Broadening corporate concepts of culture

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By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

Regular readers of wherewordsfailblog.com will know that I spend much of my time espousing the idea that businesses should use culture as a means to advance their organisational objectives. So in my research I read most business articles that I come across featuring the word ‘culture’ in their headlines.

Usually, when business articles talk about culture, what they are actually talking about is corporate culture. A quick internet search reveals that there are numerous and often conflicting definitions of what corporate culture is.

Sometimes corporate culture is discussed in fairly abstract terms. Take for example this ‘definition of corporate culture’ from investopedia.com:

The beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. Often, corporate culture is implied, not expressly defined, and develops organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires. A company’s culture will be reflected in its dress code, business hours, office setup, employee benefits, turnover, hiring decisions, treatment of clients, client satisfaction and every other aspect of operations.

I recently read two similar articles about corporate culture; David Dewolf’s Culture Eats Technology for Lunch and Joel Trammell’s CEOs Say Culture Is Foundational To Successfor Entrepreneur.com and Forbes.com respectively.  I found the articles interesting because they both cited different research into the importance of corporate culture, or what the writers refer to simply as ‘culture’ and provide insights into what business leaders think culture actually is.

Trammell cites ‘a recent McKinsey Global Survey’ which ‘found that spending time on culture is one of the key practices of executives who effectively transition into a C-suite role’ whilst Dewolf cites ‘a research study, conducted by the University of Maryland’s Center for Excellence in Service at the Robert H. Smith School of Business and 3Pillar Global’ which lauded ‘culture as the most influential’ of the ‘critical components to successful product development’.

Dewolf writes that ‘an organization’s focus on allowing people the flexibility to take risks, be creative, challenge the status quo and be innovative’ is ‘what we refer to as “culture”’.  Trammel, on the other hand, quotes three CEO’s who each provide insights ‘about how they build and sustain the culture in their organizations’.

What becomes apparent is that the CEO’s interviewed in Trammell’s article also view culture in the same way that Dewolf does, more or less about how staff relate to each other, their tasks and their workplace.

Trammell quotes Brendan Morrissey, CEO of Netsertive, an award-winning tech company based in North Carolina:

“I don’t believe you can prescribe the culture, but you can communicate what you aspire to with it and hire team members that you believe will fit the cultural standards. We spend a lot of time communicating with the team. Every Monday morning we have a meet-up with everyone at our headquarters and all remote team members dialing in from four different time zones. We bring the remote team members in physically twice a year. We are clear about what our company plans are as well as our goals and how they cascade down to every individual.”

“We incubate fun while we’re working so hard, and this has led to the grassroots, volunteer driven ‘Funcubator’ that has become the heart and soul of what makes us tick here. Fun can happen at any time, such as a spontaneous ice cream social. Anyone can come up with an idea, and 99 times out of 100 their manager says run with it. We don’t want to suppress that enthusiasm.”

Trammell also quotes Randy Chou, CEO of Panzura, a California based company that markets computer data storage products.:

“Our executives and leaders present our vision and mission to the company regularly and ensure that everyone is living it. As our company becomes more distributed, we want to ensure that remote employees feel integrated. We have invested in video conferencing and holding meetings to accommodate different time zones. We have open seating, which instills a level of transparency and equality. We also share our board slides with everyone as well as both good news and bad news. This helps make everyone feel comfortable sharing information and helping each other across functions. Also, for new employees, we communicate the culture up front so that they assimilate and feel part of the team much more quickly.”

But culture is more than creating a nice place to go to work, and businesses will benefit from having a broader understanding of both culture and corporate culture.

To start with, for most people who live in the non-corporate world (such people do actually exist), culture has nothing to do with work. For many, the word ‘culture’ brings about thoughts of music, dance, literature, art, food, languages, national customs and the like.

Whilst the non-corporate definitions of culture are even more widely varied than those of corporate culture, to commence thinking about culture in broader terms, leaders should temporarily suspend any notions they may have that culture has anything at all to do with work, and start to think of culture more holistically. They should incorporate the traditional and non-corporate understanding that culture includes the arts, food and languages, and start broadening their understanding from there. As I wrote in a previous post, my concept of culture is that culture is ‘the things we do every day’. I’ve already featured the below video from the Added Value Group in an earlier post, but I think it’s worth revisiting here to give some idea of how broad culture can be.

