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Stuck in Shoes that Don’t Fit: The Major Challenge for Developing Nations

Globalization challenges every individual to run faster and faster to keep pace with massive innovation across borders. In order to do that, the theoretical foundations of individuals must be strong and congruent to ones’ core values. Unfortunately, most developing nations lack the theories that are developed by their own scholars. In social sciences, using theories from other nations is like wearing shoes that don’t fit the individual or the purpose. This lack of fit occurs for the individual due to a misalignment of cultural values; furthermore, the lack of fit also occurs for the business environment that’s drastically different from the theory’s original environment. As people get into the race of globalization with unfit shoes, they fall after a few steps. How can you get ahead when the theories/shoes simply don’t fit? 


Having taught and worked with countless PhDs on every major continent, it’s astonishing to see how many business PhDs are living in a bubble, sheltered from the real world, rarely making a profound impact in their fields of business in their nation. In the many journal articles and dissertations that I’ve reviewed from developing nations, the majority of them only test existing theories from the west with little to no consideration for cultural or situational influences. For example, many students explore transformational leadership from the US. One of the dimensions is intellectual stimulation. While students find a way to show evidence of this practice in their studies, the actual practices of intellectual stimulation conflicts with cultural norms like high-power distance. Worse yet, when I ask graduate students and PhDs about their studies, they can’t recall a specific theory from all their studies that originated from their nation. Why don’t people ask the challenging questions about these foreign theories concerning cultural and situational fit? Why aren’t PhD’s creating new theories that fit their cultural values and their economic environments? 


The situation calls for a systemic exploration of the educational environment. While these perspectives do not apply to all developing nations, the general characteristics of the educational system are relatively consistent. Three root causes are perpetuating this phenomenon: 


  1. Rigid Hierarchy: With the high-power distance in most African and Asian institutions, students are taught to comply. Even as they get into graduate levels in business schools, they are only taught to test existing theories. Professors in these institutions have ultimate authority to push foreign theories onto impressionable minds. Especially with the dominant lecture style of teaching, students are left with “yes sir” as their common response. There is no room to challenge why a theory functions or not in their respective environment. Compliance to the professor is the norm. As a result, students graduate in a context of conformity to conventional thought and rigid hierarchy, without having developed a critical mind for theories.
  2. Flawed Research Methodologies: I’ve seen many PhDs with high academic positions in universities lacking the correct knowledge in research methodology. Worse yet, they continue to teach the incorrect research methodology to their students. For example, some professors tell students a generic number for the target sample size for their study, leaving students no knowledge of how to calculate it statistically. Furthermore, most are being taught quantitative research methodology only, which can only test existing theories. Grounded theory approach in qualitative research is rarely understood in order to develop theories. Without the correct research methodology, it becomes impossible to create new theories that are needed to lead the nation.
  3. Lack of Systems and Critical Thinking: Two fundamental thought processes a PhD should have are systems thinking and critical thinking. Neither are present in the current system of education in most nations. At best, some universities have a course on the topic. Students learn to regurgitate the theories, but rarely learn to apply them. This type of thinking takes years to develop, along with many other self-constructs needed to support these skills, such as self-confidence and self-efficacy. Without being able to see systems at work, most can only see what is in front of them, which are given theories from foreign nations. For example, I’ve had hundreds of students defend their master or doctoral research in nations like Myanmar and Ghana, the overwhelming majority of students’ research quantitatively tests western theories like Transformational leadership or Service Quality model (SERVQUAL). None have critically assessed why a given western theory in a textbook should be updated with cultural values within the nation. Key constructs like reliability in SERVQUAL and individual consideration in Transformational leadership are very different in developing nations that struggle with scarcity of basic resources and cheap labor. These theories function within a set of American cultural values and in an environment where basic needs are met; they do not work when placed in in a different system with another set of cultural values and business environment. More importantly, the western assessments of the constructs are value-laden, far removed from the environment of developing nations. This calls into question the validity of the assessments, requiring systemic and critical thought from students. 


For your nation to be an economic powerhouse, you need courageous and innovative leaders! How these leaders think depends on their mental schema (how their brains function).  Much of the ability to think resides in the theories embedded in one’s education. PhDs are meant to be thought leaders with powerful scholarly abilities. Unfortunately, many educational systems in many developing nations don’t have this perspective on their educational environments. Educational institutions need aspiring leaders to create new systems of education that address the problems of rigid hierarchy, flawed research methodologies, and lack of systems and critical thinking. When we have many more institutions, like Transcontinental Institute, who help PhDs focus on theory creation and systems thinking in developing nations, you’ll be equipped with the right shoes to win the race in globalization. At Transcontinental, the curriculum is designed around systems thinking and grounded theory research. The learning process is customized to the students’ cultural values and environment through numerous systems from individual learning plans to caring and humble faculty who are international consultants. In every class, students are encouraged and empowered to critically explore the systemic challenges in social science theories within their respective environments. Overtime, systems thinkers are developed through careful scaffolding of learning. Finally, students form their unique dissertation research designed to transform their part of the world. This is what many developing nations need to enter the globalization race.


Whether you’re an educator or someone exploring for further education, start by asking the right questions to challenge conventional wisdom. And, if you’re an educational leader, initiate theory creation with an imbued understanding of cultural and environmental influences. Such efforts create the new ideas that transform systems and nations. Let’s lead this initiative together! 

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