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Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries

Cultural Dynamics of a Design-as-an-Inquiry-Project


Recent years have seen a substantial increase in the number of higher education collaborations, most specifically in terms of cross-border projects. (Weil et al, 2010). In framing the importance of effective international teams operating in the tertiary sector, academic apprenticeship should take "the international influences on university teaching and learning and the possibility to reflect on the teaching and learning contents and processes by contrasting (different) experiences" (Weil et al, 2010, p 219) into account. For these purposes, the present paper outlines the cultural dynamics involved in a EU project managed by a German core team in cooperation with Austrian and Finnish partner universities. A closer look was taken at the different perceptions and assumptions held by the stakeholders of each participating university with regard to the outcome of their common endeavour- a summer school about "Design as an Inquiry". Of particular relevance to the present study are communicative patterns and internalized, and thus often implicit expectations geared towards the partner institutions which are explained by means of critical incidents explored over the course of the project. By collecting in-depth descriptive data in form of field notes, observations and interviews, the authors identified a number of tacit assumptions and rules of appropriatness among each ethnical group that might justify divergent approaches and differing emphases placed on recurrent practices during the project. As such, the degree of priority attached to schedules and proficiency serves as a reminder of culturally patterned behavior that- if not sufficiently reflected upon and put in an intercultural perspective- might run the risk of hardening one`s own entrenched behavior and eventually lead to ethnocentric views.


Cultural patterns have been widely researched by a number of scholars (Hall, 1976; 1997, Trompenaars, 1998; Hofstede, 2001) and their findings have clearly indicated that there are pronounced differences between cultures. However, given that the world is getting increasingly interconnected, rigid boundaries can thus no longer be taken for granted. Nowadays, there is common agreement on a fluid and dynamic concept of culture indicating that mutual understanding and the willingness to move beyond one`s comfort zone are a primary key in carrying out cross-border projects successfully.

For the purposes of this study, an emic look was taken at how the Finnish, German and Austrian stakeholders perceived each others` efforts towards a fruitful cooperation and a successful outcome of the project. By shedding light on one particular event, the organisation and realization of a summer school in Helsinki, predominantly organised by the Finnish team, a set of internalised cultural patterns is revealed that enabled to compare, contrast and synthesise a number of entrenched frames of reference. The dynamic interplay of culture and language but, most importantly, a common endeavour which needs to be successfully handled, made this project an interesting case to be explored.

Definition of Key Terms

  1. Cultural dynamics, as we define it here, display both patterns of cultural behavior as emanating from each individual’s internalized value system and as a sign of identifications within a particular setting and group or the interactions with the members of the given community. Taking this definition as a basic understanding it becomes clear that great mindfulness of the underlying cultural patterns is needed to uncover the dynamic interaction between the efforts of adaptation and internalized socialisation.
  2. Design as an Inquiry is an approach to foster design ability and creative thinking among various disciplines. In view of today`s problems that seem to become more and more complex and ill-structured, the demands on science for concrete contextual answers for both economic and societal problems are steadily growing. That is why boundaries between designers, technicians and knowledge workers are becoming increasingly blurred. In the Design as an Inquiry approach a design process is used to collect knowledge to get a deeper understanding of the problem and develop innovative and sustainable products or services. The solutions generated in such a design process work as hypotheses to understand the problem. Design as  an Inquiry is related to recent approaches of design-based inquiry and design thinking as well as knowledge creation.

Literature Review

Gaining the required intercultural knowledge in order to function effectively in intercultural encounters has attracted much scholarly attention, be it with regards to cross-cultural comparisions or in terms of behavioral guidelines (Adaire and Brett, 2005; Guilherme et al, 2010; French, 2010).

Cultural Concepts

The literature identified a number of concepts related to culture, however, there has been no agreement on how these terms might be consistently employed. Notions such as intercultural effectiveness, intercultural literacy or intercultural competencies are frequently complemented with terms such as global awareness or global comodity (Deardorff, 2006; Heyward, 2002; Stier, 2006, Stone, 2006).

