Countries with strict social standards innovate less internationally


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An increasingly common way to come up with creative ideas is to ask the crowd for help. Various companies have launched online platforms to seek creative ideas from online communities. For example, PepsiCo set up “Legion of the Bold,” a community site where the brand asks fans for marketing and advertising ideas. In 2014, Procter & Gamble announced the launch of the world’s first Bluetooth connected toothbrush and revealed that the product development process was inspired by 67 innovative ideas from 24 countries around the world, including China, the ‘Spain and France. The product was shipped worldwide, the market response was above expectations, and the product even earned P&G a design award.

Riding this wave of creative crowdsourcing, crowdsourcing agency eYeka has launched more than 900 creative contests to help global brands and agencies find creative ways to develop and market new products.

It seems that, for the first time, creative work has become a truly global enterprise that crosses national borders and breaks down corporate walls. The creative world looks flat, but is it really? Do ideas travel freely without being hampered by national and cultural differences? Are creative ideas universally accepted around the world? Are people of certain cultures better placed than others to innovate on a global scale?

Many institutions, such as IMD, INSEAD and the Rotman School of Management have created national innovation rankings – the Rotman’s Martin Prosperity Institute ranked Australia at the top of its Global Creativity Index in 2015, while that the United States tops the IMD 2015 Competitiveness Scoreboard, for example. These rankings use macroeconomic data to determine which country (or culture) is best at bringing creativity to life.

In academia, too, there has been interest in studying national or cultural differences in innovation. Some researchers, for example, have examined the impact of cultural dimensions such as individualism or the avoidance of uncertainty on national innovation (Shane, 1992, 1993, 1994), but a comprehensive framework of the impact culture on global creativity has yet to emerge. We still lack a solid theoretical foundation for understanding the nature of global creative activity.

A key element that has perhaps been overlooked by practitioners and academics – although fundamental to understanding innovation on a global scale – is the target audience for a creative task. The problems are not always universal; they most often have a local specificity. A global multinational based in North America may have to resolve a brand positioning issue for an emerging market in Asia. A European FMCG (FMCG) giant is more likely to meet its growth targets if it launches culturally relevant products on the shelves of South American or Indian supermarkets. But where will these ideas come from? Will foreign creative ideas be accepted locally?

We were among the first to unbox the “black box” of global creative work to discover cultural differences in participation intention and success. We have found that – even in today’s participatory open source world – ideas require a certain degree of cultural alignment to be accepted. Using field data from a global crowdsourcing platform and conducting interviews with marketing experts, we found that a certain degree of cultural alignment is needed in cross-cultural creativity.

In a recent article, we examined the new construction of cultural narrowness – the extent to which a country is characterized by strong social norms and low tolerance for deviant behavior – from both the country of an innovator and the country of the public. We have found that individuals from narrow cultures (such as Singapore, Malaysia, or India) are less likely than their counterparts from loose cultures (such as the Netherlands, Brazil, or Israel) to engage and succeed in foreign creative tasks.

For example, Singaporeans are less likely than Israelis to enter creative contests outside their own country – and even if they do, they are unlikely to be successful. We believe that people from narrow cultures may find this difficult as they may experience low creative self-efficacy when it comes to unfamiliar alien tasks; their cautious approach focused on preventing problem solving could limit their cognitive flexibility.

In addition, we have found that tight cultures are also less receptive to foreign creative ideas. For example, a marketing firm from India or South Korea – two narrow cultures – is more likely to reject a creative idea from abroad than a counterpart from the United States or Australia – culturally loose nations.

Taken together, these results suggest that cultural tension appears to be a barrier to international creativity… in both directions. In provocative terms: our results imply that cultural narrowness leads to a form of xenophobia of creativity.

But, interestingly, culturally tight countries shouldn’t be seen as uncreative countries. in itself. Our results also indicate that under certain circumstances – when members of a restricted culture perform creative work in their own country or in culturally similar countries – the cultural tightening may in fact foster successful creativity. For example, a Turkish retailer who runs a global call for contributions for a national campaign is more likely to choose a national submission as the best. Because Turkey is a strict culture with nuanced norms and rules, a Turkish creative is probably better able to understand the strict cultural norms of the local audience in order to provide a suitable creative solution.

Growing up and living in a country that has many strongly enforced rules and little tolerance for deviance seems to give people a ‘domestic creativity advantage’, as it can be difficult for foreigners to navigate these rules and standards.

Our research is among the first to examine cross-cultural creativity based on both the culture of the innovator and that of the target audience. Together, our findings can be summarized in what we have called the “Cultural Alignment Model of Global Creativity”.

What does this mean for businesses? How can these results help organizations be more productive or creatively relevant? Our research shows that organizations that want to innovate beyond their national markets must foster a culture of tolerance for new ideas to emerge. We also advise anyone looking for ideas outside of their usual innovation partners, from agencies to consultants and even crowds, to think about the target audience when asking for help. In this open world, where ideas seem to flow freely and without any boundaries, do not forget to take into account the collective programming of the creative mind.

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Roy ChuaRoy Chua is Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at Singapore Management University (SMU) – Lee Kong Chian School of Business. He teaches in the MBA, EMBA, PhD in Organizational Behavior and Doctor of Innovation programs. Previously, he was a faculty member at Harvard Business School for six years, where he taught the Core Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD) course of the MBA program as well as the Executive Training Program on Management. talents. Professor Chua’s research draws on psychological and organizational theories to understand important social processes in business organizations. In his main stream of research, he studies how cultural diversity in a globalized workplace influences creativity and innovation. Professor Chua is also interested in understanding organizational behavior and management processes in the Asian context.

Yannig RothYannig Roth is marketing manager at eYeka, responsible for public relations, communication and research. Interested in topics related to marketing, innovation and design, he also likes to relax while cycling, running, reading or drawing. Yannig holds an MSc from ESSCA School of Management and a PhD from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Yannig tweets under and blogs at www.yannigroth.com.

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