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The manager's response to cultural barriers.

The Manager's Response to Cultural Barriers

Anthropologists have formulated more than 250 specific definitions of the term culture. The variables that make up culture-philosophy, beliefs, norms values, morals, habits, customs, art, and literature-are interlocked; influenced by each other and ultimately influence the behavior of people and groups. As American companies and governmental agencies encounter frequently setbacks and increasing difficulties in attempting to influence the behavior of foreign governments and consumers, the importance of developing a sensitivity and understanding to foreign cultures increases.

Culture can be manifested in many ways: dress, language, food, gestures, manners and in various other forms, yet the bulk of cultural components-beliefs, norms, values, standards, perceptions, attitudes, and priorities-are less visible, and hence much harder to deal with successfully. While many people may have problems dealing with foreign customs and language, these are relatively easy components since they are visible and comprehensible. It is much harder to detect and to deal with values, assumptions, and perceptions.

Folk tales, proverbs, and idioms are often indicators of a culture's norms and priorities. "Time is money" is indicative of a busy culture that puts a high priority of financial gains and uses money as an important gauge against which other virtues are measured. "The early bird gets the worm" points to a culture that values initiative diligence the "get up and go" spirit.

In Arabic the idiom "Yoom assal yoom basal" - one day a person is given honey; the nest day onions-points to a more fatalistic view. So does the frequently used term "Inshalla"-God willing.

Children's stories are another good indicator of a culture's values and priorities. The story about the tortoise and the hare indicates culture norms that encourage effort and perseverance even in the face of overwhelming odds. In the Middle East the story is told differently than in the United States: After establishing a date for the race, the tortoise went home and made a deal with some family members. Some of them would hide near the starting point while others would wait near the finishing line. Each time the racing rabbit approached, a tortoise would step forward and announce that he had arrived there first. After several attempts the exhausted here conceded defeat.

The moral of the story: Being crafty and working out a deal in the family will bring victory.

Culture has a significant influence on attitudes, priorities, and behavior. In some Western cultures, including the United States, the culture is youth-oriented. Youth is admired, glorified, and worshiped. Considerable amounts of time and money are spent by millions of people every year in health clubs, physical fitness programs, beauty parlors, and plastic surgery-all in an attempt to stretch and extend youth. In traditional societies old age carriers great respect while young people count less. While we were waiting for a bus in Bangkok, a group of teenagers who happened to walk by stopped, put their hand together and bowed to an old man-a total stranger-who was sitting in the station. In Israel young people regularly give up their seats for older folks. A former professor of mine, Professor Uriel Hed, served as cultural attache in Turkey and was once invited to the home of the prime minister. As they were sitting in the living room the old and partially deaf and blind father of the prime minister, entered the room. Out of respect, the prime minister immediately stood up and remained standing until the old father sat down.

Attitudes toward family members vary in different cultures as well. In traditional societies, the family, including the extended family, is of utmost importance and supersedes everything in society.

The extended family usually lives in the same town and often in the same compound. Business are kept within the family and passed from generation to generation. Each family member is expected to demonstrate absolute loyalty to the family up to the point of self-sacrifice. Within the family, close relatives get priority. Edward Hall, in his article "The Silent Language in Overseas Business," describes a family incident:

"A highly placed official in Baghdad precipitated a bitter family dispute because his nephew, a biochemist, could not speed up the complete analysis of the uncle's blood. He accused the nephew of putting other less important people before him and of not caring."

A family member is often expected to break the law and violate any ethical norm in order to help another member in distress. In some traditional Middle Eastern societies it is the responsibility of the family to settle accounts and to redress grievances. When a family member is killed or injured by an outsider, it is the responsibility of the other members to avenge the death, accept monetary compensation from the perpetrator, or settle the matter in any form deemed suitable to the family. Hence the family assumes the role of the state in handling even criminal matters. When a family member obtains an important public position, it is his duty to place other family members in his organization. Should he fail to do so, he would be branded as selfish and disloyal. In the West he would be accused of nepotism.

Relations outside the family vary as well in different cultures. In the West, relations with friends, neighbors and colleagues are casual, correct, and noncommittal. One does not conduct business with friends, does not lend money to neighbors, and not discuss family problems with colleagues. Moreover, considerable efforts are exerted to hid financial and family matters from acquaintances. ("What will the neighbors say?")