The definition that is best ranked among experts in the field is "the ability to communicate effectively and appropropriately in intercultural situations based on one`s own intercultural knowledge, skills and attitudes" (Deardorff, 2006, p 247).

Another definition that suits our conceptual understanding of culture well here is the one provided by Hunter et al (2006, p 270) about global competence which states the need for "having an open mind while actively seeking to understand cultural norms and expectations of others, leveraging this gained knowledge to interact, communicate and work effectively outside one`s environment".

Given that intercultural effectiveness is the key to success when cross-border teams work together, "the ability to interact with people from different cultures so as to optimise the probability of mutually successful outcomes" (Stone, 2006, p 338) reflects another view on the culturally diverse landscape.

Cross-Cultural Projects in Higher Education

Higher education policies within Europe are currently driven by a strenghtened effort in terms of international exchange, be it on a student, teacher or institutional level. Strict compliance with the internationalization agenda triggered by the Bologna process is considered to bring added value and, if locally established, is often referred to as "Internationalization at home" (Joris et al, 2000) with the aim of incorporating an international spirit at domestic institutions. A driving force for cross-border collaborations at the tertiary level is undoubtedly the European Union with its numerous EU projects that are substantially funded to produce lingua-cultural and socio-political benefits for the stakeholders.

Culture through an Austro-German Lens

There is no doubt that Germany and Austria differ in a number of ways owing to specific socio-cultural patterns that are highly distinct to the historical body of each country`s inhabitants. However, there are also numerous similiarties that are so stricking that certain researchers (Hofstede,1984; Gupta, Hanges and Dorfman, 2002) group them together in what they call "Germanic cluster" which includes Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. What is particularly noteworthy, in this context, are the cultural standards identified by Schroll-Machl (2003) when it comes to reflecting on the cultural socialization that shape the mindset of German-speaking people. Thomas (1993, p 381) defines cultural standards as "all sorts of peception, thinking, evaluating and action, which is personally accepted by the majority of members of a specific culture and considered as normal, typical and binding for others."

The "Central German Culture Standards" include features such as objectivism and task-orientation, appreciation of rules and regulations and structures, rule-orientation, internalized control, time-planning, differentiation of personality and living spheres, differentiation between professional and private life, low-context communication style and individualism (for a detailed account see Schroll-Machl, 2003). The Germanic standard that is most noticeable, we would claim, is the so-called interalized control which is reflected by a very strong identification with a task and a high commitment to being successful, proficient and reliable within a group.

Culture through a Finnish Lens

According to the Lewis model of culture (2005) the Finns display linear behavioral patterns with people placing emphasis on a one-task-at-a time approach. Furthermore, Lewis identified a reactive mindset among the Finnish culture pointing to their ability to be intensive listeners with long pauses and reflection detecting some similarities with Asian cultures in terms of silence and avoidance of open discord. Research into cultural tendencies in negotiation suggests that Finns are direct, begin business right away, without small talk and use objective facts rather than subjective feelings (Metcalf et al, 2006, p 2).

Once a high-context culture where reading between the lines was on the daily agenda, Finland has been gradually transforming into a low-context culture with a young generation that explicitly states meaning through language (Salo-Lee, 2007). Findings derived from a global engineering project carried out between Finland and Poland suggest that Finns rely heavily on hard facts, emphasizing knowledge and technology (Tukiainen et al., 2011, p 13). Furthermore, autonomous behavior was encouraged and empowerment and flat organizational hierarchy promoted. Far from being socially active, Finnish managers tend to work towards reaching goals effectively and seem to have a lack of interpersonal skills (Lewis and Gates, 2003; Tukianen et al., 2011). Such a stance might be partly explained by the educational focus on hard facts and figures rather than soft skils.

Background of Cross-Border Team

The team of the EU-funded project “Creating Knowledge through Design and Conceptual Innovation” consists of three higher education partners from Germany, Finland and Austria, namely Christian-Albrechts-University (CAU) in Kiel, Metropolia University (MET) in Helsinki and University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria (FHOÖ) in Hagenberg.

