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Constructing identities in Indian networks: discourses of marketing management in inter-organisational relationships

By Nick Ellis, Michel Rod, Tim Beal and Val Lindsay

Business-to-business networks and relationships help to make the commercial world go round, but in an age of increasing globalisation, different cultures and business practices come increasingly into contact and business networks are influenced by this. Although there’s an extensive body of literature on business networks in general, there’s very little in existence on emerging markets such as India and Brazil.

Bearing this in mind a team of researchers including Nick Ellis, of Durham University Business School, set out to look more closely at the position in India. Here, a colonial past has produced tensions with a traditional background – and those traditional values themselves are increasingly coming up against wider, non-traditional languages and management. The team set out to try and understand some of the factors at play – not just in terms of perceptions from outside but of how the firms, represented by their management, increasingly portray themselves.

Evaluating perceptions: the study method

Previous studies have been largely empirical but these neglected some of the more subtle elements of business identities. To combat this, Ellis and his team introduced an interpretive element to the study, using semi-structured interviews to demonstrate what they called ‘the discursive elements’ of business network relationships. Their sample of 23 managers – all Indian and all involved in business relationships with New Zealand firms – covered sectors from tourism to engineering and also included other industry stakeholders.

Analysis of the interview transcripts focused upon key words and phrases which were used and placed into groups, termed ‘repertoires’. These were selected not just upon the frequency of use but also its context. There were six of these (termed ‘networks’, ‘past and present practices’, ‘managerial expertise’, ‘globalisation’, ‘Indian management systems’ and ‘relationship management’) each of which was then subdivided into smaller repertoires so that the context of use could be more clearly identified.

Business identities in an Indian context

The researchers acknowledged that the cultural background in which they worked placed some unwelcome constraints upon the study and perhaps limited its usefulness as representative of Indian business circles. All of the respondents were from the educated ‘elite’; all were native English speakers and all but one were male. This meant that certain sectors were inevitably neglected but nevertheless the researchers were able to draw certain conclusions.

From the linguistic analysis the team identified a strong sense of national identity – but within that there was a series of perceived conflicts – between past and present, or between regions within India, or between India and elsewhere. A strongly emerging theme was what they called ‘constant negotiation of identity’ in which managers responded to a rapidly evolving market context. Social contact between network participants is perceived as indicating a long term commitment and one that can be reinforced by the choice of vocabulary which they use.