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August 22nd, 2013

Globally appealing TechnologyTech users worldwide bring their cultural biases to the use of new technologies. Even product safety standards are largely based on a nation’s or region’s reigning sociocultural values. For global companies, understanding these cultural issues is essential. Working toward that understanding along with a growing number of consumer-tech firms are researchers, anthropologists, and (yes) philosophers.

Formed from culture and tradition, a people’s collective mental model defines everything, including the meaning of color. In China, black borders mean a pictured person is deceased, so the first digital photo frames with thick black bezels—as on the original plasma display rentals—did not do well there. (White has other issues.) Everything from design and production through marketing and sales must pass the culture test, lest a product fail because people don’t “get it”—or worse, because something about it is silly or offensive.

IBM, True Blue Trailblazer

Making sure to consider all “society-based cultural factors…in the design of technology” is difficult, according to Geert Hofstede. Hofstede first studied, then strategized the international spread of IBM’s business in the 1960s and 1970s, back when “computer rental” meant paying by the hour to use what was essentially a refrigerator-sized tape deck (with no spell-check). At least IBM’s management team was smart enough to put even smarter academic researchers on the job. Hofstede developed the landmark four dimensional framework for adapting technology to particular cultures (later upped to six dimensions with long-term orientation and indulgence).

Writing in 1980, Hofstede posited four adversarial principles at work across human cultures:

  • Weak vs. strong uncertainty avoidance. Some cultures, such as Greece and Japan, place great importance on avoiding ambiguity, especially in interpersonal relations. This explains the Japanese preference for video-calls, which they make in the billions on every phone, PC, and iPad rental available. Video-calls require being seen, and also positively ID the caller. In Scandinavia and Hong Kong, on the other hand, more ambiguity is tolerated and video-calls are less numerous.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism. The UK and U.S. cultures idealize self-sufficiency and independence, whereas Venezuela and Colombia are proudly collectivist. While people rent laptops in the U.S. for a variety of personal and/or corporate reasons, a marketing campaign in Colombia would be wise to focus on group collaboration. Traits such as confidence and creativity develop in individualist cultures, while conformity is encouraged in collectivist ones.
  • Small vs. large power distance. A large “power distance” exists in cultures like India and the Philippines, where the privileged classes can afford Xserve RAID systems and the latest tech while the powerless remain “unplugged” on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Austria, Sweden, and other Western nations—where high-tech devices are commodities that even “the poor” can afford—have “small” power distances.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity. Cultures that are competitive and emphasize material success are called “masculine.” Ones that are people-oriented, and value quality of life are called “feminine.” Such outdated markers as the American female’s mythical affinity for frilly pink things are unrelated, however; and versatile technologies like laptop rentals appeal to both “masculine” ideals of task completion as well as the “feminine” desire to connect to others via the internet.

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