdependent-network environment? It requires a wholly different set of skills, based on ideas, people skills, and values. Traditional leaders are having a hard time explaining what’s going on in the world, because they’re basing their explanations on their experience with the old paradigm.“16
If the people following the leadership are disinclined to follow, the issue becomes one of internal culture and the necessity of providing a reason and willingness to accept change. Without good reason or accepted willingness on the part of the employees, the leadership is required to stay with old paradigms to guide the organization or simply watch where the masses are leading and then follow them. By stating the above, the aspect of historical literacy could be treated negatively at which time the social literacy will become prevalent and fortuitous within the organization. The leadership will tend to „just go with it“ to keep priorities focused and the business intact. Employee empowerment is no longer just forethought, but an internal culture that will produce results.
By working together, employees and management can structure the company to provide the business with a sense of purpose, a plan for the future, an integrated network for internal and external communications, resources that are the tools for growth, and the ability to establish a system of measurements that establish forward progress for the organization, the business, and the individuals participating. Rosen argues that knowledge, relationships, and culture are the primary factors that produce intangible „soft“ assets which can be viewed in the following forms of capital:
o Financial capital: The money, investments, property, and equipment.
o Human capital: People and their abilities, knowledge, skill sets, experience.
o Customer capital: Customer relationship management.
o Organizational capital: Systems, structure, and processes.
o Reputation capital: Image and brand cache.17
Leaders around the globe continue to be focused on results and the measurement process which allow them to „build a culture of accountability and [an on-going] sustainable enterprise.“
The process of recognizing cross-cultural literacy landscapes is one that requires time and an in depth understanding of global leadership. Though all the literacies that Rosen discusses are important, the aspect of understanding both the social and historical literacy landscapes are paramount for organizational success. The challenge becomes one of recognizing the organizational self-sabotage of „ethnocentrism and blind thinking.“18 In the end, leading by example using a basic understanding of social and historical literacies allow businesses today to understand and thrive within cross-cultural literacy landscapes.
1Global Literacies by Robert Rosen, published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY 10020 in 2000, Chapter 1.
2Ibid, page 25.
3Ibid, page 29.
4Global Literacies, page 42.
5It’s Not the Big that Eat the Small, It’s the Fast that Eat the Slow, by Jason Jennings and Lawrence Haughton, published by HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2000, page 20.
6Global Literacies, Ibid, page 135.
7Ibid, page 139.
8Cultivating Leadership in School: Connecting People, Purpose, and Practice, by G.Donaldson, Jr., published by Teachers College Press, New York, NY 2001, pages 145-147.
9The Wounded Leader, by Richard Ackerman and Pat Maslin-Ostrowski, published by John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco, CA 2002, page 132.
10Global Literacies, Ibid, page 98.
11Ibid, page 98.
Co-active Coaching, by Laura Whitworth, Henry Kimsey-House, and Phil Sandahl, published by Davies-Black Publishing, an imprint o Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc. Palo Alto, CA, 1998.
Cultivating Leadership in Schools: Connecting People, Purpose, and Practice, by G.Donaldson, Jr., published by Teachers College Press, New York, NY 2001.
Global Literacies: Lessons on Business Leadership and National Cultures, by Robert H. Rosen (Editor), Patricia Digh, Marshall Singer, published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY 10020 in 2000.
It’s Not the Big that Eat the Small, It’s the Fast that Eat the Slow, by Jason Jennings and Lawrence Haughton, published by HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 2000.
Managing the Dream; Reflections on Leadership and Change, by Warren Bennis, published by Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA, 2000.
The Wounded Leader, by Richard Ackerman and Pat Maslin-Ostrowski, published by John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco, CA 2002.