The Geography of Knowledge

torchPublished on 3rd July, 2015, in The Economic Times

Just as many Indians, especially Non Resident Indians, get upset when they see an American or European claiming to be an expert in Yoga or Vedanta or Tantra, the West finds it hard to accept an Indian, or a Chinese, or a Nigerian as a management guru, unless they reside in the USA, and are affiliated to a college in Europe or America. Even we in India tolerate a professor from Singapore or Japan, but we prefer those from Europe and North America as the real ‘source’. We can find logical and scientific answers to defend or challenge this, but for most of us MBA is means the Global way of doing business, even though it is steeped in Western mythologies.

There is a not-so-subtle assumption that Modern Management is the correct way of doing business, and being secular and rational, is not universal, not Western. So any model of business that emerges from other parts of the world is deemed cultural, irrational, and outdated: exotic but not pragmatic. Thus family-owned businesses of India which run on traditional models, where loyalty is valued, are seen as ‘wrong’ and professional based business based on Western principles are seen as ‘right’. Who made these rules?

A multinational company based in Europe will not let allow lectures on management if the talk refers to Shiva and Vishnu and Devi, even if the talk is meant for its Indian employees or Indian customers. The speaker does not see these words as ‘religious’ as he knows how Hindu mythology functions: very differently from Abrahamic mythology. However, to the company, which refuses to listen to any reason other than its own, these are ‘Gods’ hence religious, therefore need to be excluded, to establish the organization’s secular. Thus non-Western ideas are excluded based on Western templates. And these Western templates determine what good management is and what is bad.

Where did these frameworks come from? The answer given is ‘case studies’. They have been proven scientifically. Yet, they are remarkably aligned to the religious frameworks we find in Abrahamic mythology. Thus they speak of Objective (Promised Land), and importance of rules and compliance and alignment (Commandments) and belief in the management or the product (Jesus). The language is not religious but the principles are. But these go unnoticed. Most modern management gurus such as Peter Drucker and Stephen Covey do come from Protestant and even Mormon backgrounds and their principles not surprisingly are deeply rooted in the Christian faith. When this is pointed out, the observations are rejected as prejudiced. The rules of what constitutes management studies and how these frameworks emerge are determined only in the West.

Management needs to be ‘secular’, which means ‘no religious terminologies’, which means amputate India of its vast mythic heritage, and make it compliant to rules of Western management. In one case, decision to ban ‘non-secular mythology based lectures’ was taken by a leader of African descent who clearly has faced racism in his life, and does not wish to rock his career boat by doing anything his multinational Euro-American management will see as ‘unsecular’. To be fair, Indian ‘secular’ companies, also are uncomfortable with anything religious. They will need management clearance for a Gita discourse. Yet, they will not allow the Dalai Lama to speak. His Buddhism is not seen as religious. Who decides? Richard Gere?

The desire to ‘convert’ is at the heart of Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity and Islam. Though, ironically, the first religion to officially proselytize was Buddhism. Royals like Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty patronized it and ensured its spread beyond Indian shores. Hence the need to ‘convert’ all enterprises to the ‘modern way of management’ and the ‘modern way of recording finance’, which is assumed to be the right way.

The other source of management principles is the Roman army, hence the use of extremely violent language in management: market penetration, crush competition, dog-eat-dog world! The Romans were influenced by Greek mythology and saw life as a conquest and valued – warily – the hero. There was always conflict between the Caesar (individualist) and the Senate (institution) but they all agreed conquest was good for Rome. Based on army principles, the market place is seen as battleground. Projects are seen as war. There are even battle strategy workshops. And there is ‘war room’ in most corporate offices that value ‘non-violence’ and insist on serving vegetarian food. We love Sun Tzu and the Art of War, because we want to win in a battle, be the top dog! And we wonder why corporations are so much hated by the rest of the world. They have become the new feudal warlords who make the rules.

The world is changing. Culture is becoming important. And you cannot create rules of culture by sitting in a University in America, or Europe, and observing China and India from a distance. You cannot force-fit Indian management ideas using a Western management template. Modern Management has to become even more modern by looking at templates beyond Abrahamic mythology and Greek mythology and the Roman Army. Confucian principles. Taoist principles. Ideas from Ramayana and Mahabharata. But to include this knowledge, old barriers of what constitutes ‘secular’ needs to be broken. Inclusion cannot be conditional. Diversity is a forest, not a garden.