by Dr Julika Baumann Montecinos.

On our project manager Dr Julika Baumann Montecinos recently gave an interview on the concept of transculturality, which is the guiding concept for all of the Transcultural Caravan’s projects. We would like to thank ZU|Daily for this collaboration!

What exactly is transculturality?

By transculturality we mean cooperation across cultural borders that relates the participants to one another and results in a transactional manifestation of community. We focus not only on existing commonalities between cultures, but also on new commonalities that can be developed through shared practical experiences and the associated learning processes. The prefix “trans” stands for something that connects, for building bridges, and this is how we understand the concept, which is part of the Relational Economics research programme founded and led by Professor Josef Wieland.

What distinguishes your concept from existing approaches such as that of interculturality?

Those pursuing an intercultural approach mostly place questions of dealing with difference at the heart of their considerations by emphasising the differences and thus the conflictual nature of interactions between cultures. Accordingly, they mainly concentrate on conflict resolution strategies such as promoting knowledge, understanding and tolerance in order to interact with people from other cultures with as little friction as possible. The transcultural approach, on the other hand, also acknowledges cultural diversity, but neither judges it nor seeks to overcome it. We concentrate on how local commonalities can be developed as something new and other in real-life cooperation. The intercultural approach argues in terms of identity theory and a call for culture-specific knowledge, while transculturality focuses on the transaction-specific conditions for successful cooperation, which means that it uses concrete transactions as a starting point.

Why does the concept of transculturality seem more important than ever in the 21st century?

In times of globalisation and global value creation, mutually beneficial cooperation can only succeed if people are able to truly cooperate. Our understanding of cooperation calls for building a community through concrete transactions, in which the actors are treated as equals and engage in joint learning processes. We believe this approach does justice to the realities of most organisations in business, politics and civil society: value chains span the globe, issues and projects bring together people from different cultures, and thanks to digitalisation, teams no longer have to work at the same office – in such contexts, we believe that transcultural competence can be a key success factor.

So does that mean that, whenever I deal with people from other countries, I can use the transcultural approach?

Not only then. The diversity of national cultures is certainly one obvious aspect, but it’s not the only one. The reality is far more complex: in addition to different national cultures, we can also see a great deal of variety in terms of regional cultures, industrial cultures, professional cultures, and corporate cultures, but also the cultures of different generations and genders, to name but a few examples. This is another reason why we consider the intercultural approach, with its predominant theoretical assumption of static cultural affiliation, to be insufficient. The transcultural approach allows us to break down the real complexity of cultural diversity into concrete cooperation experiences.

Where did the idea of exploring questions of transculturality come from?

This field of research has been developed over many years as part of Josef Wieland’s work on the theory of Relational Economics, and has since established itself as one of the main topics at the Leadership Excellence Institute Zeppelin | LEIZ. It was this vision of conducting interdisciplinary research on questions of leadership and governance in times of global value creation, and thus of giving new impetus to business, politics and society, that made Professor Wieland and his team establish this research focus and introduce new formats such as the Transcultural Caravan and the Transcultural Leadership Summit.

What are the Transcultural Caravan and Transcultural Leadership Summit formats all about?

The Transcultural Caravan is a platform that brings together students, researchers and practitioners from all over the world, in order to promote the exchange, further development and networking on their ideas on global issues. As a website, it offers a lively arena with project presentations and calls for proposals, contributions on topics, event announcements, a blog and a lab, which is constantly evolving and invites interested people and organisations to get actively involved. ZU students, students from other universities, academics and practitioners are thus given the opportunity to participate in the debate on relevant questions in global contexts and within the framework of transcultural research groups.

In addition to these research groups, the Transcultural Leadership Summit is one of the Caravan’s largest projects. It is an annual conference at which questions of transcultural leadership are discussed with international experts from academia and practice in keynotes, workshops and panel formats, each with a new regional or country-specific focus. Thus, the previous Summits brought high-ranking guests from China (2016), Sub-Saharan Africa (2017), Brazil (2018) and Europe (2019) to our university and into direct contact with our students, alumni and practice partners.

