Attitudes toward Supplier Integration: the U.S. vs. China

Strength in the familiar? Or the shockingly different?
by Professor Thomas J. Kull

Employees don’t always agree with company initiatives. On the one hand, leadership may be committed toward an organizational change that many company employees view negatively. Downsizing is an obvious example, but new technologies or new techniques may also have this effect. On the other hand, employees may have a positive view toward an initiative that leadership refuses to pursue. Think of office redesigns or other things that might improve the “culture” of a company. In either case, understanding how and why employees around the world have certain attitudes toward initiatives can be a major factor in whether those initiatives get started and completed successfully.

I recently co-authored a study researching attitudes toward supplier integration initiatives in the U.S. and China. What is supplier integration? It has two traits: collaboration and synchronization. Specifically, it’s when a buying company increasingly collaborates with a supplier while also synchronizing buyer-supplier operations to streamline efforts and workflow for both companies. Supplier integration can be great for a company, but getting there means changing how employee managers work together and operate with external parties. If the managers have negative attitudes about supplier integration, that could really hurt the company’s chances of success. So, understanding the source of these attitudes will help.

My co-authors and I collected data from 224 U.S. and 117 Chinese manufacturing managers and found evidence for the hypothesis that what integration trait managers are “used to” internally (i.e., within the company) will predict their attitudes toward how to act externally (i.e., with other companies). This is sometimes referred to as cognitive consistency. Specifically, if a buying company historically has had a collaborative culture in how it operates internally, that will translate into positively viewing collaboration externally with suppliers. Conversely, if a buying company historically has tightly synchronized operations internally between departments, that will translate into positively viewing tight synchronization externally.

Interestingly, we also found some support that internally observing the integration traits of collaboration and synchronization will have opposing strengths of influence between the U.S. and China. In other words, whatever trait is less present in the prevailing country context, that trait will be more influential if present in the buying company. This may seem counterintuitive, but the idea is that if a trait is not personally “taken for granted,” seeing evidence that the trait works in the context is powerful.

For example, the U.S. is less collectivist than China, so collaboration does not always come naturally here. However, if a U.S. manager sees collaboration working successfully internally, that will be quite powerful. By contrast, there is less firm-to-firm synchronization in China than in the U.S., so a Chinese manager witnessing successful operational synchronization will more likely be convinced than the U.S. manager that supplier integration is good.

These findings have real impact. They show a company’s leadership that overcoming negative attitudes toward supplier integration (and any initiative) requires more than simply promoting its benefits. Leadership must look deeper into the company’s historical context to see what the employee predispositions are, and what the company has been doing successfully to manage internally. That also means that when leadership wants to make changes, leaders must know where cognitive consistency does and does not exist. Often, the advice of change experts is that “quick wins” are needed to prove to employees that the change will work. Our study cautions against that; instead, we believe you must first identify the traits of the initiative and then determine what traits need more proof than others. Getting “quick wins” in the wrong area will do little to promote the new initiative.

Thomas Kull is an associate professor of supply chain management at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. 


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