Making sense of intercultural interaction processes in international joint venture settings: The case of Danish – Vietnamese joint ventures

Li Dao

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis

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This dissertation aims at advancing an emerging approach to understanding culture in international joint venture (IJV) settings. It does so by seeking to unfold the dynamics of culture through interaction processes in five Danish – Vietnamese joint ventures. The background of the research draws attention to the status of our current understanding which appears to have been dominantly shaped by a cross-national comparative perspective that emphasizes a concept of culture as homogeneous, relatively stable over time and almost equated to nation. As a consequence of this perspective, we tend to see culture in the form of cultural distance as a problem area faced by IJVs. Meanwhile, a non-mainstream perspective grounded in the social constructivist school of thought has increasingly argued for the relevance of a concept of culture as socially constructed through interaction in cross-border inter-firm settings such as IJVs.
Drawing on recent calls for further conceptual development in the non-mainstream perspective, the dissertation argues that an in-depth study of cultural dynamics through social interaction in an IJV setting will shed light on a number of under-explored aspects. Such aspects include the role of individuals and contextual elements as well as process elements which together characterize intercultural interaction.
Considering this context, two research questions are set out to guide the research: 1) How do intercultural interaction processes unfold within a Danish-Vietnamese joint venture setting? (Descriptive level); 2) How can the unfolding processes enhance our understanding of cultural dynamics in international joint ventures? (Reflexive level)
In terms of methodological ground, the dissertation takes departure from a social constructivist anchor that endorses a concept of culture as socially constructed meanings and practices. This concept is in contrast to a concept of culture as essence, i.e. identified by its relatively stable characters, as highlighted in mainstream literature. However, the dissertation argues that in a holistic social constructivist view, culture also embraces an essence that identifies the social group it represents, although such an essence is subject to modification as a consequence of emergent meanings and practices. The exploration of culture in social interaction is primarily inspired by the symbolic interactionist conception of interaction and the sensemaking perspective as a frame of reference for interaction and studying interaction.
In order to answer the research questions, I adopted the Explorative Integration design developed by Maløe (2002) which suggests that the researcher benefits from a priori knowledge to explore the empirical world and afterwards reflects on this pre-understanding with empirical experiences in order to develop a new understanding. The design is illustrated by a three-part structure in the dissertation. The first part (Chapters 3 to 6) pulls together existing literature,
together with intuition from preliminary data collection, to develop a pre-understanding framework that serves as a frame of reference for the subsequent field research. The major bodies of literature that the pre-understanding builds on refer to 1) the intercultural interaction stream of research with notable contributions from the negotiated culture perspective (Salk, 1997; Brannen, 1998; Brannen and Salk, 2000) and the sensemaking approach to intercultural
management (e.g. Osland & Bird, 2000; Kuada & Sørensen, 2010); and 2) process-oriented alliance and IJV research (e.g. Doz 1996, Ring and Van de Ven 1994). The second part (Chapters 7 to 12) is the empirical part, where the empirical scenario unfolds and the story of intercultural interaction in each of the five investigated joint ventures are narrated and interpreted using the pre-understanding framework. The third part (Chapters 13 & 14) is the theoretical reflection part, where a cross-case analysis is provided and a post-understanding framework as emerging from the empirical evidence of the five cases is developed and reflected upon.
Empirical findings of the dissertation confirm the pre-understanding framework to a significant extent. First, three major types of interaction are identified, i.e. competence building interaction, decision making interaction, and socializing interaction, which is consistent with the three major processes of learning, power bargaining, and relationship building as suggested by IJV literature. Second, interaction processes appear to be shaped by individual members’ sensemaking through enacting salient sensemaking anchors (i.e. structural and cultural anchors on interpersonal, organizational and macro levels) and interpreting their role playing in these processes. New insights from the empirical evidence give rise to a number of interesting themes for conceptual development. First, individual actors’ sensemaking have far greater influence on shaping interaction processes in the IJVs than anticipated by existing literature. I have classified the individual actors into three categories of sensemakers: the stereotyper, the constructive sensemaker, and the insider sensemaker. Each type of sensemaker represents a distinct range of combination of the degree of contextual awareness and the attitude toward a common joint venture identity. Second, interaction appears to be constrained by a major gap between the knowledge represented initially by the Danish actors and the context represented initially by the Vietnamese actors. In the process of bridging this gap, expatriate managers and later local middle managers serve as boundary spanners with diverse degrees of influence; while certain standard mechanisms from third parties such as ISO international standards serve as interaction interfaces with consensus facilitating effects. Third, the development of interaction processes is identified to go through a setup expatriated-driven phase to a localization phase. An emergent culture through this development process features a growing common knowledge ground which the members have obtained as a result of intensive competence building, the delegation of more responsibilities and autonomy to local employees yet on the condition of the presence of trust, and closer relational ties between particular Danes and Vietnamese in interpersonal and group work settings.
At this point, contributions of the dissertation have been evident. First and foremost, the dissertation contributes to non-mainstream intercultural interaction research with an integrative model of intercultural interaction in an IJV setting. Second, by adopting a dual perspective involving informants representing both joint venture partners, the dissertation draws scholars as well as practitioners’ attention to the complex and dynamic nature of intercultural interaction due to the multiplicity and possible divergence in motives and organizational routines. Third, being the first study of a social constructivist nature in an international business context involving an emerging economy like Vietnam, the dissertation opens new potentials for future research to explore in greater details. Culture in an emerging context like Vietnam is often a consequence of a complex history characteristic of tensions between traditional ways of living and westernization trends. The enactment of such a cultural context into business relationships with foreign partners implies far more complicated and unforeseeable outcomes than ever reflected in western management literature.
In terms of practical implications, the dissertation provides joint venture leaders and practitioners in general with a number of points of reflection with regard to expectations of joint venture processes. For instance, effective joint venture management can be associated with the degree of contextual mindfulness among key managers, a constructive approach toward decision making, a mutual learning attitude, the appreciation and strategic utilization of emergent ties
between individual members put together in work settings, the proper implementation of consensus-facilitating mechanisms like ISO standards, and a holistic view of knowledge transfer in terms of core skills as well as non-core yet critically supporting skills like decision making and project/ time management.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationAalborg University
PublisherDepartment of Business and Management
Number of pages267
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2011


  • intercultural interaction, international joint venture, sensemaking, learning

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