In traditional societies in the Middle East, Latin America and others, relations between friends neighbors and colleagues are closer, warmer, longer-lasting and more candid. Friends and neighbors provide the social insurance and financial assistance, and render counselling and support in time of need. They are less self-centered and more generous and hospitable than their Western counterparts and put a high priority on relations with people. A Latin person would not hesitate to stay all night listening to family problems of a friend, nor would he think twice of taking off to wait an entire day in the airport with a wait-listed friend trying to secure a seat on an airplane. At the same time, friends are far more critical than in the West.

While Americans shy away from doing business with friends, Latins and members of other societies prefer to conduct their business through friends of friends of friends. Should they have to deal with a stranger, they would not mind taking the time to establish some friendship first and then to conduct the necessary business.

Working through friends often results in priority treatment, reflecting the importance of friends in society. While in Quito, Ecuador, I had to rearrange my complicated itinerary. because of a strike, only one airline was operating and the downtown ticket office was crowded with travelers. After waiting in line for close to an hour, my turn arrived and the office manager, a professional and highly competent woman, intervened to handle my complex ticketing. At that moment two women, apparently friends of the manager, entered the office. The manager left my tickets and only later came back to handle mine. If I had a friend in that office, I too would have received special treatment.

In Israel, some years ago, I met a sheet-metal worker who, while repairing the gutters on a neighbor's house, fell down and broke his back. The neighbor and his family took the man into their house, nursed, fed and attended to his needs for several weeks until he could be moved to a hospital.

Culture has a significant influence on a society's attitude to money and material assets. In the West wealth is placed in high esteem and at times viewed as a virtue and not just a means. In certain circles it is believed that a poor person is a bad person, a lazy one, or a sinner who was punished for his sins. In other cultures the attitude to wealth is quite different. In certain groups in India and in other societies, poverty is the ultimate virtue.

Thousands of scholars and monks own nothing but the robes they are wearing Wealthy people life chasing and accumulating materialistic trivia while cheating their fellow man in the process.

An Indian businessman once gave a coin to a monk to buy something for dinner. An hour later, he found out that the monk had given the coin away. The monk's explanation was that there was still an hour left until dinner time and that it would be wrong to own property during that time.

Attitudes to object and gadgets vary greatly from one culture to another and even within cultures. Americans are notoriously "gadget crazy" and would probably rank first in this this category. A garage in a typical American home his more gadgets than several French homes combined. In the U.S. gadgets serve not only as toys or gifts but as status symbols.

Raised in a classes society, many American will go to great the objects and gadgets they acquire, be it a certain brand of clothes with the label prominently displayed, shoes, bag, expensive watches, or cars.

Even in the government, objects determine status. A few years ago the General Service Administration drew up highly refined guidelines on who gets what in Washington.

One article, called "Where Status Is Measured By Toilets and Showers" summarized some of these status symbols. For example, a government office with wooden desk and chairs would indicate to the average civilian that the office is occupied by a bureaucrat of grade of GS-15 or higher. Lesser functionaries must make do with metal desks. An office with a private toilet and sink points to an officially recognized government chief from Executive Level 5 through Level 1. An official with a private toilet, sink and shower is really important, but one with a private toilet, sink, shower and vanity is truly a big shot.

Attitudes toward space vary as well from culture to culture. In the West space is of great importance. People strive to have their own space both at home and at work and are careful not to intrude into other people's space.

When conversing, a distance of several feet is maintained and physical contact is rare. In Latin America and the Middle East closeness and togetherness are preferred and people often wander why Americans keeps stepping back as they get closer. In the United States, spaces is not only a functional commodity but a status symbol. Office space is proportional to an official's importance, regardless of functional necessity. An American could immediately assess the relative importance of a local executive by the size of his office. In Japan, offices are smaller and more crowded.. The president of Honda USA does dot have his own office, but shares a room with a dozen other workers. In Malaysia I visited the office of a $600 million company. The two brothers who run the company shared a one-room office cluttered with files and computer printouts.

