Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

Apple samsung docking connectors

The sheer size of patent war between Apple and Samsung won’t be the only hurdle to overcome when negotiations between the two parties begin on May 21. The firms have very different cultures—not just at the corporate scale, but culture at a more fundamental level. Apple has been hailed as a quintessentially American company—it was started in a garage and has risen to be the largest company in the world by market capitalization. Samsung, on the other hand, is a archetypal Asian firm—it started small, quickly diversified, and now makes and sells everything from smartphones to ocean-going container ships.

Jeanne Brett, a professor of management and organizations and an expert on cross cultural negotiations, thinks the two firms’ cultural differences will strongly influence the negotiations, particularly with respect to the odd relationship they have, which is both competitive and cooperative. While Apple and Samsung are duking it out in the smartphone market, Samsung also supplies Apple with important components such as memory for its iPhones and other devices.

“The East Asians ability to tolerate contradictions, a way of thinking that does not tend to be shared by Westerners should help the Koreans to accept that they are at the same time supply partners with Apple and competitors with regard the patents,” Brett said.

There’s another barrier that could stand in the way, too. “A major cultural difference between Western and East Asians is the analytical approach that they take toward problem solving,” Brett said, citing a publication by Richard Nisbett and others.

Western cultures tend to take a more Aristotelian approach to problem solving, she said, which is more linear, logical, and rational. East Asian cultures, on the other hand, tend to be more Confucian in the way they tackle problems, which is more holistic and dialectical.

“Applied to this situation,” Brett noted, “we may see the American company focused rather narrowly on the issues in dispute and the Korean company focused more broadly on the relationship between the two companies and how this dispute fits into that bigger picture.”

Photo by Dave Schumaker.

This is the second in a series on Apple and Samsung's patent negotiations. Read parts one, three, and four.

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