Taking the lead of the project, CAU contributes to the undertaking by its profound expertise in educational theory and technology enhanced knowledge practices. Their part was to define and test the pedagogical model of Design as an Inquiry and support teachers and academic staff in conducting field trials to further refine the model. Further, CAU provides the methodological know-how by introducing methods to explore design spaces, to conceptualize prototypes, to generate and test hypothesis among others. Beyond that, CAU is in charge of the coordination and management part of the project. Their main responsibilities lies in arranging meetings among the partners and monitoring both the project process and the results (deliverables).

MET`s role in the project was quickly defined given its high level of experience in providing and maintaining technological infrastructure.Their main tasks are to design, set-up and maintain the technical environment (platform) for design-as-inquiry-based courses. MET also contributes primarily to the field trials, dissemination and exploitation of the project as well as to the methodological framework. One key researcher of MET is mainly concerned with these pedagogical parts since her background is closely related to the topics at hand given her experience in visual design, user experience and usability. The remaining project members have predominantly been in charge of the technical parts.

Like CAU in 2012, MET also hosted a Summer School on Design as an Inquiry in 2013. This was part of the work package exploitation in which all partners are supposed to be involved.

FHOOE, for its part, and here most specifially the degree programme "Communication and Knowledge Media" focuses not only on individual and group learning, but also on organizational learning. Therefore, it was a logical step to allocate FHOOE the work packages community building and evaluation. Moreover, FHOOE is involved in the collection of design methods and field trials that also run within the same study programme. Given the high commitment to pedagocial topics, the research focus of FHOOE is closely linked to the one of CAU. One of the key researchers of CAU who currently holds a chair in Media Education has close ties to the FHOOE as from 2004 to 2010 she was director of studies of the programme 'Engineering for Computer-Based Learning', and the Master and Bachelor programmes 'Communication and Knowledge Media'.

Milestones and Challenges

The project had its official kick-off in October 2011. The elaboration of a set of requirements represented one of the first milestones. FHOOE was mainly in charge of establishing a concept that listed the requirements of the community platform which was handed over to MET for implementation. FHOOE produced a community building concept aimed at guiding and maintaining suitable actions for the platform at hand.

There was relatively high fluctuation within the project which represented– beyond cultural issues – a challenge for effective and smooth cooperation due to permanent adaptions and adjustments to the newly emerging settings and additional project members. In fall/winter 2012 there were further upheavals in the project, one person of FHOOE, two persons of CAU and another one of MET announced to leave the project. As a result, the project was taken over by a new project leader, a person of the team of CAU.

Against all the odds the platform was launched as scheduled before the first Summer School. Although it was online, it did not fully meet the planned requirements. The reasons for that might have partly been in the complexity of the technical implementation and also the short amount of time available, but seemed to also be rooted in a number of communication problems. This was a critical incident in the project, because although on the one hand – from a technical perspective – the objective was reached, the requirements, on the other hand, were not met as expected and defined by the team in FHOOE. One drawback was that the platform did not offer details of the concept which would have been most vital for the usage. The platform is still under development, so adaptations and customizations for users needs are continously planned even more so as they are required in the project application.

Before the realization of the second Summer School in Helsinki, another person of FHOOE left the project. Due to scheduling difficulties owing to incompatibilities of the academic years the second Summer School was carried out three months earlier than planned, which turned out to be – apart from the changes in staff – an organizational challenge. Additionally there was a progress report to hand in to the EU in spring 2013, before the Summer School which was another milestone in the project that had to be worked out precisely and extensively. While working on the project report different working styles and communicative patterns seemed to constantly emerge and became rather obvious. Although all partners contributed to the required information in time, they still had fairly different perceptions on how the work had to be done.

The second Summer School was realized successfully. Despite some initial misconceptions on the allocation of responsibilities, the task was executed to the satisfaction of all partners involved. Since CAU has been giving much input to almost all issues, it was taken for granted by MET that they would also do so when it comes to organizing the second event at their premises. It was basically believed that they would also prepare the program for the second Summer School. This was a misunderstanding from MET - the tacit assumption seemed to be that so far organizational things always belonged to CAU (1st Summer School, organizational part of the program) and that they therefore would also create the program of the 2nd Summer School. In contrast, given that MET hosted the second Summer School which was determined in the official requirements of the EU, CAU and FHOOE built on MET that they would create the program. In the end all tasks could be finished in time, but the organization of the second Summer School was perceived differently by the three partners.

