Is changing organisational culture the solution to the Asian creativity dilemma?



Credit: Singapore Management University

SMU Office of Research & Tech Transfer – AI. iPod. Personal computer. Where were these world-changing innovations created? Answer: the West.

Whether you’re talking about innovation at the product level or at the business level, you first need creativity.

With creativity being ranked as one of the top skills of the 21st century and paramount for firms to innovate to elevate their competitiveness during COVID-19, the question as to whether Asians can learn this important skill and catch up with the West is a question that many leaders want an answer to.

One key factor driving the lack of creativity in Asians can be attributed to a culture that is tight on norms, rules and conformity. However, changing culture is almost impossible because these cultural norms and practices have been tightly embedded for centuries.

Given that creativity is a learned behaviour and studies have shown that organisational culture can shape and drive the desired behaviours, can changing organisational cultural tightness – a measure of norms and rules that regulate behaviour – impact creativity and innovation? This is the question that SMU Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour & Human Resources Roy Chua wants to answer.

Professor Chua and his collaborator, Dr. Xi Zou of Nanyang Technological University, have recently been awarded a Ministry of Education Academic Research Funding (AcRF) Tier 2 grant to probe the issue. This research will be the first large-scale empirical work to examine the impact of organisational cultural tightness on employee creativity and firm innovation in the world.

Impact of national and regional cultures

In recent years, many scholars have studied the impact of national and regional cultural tightness on creativity and innovation, such as the use of global creative crowdsourcing to encourage people to come forward to engage in creative projects. The evidence shows that people from high degrees of tightness in their cultures, for example, China, Japan, Singapore, are less likely to engage in these foreign creative projects and even if they do, they are unlikely to be successful in such engagements. This is because a tight culture conditions its people to be prevention focused, to be risk averse and to avoid challenging the status quos.

Cultural tightness also varies from region to region in a country. Those regions with a tight culture have been shown to be less creative and innovative whether you use measures such as the number of innovative activities or patent submissions.

Does organisational cultural tightness drive creativity and innovation?

Despite the growing body of research in creativity and innovation, little empirical evidence exists showing the impact of organisational cultural tightness on creativity and innovation even though it can be surmised that organisations with a culture that encourages experimentation and fosters a growth mindset, for example Google and Microsoft, are more creative and innovative than those organisations without those characteristics. Professor Chua wants to uncover the relationship between the tightness of organisational culture and creativity and innovation. Specifically, how the rules and norms of the organisational culture can shape and regulate the behaviours to promote the creative process and innovative capabilities. Professor Chua points out that we cannot simply assume that tight culture hinders creativity. While it constrains certain aspects of the creative process, it can potentially foster other aspects of creativity.

In any organisation, the CEO and the senior executives have the power and influence to shape the culture of their organisation. They would do this by putting in place a set of values, and the appropriate rules and policies for cultivating the specific and desired social norms and behaviours in the workplace. In other words, these senior executives can shape the cultural tightness in their respective organisations.

Professor Chua asserts: “If we know the effect of organisational cultural tightness in driving the creative and innovative capabilities of the employees, we can help organisations better engineer and calibrate their organisational culture to harness creativity and innovation benefits.”

This research will be conducted in China, Malaysia and Thailand, and will be administered to at least 80 publicly listed companies or a sample size of 8,000. Professor Chua and his team of researchers can’t wait to get started on this ground breaking research.

Perhaps the insights of this research could be the answer to solving the Asian creativity dilemma.


By Jovina Ang

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Goh Lijie
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