BUSINESS firms, especially big industrial firms, are held up as a model of rationality and organization. Many countries where "traditional" cultures still prevail look to them to play a catalytic role in bringing about change and to challenge social practices that are looked down upon as archaic; they are supposed to be a force for modernization, not only of technology but of mentalities and forms of organization.
Credibility is lent to this view by the existence of international management methods, developed in the industrialized countries, which countries with less efficient economies are urged to adopt if they want their business organizations to become competitive. These methods are publicized by books on management, "business schools", certain management consultants and major institutions like the World Bank and the transnationals.
It might be supposed, looking at things this way, that there was a standoff between some universally valid organizational principle, represented by the "right" management methods, on the one hand, and, on the other, a host of specific traditions, each expressing specific prejudices, that need to be overcome if the highest levels of productivity are to be reached.
Reality is, however, obstinately at odds with this view. Japan has …