What makes the Transcultural Leadership Summit format unique, apart from the content covered, is that the event is organised and conducted by a group of ZU students under the guidance of LEIZ – and is therefore one component of the holistic teaching concept that we call Global Studies Projects, and which turns work on the topic of transculturality into a triad of research, teaching and networking.

Within the framework of a transcultural research trip, students even have the opportunity to pursue their own research projects. What do you think about this aspect? Did it surprise you? 

I’m very impressed, indeed, and also very grateful about how successfully this format of the Transcultural Student Research Groups is developing and how much support and encouragement it has received. In addition to the excellent cooperation with the project partners and the generous financial support from funding partners, it is above all the supervising colleagues and the students themselves who have made this research format what it is: an outstanding interdisciplinary and transcultural experiment.

The fact that our latest research group, on Brazil, was even able to complete four sub-projects with a total of twenty ZU participants was an increase compared to previous years, which we’re very pleased about. In November 2019, we held the first Transcultural Winter School, which was part of the research project and for which we welcomed representatives of our Brazilian project partners as well as six Brazilian students here in Friedrichshafen. In this context, the Brazilian-German groups presented their initial findings to a larger audience at a symposium. Over the next few years, we plan to open up the format, which has been bilateral so far, and include young researchers from additional countries. We look forward to the corresponding challenges, and to taking things to the next level.

What criteria do you use to select the regions and project partners?

The research groups are always formed after the Transcultural Leadership Summit. Following the 2016 Summit, on China, the first research group on the question “Transculturality or Hybridity? The Case of Hong Kong” explored this topic from the perspectives of politics, business, art, media, migration and behavioural ethics. The impulse for this topic was provided by a student from Hong Kong who was a guest at the Summit and asked this question from the audience. Following the 2017 Summit, on Sub-Saharan Africa, a German-Ugandan research group pursued a project entitled “Transculturality and Community. A Case Study on the Hope Development Initiative in Uganda”.

The founder of this initiative had given a speech at the Summit and became the project partner for the research group. The latest research group on “Relational Leadership. Case Studies from Brazil” originated at the 2018 Summit, on Brazil. A total of four organisations (Fundação Getúlio Vargas School of Business Administration São Paulo, Insolar, SAP Labs Latin America, and Transparency International Brazil), whose representatives were contributing experts at the Summit, then became our partners for the four sub-projects.

And how do these expeditions work?

In most cases, our students write their bachelor’s, master’s or Humboldt thesis on the respective project, and together with their supervisors, they prepare for the trip and for their specific questions. On site, it is then a matter of pursuing a transcultural approach, i.e., observing and documenting as attentively as possible and with a non-normative attitude. It is important to us that the students recognise that the experts who can best answer their questions are the local people, and that they can gain new insights from exchanges with them. It is therefore crucial for this method to involve local organisations and above all students from the respective countries.

This was achieved, for example, at a symposium at Makerere University, where our students presented their questions and discussed them in small groups with Ugandan students. In the Brazil project, we were able to form tandems or trios, i.e., one German and one or two Brazilian students each, to work on a topic and write a joint text on it, which will then be published in our book.

Do you also release publications with the results of the students’ research work?

Yes, there is a volume on each of the groups in the book series “Transcultural Management Series” edited by Josef Wieland. It includes contributions by our young researchers and written from their respective professional perspectives, but also contributions by authors from the partner country. Taken together, the chapters offer a mosaic of answers to the overarching research question. Ideally, even the individual chapters are co-written by the tandems or trios – this comes quite close to our idea of transculturality.

Can you give a few examples of what students and scientists are currently researching?

Next to the ongoing student research group that is investigating relational leadership on the basis of case studies from Brazil, I would like to briefly mention the research group “Transcultural Competence”, which we’ve set up at LEIZ and which consists of the two doctoral students Jessica Geraldo Schwengber and Tobias Grünfelder, as well as Professor Wieland and myself. The aim of this research project is to develop a comprehensive concept of transcultural competence, to examine the prerequisites for its application, and to shed new light on both the individual and the organisational perspective. An expert conference on this topic will be held at Zeppelin University in June 2020. So it’s a very exciting time, and we look forward to seeing where the Transcultural Caravan will take us next!

This is a translated and updated version of the original German interview by ZU|Daily, available here.