Conceptual Considerations and Study Design

Both authors of this paper take an emic view given that they are part of the cross-border team, representing the Austrian perspective, while at the same time attempting to step back and look at the whole picture.

action research and emic position (Martina)
Description of study design (narrative interviews...)Martina



Pia- "vignettes" and critical incidents

--> by mail to you, then in combination with findings/analysis here

Martina - relate to literature




Pia and Martina


Adair WL, Brett JM. (2005). The negotiation dance: time, culture, and behavioral sequences in negotiation. Organ. Sci. 16:33–51

Deardorff, D. K. (2006). Identification and assessment of intercultural competence as a student outcome of internationalization. Journal of studies in international education, 10(3), 241-266.

French, R. (2010). Cross-cultural management in work organisations. CIPD.

Guilherme, M., Glaser, E., & García, M. D. C. M. (Eds.). (2010). The intercultural dynamics of multicultural working (Vol. 19). Multilingual Matters.

Gupta, V., Hanges, P. J., & Dorfman, P. (2002). Cultural clusters: Methodology and findings. Journal of world business, 37(1), 11-15.

Hall, E. (1976) Beyond Culture. Anchor Press.

Hall, B. J. (1997). Culture, ethics and communication, in Casimir, F.L. (ed.) Ethics in Intercultural and International Communication. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Heyward, M. (2002). From International to Intercultural Redefining the International School for a Globalized World. Journal of Research in International Education, 1(1), 9-32.

Hofstede, G. (1984). Culture's consequences: International differences in work-related values (Vol. 5). sage.

Hofstede, G. (2001) Culture`s consequences.Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. Sage Publications, Inc.

Hunter, B., White, G. P., & Godbey, G. C. (2006). What does it mean to be globally competent?. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10(3), 267-285.

Joris, M., Otten, M., Nilsson, B., Teekens, H., & Wächter, B. (2000). Internationalisation at home: A position paper. Amsterdam: European Association for International Education.

Lewis, R. (2005). Finland, cultural lone wolf. Intercultural Press.

Lewis, R.D. and Gates, M. (2003) Finns as Leaders – Corporate Ethics and Values. Työn Tuuli, 1, 12-21.

Metcalf, L. E., Bird, A., Shankarmahesh, M., Aycan, Z., Larimo, J., & Valdelamar, D. D. (2006). Cultural tendencies in negotiation: A comparison of Finland, India, Mexico, Turkey, and the United States. Journal of World Business, 41(4), 382-394.

Salo-Lee, L. (2007). 7 Towards Cultural Literacy. Education for Global Responsibility–Finnish Perspectives, 73.

Schroll-Machl, S. (2003). Doing Business with the Germans: Their Perception, Our Perception. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht GmbH KG.

Stier, J. (2006). Internationalisation, intercultural communication and intercultural competence. Journal of Intercultural Communication, 11(1), 1-12.

Stone, N. (2006). Conceptualising intercultural effectiveness for university teaching. Journal of Studies in international Education, 10(4), 334-356.

Thomas, A. (1993). Psychologie interkulturellen Lernens und Handelns. In Alexander Thomas (Hrsg.), Kulturvergleichende Psychologie (S. 377-424). Göttingen: Hogrefe Verlag für Psychologie.

Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998). Riding the waves of culture (p. 162). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Tukiainen, S. (2011). 3. Dynamics of ethnocentrism and ethnorelativism: a case study of Finnish–Polish collaboration. Cross-Cultural Management in Practice: Culture and Negotiated Meanings, 29.

Weil, M., Stolz, S., Otazo, P., & Baumgartner, E. (2010). Academic apprenticeship in cross-cultural settings: Impacts on university learning and teaching. Cross-Cultural Lifelong Learning.

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