Not only is the size of the space important in the West, but the location of the space is significant as well. The higher one's status in the corporation, the higher the location of his office is in the building. The chief executive officer usually gets the top floor, while lesser officials get lower floors. A middle manager may get a corner office, while a low level supervisor may have to make do with a cubicle in the middle of the floor. The basement is "the bargain basement." In Japan, on the other hand, the top floors of department stores are the bargain floors. In the Middle East it is not unusual for an influential business with high standing in the community to have an old, dilapidated office in a run-down neighborhood.

People's attitudes toward time is also influenced by culture. In industrial societies, time is scare, carefully measured, and accounted for. Promptness is the norm and tardiness can lead to costly consequences. Arriving half an hour late to a job interview, a final exam, or a court trial can often have disastrous results.

In Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, arriving half an hour late is considered early.

A colleague of mine arrived for dinner at the home of his Latin host a few minutes late. He was embarrassed to find the host not yet dressed and the house not picked up. While in Ethiopia, we were invited to an official dinner by the Deputy Minister of Finance. His chauffeur was supposed to pick us up at 6 p.m. At 10 p.m., long after we had given up and completed dinner at the hotel cafeteria, the chauffeur arrived.

A former Arabic student of mine, engaged to an American woman, sent out two sets of wedding invitations: The American part of the family was invited for noon while the Arabic part for 10 p.m. In Japan arriving to a meeting is governed by rank-junior people arrive first, the most senior person last.

In Western cultures, important matters get immediate attention and are carried out quickly. In some African societies the more important the matter the longer it takes. Only unimportant matters get handled quickly, and since no official would ever admit that what he is doing is not important, virtually everything takes a long time. Americans downgrade the importance of their work, in the eyes of local associates, by getting things done fast.

In the Orient, patience is the name of the game. Matters are examined thoroughly and prudently with an eye to the long-range implications.

The difference in perception of time often leads t erroneous assumptions and, consequently, wrong decisions. After sending out a proposal, if the American businessman does not receive an answer in two months, he assumes that the recipient is not interested. In Japan it often means that they are building up to something big.

American haste and impatience are often ridiculed and at times exploited. Hall mentions Japanese businessman's remark: "You Americans have one terrible weakness. If we make you wait long enough, you will agree to anything."

This impatience and the urge to get everything now is a relatively new phenomena in the American scene and has not been as common a trait in previous generations. Much has been written about the source of the haste and the desire for instant gratification of the "now generation."

Professor Hayakawa, former Senator and President of San Francisco State University, has the following theory: Unlike previous generations, the last two generations have been brought up with television. Many youngsters spend more time in front of their TV sets then on any other activity. Most TV program are 30 or 60 minutes long. In this time span the characters are introduced, the plot developed and the conclusion reached. After years of dealing with this time frame, people become accustomed to short time intervals, and they develop expectations accordingly.

People's priorities are often influenced by the prevailing culture. In the United States, career advancement, success in business, striking it rich and owning a large house in the suburbs are commonly held priorities. In traditional societies, spending more time with the family, and achieving social status and recognition are more important In the Middle East I met small businessmen who closed their shops every day at 1:00 p.m., went home for lunch and then took a long siesta. Later in the afternoon, they enjoyed a few leisurely visiting hours when relatives, friends and neighbors drop in for a visit. Tea, cake, and sweets would be served and current events discussed. In the evening, after supper, they would read the paper, watch TV or get together with some family members. It is hard to find many small businessmen in the U.S. who follow such a schedule.

In Latin America, going out to party and to dance often have a higher priority than working and conducting business. "Work is not a rabbit, it wont run away, it will be here tomorrow and the day after, so why rush to it." I was told by my business associates.

Offering a tip or a gift in one country will be accepted with gratitude while in another it could be offensive. Bringing food or beverages to the home of a Western host would be graciously received. In the Middle East it could often prove insulting as if to imply that the hosts are not good hosts.

Many blunders were committed by American firms, institutions and people for lack of understanding that priorities differ and that what motivates one individual may offend another from a different culture.

In 1986 a large university on the West Coast hosted a high-level delegation from Pakistan. Lunch was served in an elegant room and the university president praised the guests and their accomplishments and expressed the hope that an ongoing exchange program could be established with the national university in Pakistan. When the long-faced guest left in a hurry without touching the food, one perplexed university official remarked. "They must not like glazed ham."

