Sunday, July 12, 2009

The culture of business and the business of culture

Confusion is rife about what culture is and what it means in the business world. Talking recently to the training managers of several major multinational companies, I discovered that in spite of thunderously significant statements about corporate values pointing to respect, innovation, creativity, diversity and ethics in the construction of a compelling corporate culture, the only thing that is actually done about culture is to prepare future expats for the practical concerns of living in a different country. Diversity training, on the other hand – where it exists - tends to be more about compliance than reaching out to understand and embrace other cultures. The organizational impact of the multitude of complex cross-cultural interactions that take place every day appears only randomly in the strategy and hardly at all in the area of training and knowledge management.

One of the areas of confusion that help to explain this situation may be the sheer diversity of meanings attached to the notion of culture. From the very start, we have to distinguish culture from Culture (the arts). Then we have to deal with the multiple and mysterious origins of any particular person’s cultural profile. The cultures that guide our perception and interpretation of the world and people's behavior are not only national or regional cultures. We commonly list alongside these linguistic, ethnic and religious foundations of culture. But we also include corporate culture (specific to particular enterprises), occupational culture (practised by people in the same job area) and generational culture. Interestingly the culture of business (that tells us how to think about and orientate business decisions), as developed through the dominant management models, has been largely – or should I say royally? - indifferent to the diversity of cultures in the workplace, even though everything people do is first of all filtered through their specific cultural lenses. In the dominant "business culture", only economic acts are significant and reasoning always and uniquely tends towards the "bottom line", generally meaning things that can be measured in terms of short term results. Alas, culture is by definition long term!

The dominant model I’ve just referred to is of course the Harvard Business School way of thinking, which is the object of very recent commentary by Shoshana Zuboff, a former HBS professor in an article in Business Week that starts like this:
"I have come to believe that much of what my colleagues and I taught has caused real suffering, suppressed wealth creation, destabilized the world economy, and accelerated the demise of the 20th century capitalism in which the U.S. played the leading role."
Towards the end of the article, the author talks about an emerging "economy of trust" and says this, "These economies of trust are becoming even more important than economies of scale."

Creating a basis for trust is a function of all culture. Creating trust among people of different cultures is the biggest challenge businesses (and governments!) are facing in the 21st century. The age of competitive nationalism and a purely competitive economy appears to be waning. Still there's a lot of work to do on the cultural side to make it work. Perhaps this Community of Practice can make a significant contribution.