Archive for May 4th, 2011

Book: Uncertainty Avoidance in “Outliers”

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

In “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, Singapore is listed as the “culture best able to tolerate ambiguity”, or the country with the lowest UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE. This led me to where we find more detail about this and other cultural features (termed “cultural dimensions” when quantified on a relative scale).

Uncertainty Avoidance
Uncertainty avoidance deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, different from usual. Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth:  “there can only be one Truth and we have it”. People in uncertainty avoiding countries are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy. The opposite type, uncertainty accepting cultures, are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to; they try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side. People within these cultures are more phlegmatic and contemplative, and not expected by their environment to express emotions.

Also from the website…”Because values are acquired in childhood, national cultures are remarkably stable over time; national values change is a matter of generations. What we see changing around us, in response to changing circumstances are practices:  symbols, heroes and rituals, leaving the underlying values untouched.”

In this search, I also found CultureGPS ( by sales-genetics ( and downloaded it onto my iPad via the App Store.

Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise to show the values of the various cultural dimensions and see if they are expected among the youth participants. It would also be interesting to see whether aiming change at youth (by youth and among youth) has greater influence on promoting a value change.

Uncertainty Avoidance, Power Distance and Individualism Values from CultureGPS Lite (listed in order; downloaded 5/4/11; no version number):

Country UA PDI IDV Comments
US 46 40 91 high IDV; depend on yourself
China 40 80 20
Malaysia 36 104 26 high PDI; little leadership transfer?
Singapore 8 74 20
India 40 77 48
Taiwan 69 58 17
Japan 92 54 46 very high UA; follow procedure

Thoughts: On the Skill of Interpretation

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Is there a more important, fundamental and useful skill than interpretation? How many people understand this importance and dedicate much of their (brain) energy into optimizing their interpretation skill?

Starting on the level of computers – drawing from some notes I made for my lectures on Environmental Informatics, we can compare and contrast syntactic interoperability and semantic interoperability – extending it to human communications (not necessarily human-to-human linguistics). The syntactic type simply requires channels for communications and flow in those channels. The semantic type extends this by requiring that the information exchange have unambiguous meaning. Human-computer interaction is largely semantic, although the semantic weight is more on the programming end (have to follow the computer language reference model), and there is significant syntactic weight on the user end (ie, the computer program doesn’t check whether you understood the information).

There are various human-to-human interpretation frameworks we can also consider. At the most familiar level, there is communication between different languages or dialects – we train ourselves to become familiar with the syntax, and a small portion eventually become acquainted with the semantics. Even within the same language, there can be significant variability in interpreted meaning and sometimes it is due to cultural constraints where direct meaning is not permitted (see description of KAL 801 crash by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”, Chapter 7).

I would also note, as another example, the art/skill of data interpretation that scientists are regularly engaged in. In the aqueous geochemical computer modeling that I was engaged in, interpretation of numeric output was (and still is) subject to limits of confidence. Take for example, calculated saturation indices for multi-component systems – it was impossible to predict with absolute confidence whether precipitation would occur, lest a supersaturation condition. This relates to the relationship between uncertainty and risk; risk is greatest when there is maximum uncertainty. Similarly, we find ourselves with divergent (but hotly contested) interpretations of earth temperature data, amidst close-to-maximum risk and uncertainty.

OK, back to the topic of youth and leadership. How do we think youth perform with regards to managing information streamed to them via  various channels (eg, in school by lecture, in school by books, through the broadcast media, through the internet, from friends and family)? Do they interpret efficiently and with accurate meaning? Do youth develop good reference frameworks that both interpret and filter well?

As an example, think about communication between a parent and his/her newborn child. The child often cries and/or screams to communicate something, whereas the parent utilizes “baby talk”. There is something instinctual and yet highly ambiguous about this. From this starting point, we must realize that youth interpretation skills need to be developed – but like creativity, do we squander the opportunity?

The Sustainable Leadership that is one of the objectives of this program relies heavily on highly developed interpretation skills. At the highest level, a leader needs to be able to communicate (vision, tasks, …) with others and learn (from colleagues, staff, …) from others. So, in order for youth to achieve sustainable (ie, long term and developing) leadership, one should understand the importance of interpretation – and we can do that by encouraging creative interpretation of things they observe (eg, the divergence test described in “Outliers”).