David Ricks, in is book "Big Business Blunders," mentions numerous examples of poor decisions and serious blunders resulting from inadequate familiarity with foreign cultures: An American manufacturer of eyeglasses, trying to expand sales in Thailand, ran ads featuring animals wearing glasses. Had he been more familiar with Thai culture, he would have selected a different, and more successful, promotional approach. Animals are considered a low form of life in Thailand and humans would not wear anything worn by animals.

The Japanese steel maker Sumitomo marketed a steel pipe it called Sumitomo High Toughness in the United States. Not familiar with contemporary American slang, Sumitomo decided to use the initials SHT, in bold letters, on all promotional materials. In some trade magazines, three-fourths of the full page ads featured the letters SHT with the short message at the bottom, "Was made to match its name."

A U.S. golf ball manufacturer had difficulties selling his products in Japan. The balls were packaged in groups of four and the manufacturer did not know that four is an unlucky number in Japan, since it has a similar pronunciation to the word death. Items grouped in four do not sell well.

Insensitivity to cultural and religious norms can lead to more detrimental consequences than lost sales. One airline almost lost its license in Saudi Arabia when its newspaper advertising featured attractive hostesses serving champagne to passengers. Considered routine in other cultures, the ad was offensive to people adhering to the Islamic way of life, and ran contrary to established values. Serving alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia and unveiled women do not mingle with men.

A business associate told me about another incident. The president of a major American corporation had been trying for some time to develop business opportunities in Saudi Arabia. After considerable effort, he was invited to the home of a prominent Saudi leader for dinner. At the end of the long banquet, the American, pleased with the progress made, committed an offensive blunder: He asked to see the host's wife and personally thank her for the lavish feast. While the American was trying to be polite and thankful, his host viewed it as an called for show of interest in someone else's wife.

Lack of sensitivity to religious symbols could be costly as well. Using the picture of Buddha in commercials and ads in parts of Asia, where religious feelings run strong, could generate resentment and ill will. One company was nearly burned to the ground when it demonstrated such insensitivity.

When negotiating a trade agreement in Colombia, U.S. representatives became frustrated with the slow pace, lack of progress, and the constant backtracking of their Latin counterparts. They gave notice that they would be leaving for Geneva on a certain date and urged that an agreement be concluded by then. The Colombia representatives, not attuned to the importance of time and deadlines in the United States, dismissed the notice in the United States, dismissed the notice as a bargaining trick. They were surprised and disappointed to learn that the Americans indeed left on the set date without an agreement being concluded.

And such blunders are not strictly cross-continental. An American an manufacturer of canned fish ran ads in Quebec featuring a woman wearing shorts playing golf with a man. The caption explained that a woman can play golf with her husband in the afternoon and serve the canned fish for dinner. What the promoter failed to understand is that in Quebec women do not wear shots on golf courses and are not permitted to play golf with men. Moreover, a housewife in Quebec will never canned fish as a main course.

The Harvard Business School has a case study pointing to yet another blunder by a major American corporation: During the late 1960s Coca Cola's performance in Japan was nothing short of spectacular. Sales had been growing 30-40 percent per year and Coca Cola's Japan operation contributed about 30 percent of the total corporate profit. When the news that the U.S. had barred the use of cyclamates reached Japan, all major soft drink producers took put large ads in newspapers and on television reassuring Japanese consumers that they had not been using cyclamates and strongly apologized for causing them concern. Some of the language in the ads was quite remarkable. One ad read:

No cyclamates! All sugar! Our products contain only natural sugar. If we ever neglected to emphasize this fact in the past, we deeply apologize. Very sorry, indeed, for our inadvertent negligence. Million times bowing. Please permit me to crawl t your benign knees for begging you to accept my apology.

Coca-Cola, which did not use cyclamate either, did not see it necessary to explain or apologize. When the public became suspicious, Coke finally caught up with local customs and published some advertisements almost three weeks later. It may have further aggravated a bad situation as concerned consumers realized that Coca-Cola, although it did not use cyclamates, did not think enough about its customers to alleviate their fears.

A frequently asked question is: can an individual learn a foreign culture? The answer is yes, with some effort. All cultures are, after all, acquired. A baby is not born with a Western culture or a Middle Eastern one. By growing up in a society one absorbs values, norms, beliefs, customs and other cultural traits. Some of them are taught in school; others are conferred by parents and friends. An outsider would, of course, have to invest time and effort to become familiar with the culture. Through books, magazines, lectures, films, meeting with people who grew up or lived in the culture, and through visits tot he foreign country, one can become acquainted with a foreign culture. The more knowledgeable a person is, the more able he or she would be to adjust to a different culture and to operate within it.

