March 24, 2019

By Fernando Lanzer

A useful way of analyzing security issues that are handled across different cultures is offered by looking at them through the prism of Huib Wursten’s Mental Images, a framework that takes Hofstede’s four classic value-dimensions and combines them into six different styles of culture. In addition to that, Japan offers a seventh and different style of culture.

In each of these styles, culture influences (1) how important security issues are considered to be; (2) how they are handled in terms of (i) prevention, (ii) making corrections and (iii) taking measures that will avoid the repetition of similar issues in the future.

The Well-Oiled Machine (WOM)

In WOM cultures such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, the underlying steering principles are that society needs order so that it can function; if people dedicate themselves to planning and organizing structures and regulations (both written and unwritten), and if each individual shows discipline in behaving according to these regulations, then life will be pleasant and gratifying. As the German saying goes: “beauty lies in order.” A key corollary aspect is that uncertainty should be avoided; robust planning and organization should take care of that.

In terms of safety and security, the same principles apply.  In WOM cultures, the emphasis is placed on planning and organizing structures, policies and procedures that will prevent security breaches and mitigate risk. When delegates from different countries meet to discuss security issues, there is a high probability that those who represent WOM will stress these values in their proposals, and advocate these points during debates.

When international collaboration is sought, and people with a WOM mindset meet others with a similar mentality, cooperation is easier, more efficient and effective. When the international partnership means working with people that have a different mentality, that is when there might be misunderstandings, greater divergence of opinions, and less efficiency. Of course, there might be significant differences of opinion within the same culture (especially within individualistic cultures such as WOM, Contest, Network, and Solar System). Yet, there is a higher probability of divergence when the cultural backgrounds are different, simply because people come to the table with different assumptions about security issues.

Solar System

Most cross-culture problems are caused by the fact that people may not realize that their own cultural assumptions are not universal. It is a very common mistake: to think that if an approach works in your culture, it probably works everywhere. The truth is: things do not work that way. In many cases, what works here will not work there; or at least, not in the same way. Therefore, adaptations are likely to be required, in order to obtain the desired outcomes.

In the Solar System style of culture (these are found notably in Italy, Spain and France), the underlying assumptions are that society is characterized by a strong hierarchy, and people need to assert their individuality to defend their freedom against abuses of authority. There is a constant tension between respecting the authority of those higher in the power hierarchy (also demanding that subordinates respect your own level of authority) and expressing your individual opinion even when it challenges authority figures. This mindset  is further complicated by the fact that Uncertainty Avoidance is also high, as it is in WOM cultures.

Regarding security issues, the implication is that planning and organizing structures and rules is not enough to ensure compliance. This is because in Solar System cultures you will find that there is less value placed on individual discipline and compliance. Rather, one is expected to express some independence from rules that come from above. One is expected, and soon enough learns how, to “play the system;” in order to respect authorities at face value, paying lip service to them, if you will, while actually doing something different in practice, depending on what one believes should be the best way to proceed in a specific security-related situation.

People with a Solar System mindset know all this very well. Quite often they have faced situations in which everyone around a meeting-room table agrees to carry out certain security standards, only to find out shortly afterwards that said standards were modified by different individuals who felt they required different adaptations when implemented in practice. In these cultures, these adaptations are seldom communicated to the top. People will often continue to report that all is well and according to plan. However, reality may be quite different; and it will only come to the surface when a serious breach is uncovered.

Because people coming from a Solar System mentality assume that all of this will happen, they tend to stress that what is needed to ensure security is a strong enforcement and control process. This will ensure compliance; while people with a WOM mindset tend to take compliance for granted.


Rather than engage in endless discussions about which lever to pull, people seeking cross-border cooperation about security issues need to pull all levers. That is to say: use the WOM approach plus the Solar System approach. Do design robust structures and clear policies that set standards to be complied with; and also establish effective auditing processes that will identify non-compliance and implement corrective measures as needed. Compliance should never be taken for granted, especially when one realizes that only a few cultures (Contest, WOM and Network) actually value discipline and compliance highly. All other cultures, representing roughly 90% of the world population, place more value on a different mindset, where compliance and discipline are less of a priority.

This text explored the differences in mindset found in Solar System and Well-Oiled Machine cultures. There are other differences among the seven above-mentioned culture styles, and they must be considered when seeking international collaboration.

This does not imply that some cultures are better than others. It simply means that different cultures do have different priorities. And if you want to ensure security in every culture, it is necessary to take different measures that are consistent with each culture.

Institutions must increase their awareness of how culture influences security issues, in order to avoid their occurrence and recurrence. Special attention is required to enhance international collaboration efforts, which can have frustrating results when culture differences are not taken into account.