There are, however, barriers to the process. When adults who are already formulated, "programmed," and influenced by their own culture try to acquired another one, the tendency to pass judgment is always there. Since the norms of what is good and bad; important and trivial are already in place, other norms are judged by the existing ones.

It is even more complicated when it comes to perceptions, assumptions and expectations. Some of these are subconscious, automatic and often taken for granted. For example, we once scheduled a series of business meetings in Chile, in a certain logical, operational sequence. The first meeting in the morning was to be held with an eager designer who was trying to sell us some of his designs. We had narrowed down his list and were about to select one design. Next was a meeting with a manufacturing company, to brief their representatives about the selected design. For the afternoon we had scheduled meeting with legal counsel and the president of an export company targeted to package and ship the product. We arrived at the conference room at the set time and after waiting for two hours we finally realized that the designer was not going to show up. This possibility was never contemplated by us when we planned out the entire day. We took it for granted that if a meeting is scheduled, the people will attend. We were applying our own business practices to people from a different culture, making assumptions we should not have. On the following day, around noon, the designer appeared in our hotel and explained that he and his girlfriend went dancing in different clubs the night before our meeting, did not get to bed until dawn and consequently slept in. He offered to take us to his shop to review the designs, but suggested that we first stop at his house. After showing us his albums with his family pictures, the designer suggested that we all go out to lunch in the county club before getting down to business. We spent a delightful afternoon and evening in the country club but never go around to any business. His priorities were not consistent with our expectations.

It would be much easier to adopt to a foreign culture if one could "deprogram" oneself so there are no expectations, no assumptions, and no preconceived ideas.

This, however, is not possible. Not only do we all act on deep-routed values, norms, assumptions and expectations congruent with our upbringing, but we all have "blinders"- a series of filters that let us see and hear only things that we are conditioned to; that are close to us and within our frame of reference. A picture of a bullfight and a baseball game was flashed to a group of Americans and Mexicans. When asked to described what they saw the Americans said that the picture showed a baseball game while the Mexicans claimed that the picture depicted a bullfight.

Language is another barrier to cultural understanding. Since most Americans do not speak or read a foreign language they cannot use firsthand sources but have to rely on whatever is available in English. They also cannot communicate directly with people from a foreign culture unless these people have made the effort to learn our language. Moreover, even when people use the same langauge, misunderstandings and misinterpretations occur. The same words and symbols have different meanings to people from different cultural backgrounds.

Our language contains numerous expressions from the world of sports, religion, politics, and entertainment that are meaningless to people from other cultures, regardless of how fluent in English they are. Terms like "home run," "Rube Goldberg," "a piece of cake," "robbing Peter to pay Paul," and "a hot potato" often frustrate people from different cultures.

Even if clear and unambiguous terms are used, misunderstanding may occur because of differences in assumptions and expectations. People tend to hear what they expect to. For example during World War II, the inhabitants of a certain village were informed by the police to pack their belongings and to be ready to evacuate the village any day. Two days later a police car went through the village and announced on the loudspeaker that a certain boy was missing and that whoever saw him should report to the police. The inhabitants immediately took their bags and headed to the highway.

Adjusting to another culture can be particularly frustrating if one comes from a low-context culture and has to operate in a high-context culture. A low-context culture is one where the bulk of information, intentions, and meanings are conveyed in words and sentences. The context plays a smaller role. High-context cultures are those where the context is of great importance what is behind the words is as important as the words themselves.

The Anglo-Saxon culture is low-context culture. Information and intentions are expressed in words and sentences in the clearest possible manner. The prevailing culture in Japan is a high-context culture. What counts is not only what is said, but how it is said and when it is said. What was not said is also significant, as are the pauses, the silence, the tone. In high-context cultures, reading between the lines and interpreting the meaning behind the words is of utmost importance since the words themselves have different meanings and do not always convey the true intentions to an outsider. Japanese rarely use the word "no," instead they use a host of substitutes that may not convey to the Westerner the true intention. Similarly, when Japanese use affirmative statements they do not assign the same meaning to them as we do. When a Japanese says "I will take care of it" it means "I will think about it." Adjusting to a culture of this nature is not easy for an American who likes to call a spade a spade.

Ethnocentrism, the conviction that one's culture is superior to others, is another obstacle to adjusting to a foreign culture. Hardly anyone would assert that their culture is inferior. On the contrary, most people are sincerely convinced that their culture is the best. Hence why bother with another, inferior, one? Is it the more sensible to confer the "good" culture on those less fortunate people who have not yet seen the light?

This missionary zeal is counter-productive and channels efforts and energy in the wrong direction.

Finally, resistance to change, an ever-present force, constitutes a formidable obstacle to cultural adjustment. As people get accustomed to and comfortable with certain standards, they get set in their ways and are reluctant to change.

Despite resistance to change, cultures do change. The Islamic culture, in its first seven hundred years, was dynamic, tolerant, and highly progressive. Under Islamic rule, art poetry, math, and sciences flourished from Spain to Syria. During the same period, the European culture was fanatic and backward. The lingering Dark Ages prompted feudalism, inquisitions and crusades. At the beginning of the 18th century, the British were considered an unstable, volatile society prone to revolution and unrest, while the French were described as a quite, solid and stable culture. In a few decades the picture had changed dramatically. In the early 19th century the Germans were depicted as an impractical, peace-loving society, suitable for music and poetry but not for business and industry. The Japanese worker was characterized, at the beginning of the 20th century, as "lazy and easygoing." An Australian expert, commissioned by the Japanese government in 1915 to study the state of Japanese industry, reported the following:

"Japan commercially, I regret to say, does not bear the best reputation for executing business. Inferior goods, irregularity and indifferent shipments have caused no end of worry . . . My impression as to your cheap labour was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work. No doubt they are lowly paid, but the return is equally so; to see your men at work made me feel that you are a very satisfied easygoing race who reckon time is no object. When I spoke to some managers they informed that it was impossible to change the habits of national heritage."

Some aspects of the American culture have changed as well. From a production-oriented culture we are moving to a consumption-oriented one; from customer-oriented to employee-oriented. Prudence, frugality and savings, once predominant American values, gave way to spending, indulgence and debt.

Many forces, geographic, topographic, climactic, economic, religious, historical, and political combine to make or to change a culture. Oceans, rivers, mountains and deserts had a significant impact on the cultures evolved near them. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods left their mark as well. Crop failures and famine prompted immigration and cultural interactions.

Religious visions and movements, such as the introduction by the Hebrews of the monotheistic concept and the Ten Commandments, the spread of Christianity and Islam, and the crusades, had a great influence on the evolution of cultures. Wars, revolutions, and political changes contribute their share as well. Hence cultures are formulated and influenced by man-made events as well as by natural forces. So while people are deeply affected by their culture, they in turn, influence their culture in an ongoing reciprocal way. Isolated from foreign influences and from sudden changes, a culture can become inbred and stagnant and can have a detrimental effect on the development of society.

Culture has a profound impact on the attitudes, priorities, and behavior of people and groups. To be able to interact with people from different cultures it is vital to understand their values, norms and priorities. Incentives that may motivate an individual in Chicago may fail in Calcutta. Time-tested techniques that have accomplished spectacular results in the United States may prove useless in Japan.

As our planet moves towards becoming one global village, a smaller and more integrated world, where international transactions grow in geometric rates, the importance of understanding our partners, competitors, and adversaries grows proportionately. Knowledge is often defined as power Knowledge as to how to get along, motivate and influence foreign people and governments can result in great power but can also lead to less frictions, better understanding and a more peaceful coexistence between people.

Dr. Aviel s a professor of international business at California State University, Hayward. He had also taught at the University of California, Berkeley, San Francisco State University and a number of Universities in Latin America, the Middle East and the Orient. He served as the associate dean at Golden Gate University, San Francisco, and ESSAN (a graduate school of business established by Stanford University) in Peru. Prior to entering academe, Dr. Aviel spent ten years in private industry holding managerial andexecutive positions in several multinational corporations. He is currently a member of the board of directors of domestic and foreign enterprises, and is the author of two books, ten articles and a large number of technical papers.
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Author:Aviel, David
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:May 1, 1990
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