Business leaders will benefit from a broader understanding of culture. In Culture destroys silos I wrote about the importance of being able to think and act across organisational and thought silos and that cultured people are better at doing this than uncultured people.  A good CEO will have the abilities to do this and it is a feature of what makes them a leader. To lead a company, the CEO needs to understand the company and its external environment in a more holistic sense than those below them, often Departmental Managers, who perhaps can’t grasp ‘the big picture’ due to the specialised nature of their own departments or personal backgrounds and education.

Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and Richard Branson’s autobiography are worthy reads just to see how advanced their concepts of culture were and how they applied these understandings to build world-leading companies. It could be said that as a record label owner Branson’s background was as an arts administrator, whilst Jobs, a Bauhaus devotee who dated Joan Baez, continually drew vast inspiration from the arts, and appeared comfortable working with artists whom he often deferred to, something he rarely did to anyone else. Both Jobs and Branson used the arts to great effect in demonstrating to the world what their companies were all about.

Culture is much more than simply organisational, corporate or work culture. Branson and Jobs have both shown that aspects of (non-corporate) culture such as the arts can be applied in a very direct and literal sense by businesses to advance their objectives. In Corporate cultural diplomacy; how it works in practice, I wrote about how mining companies in Australia have funded movies that portray their industry in a more sympathetic light to strategically counteract some of the negative perceptions that exist; the most notable example of which being ‘Red Dog’.

In the same post I wrote about how Deutsche Bank aligns itself with the Berliner Philharmoniker Orchestra, has an impressive art collection and supports young artists through workshops and by purchasing their works.  This is an example of how a business can directly apply culture for image building and demonstrating their corporate values.

Among other suggestions, in Culture destroys silosI argued that companies should have a program that supports its employees’ cultural and creative pursuits outside of the workplace to inspire creativity and innovation at work. Such a program might include ideas like paying for employees’ music lessons or supplying tickets to cultural events.

In business, culture can also be used to connect to people from different cultures, which is clearly particularly important in international business. For example, in Business failures in China; an inability to connect at a cultural level I explain

the reasons why many companies fail in foreign markets runs deeper than a failure to understand the culture or cultural differences – the problem is often a failure to connect at any cultural level at all with the intended market.

Businesses can use culture as a way to connect to their intended audience, be they potential business partners, key decision makers or customers.  This can be done through strategies that implement cultural competency training or Corporate Cultural Diplomacy (CCD).

My business, League Cultural Diplomacy (LCD), manages CCD events for clients that want to build influence abroad or across cultures.  CCD events deliver many benefits, such as developing influential relationships with key people in order to unlock profit in new markets. In CCD and how it works in practice I provide some examples of both organisations and individuals that have used CCD initiatives to advance their corporate objectives.

All businesses have a corporate culture. Corporate culture can be left to its own devices or it can be crafted. But businesses whose leaders have spent time crafting the culture will be better than those that haven’t. An organisation’s culture can either be dormant or dynamic, culture can either just sit there or it can be actively used. How a successful company uses culture to drive innovation and dynamism is often an under-appreciated aspect of its success. I see many businesses and business leaders who seek to be like Jobs or Branson, or like Apple or Virgin, and actively emulate some of their approaches, but do so without attempting to use culture in the way that these leaders and their companies have. Often this is because they are simply uncultured people who don’t understand culture, which is something I wrote about in Culture destroys silos.

Some might argue that the direct and literal application of culture that I have discussed above isn’t a part of corporate culture at all, but that largely depends on what definition of corporate culture is being applied. Whilst it might not correspond with Entrepreneur.com’s definition that corporate culture is a ‘blend of the values, beliefs, taboos, symbols, rituals and myths all companies develop over time’, it does fit in with Kennedy and Deal’s broader definition that culture is ‘the way things are done around here’.

If corporate culture is ‘the way things are done around here’, and a company does things by using culture to build both internal and external relations, build a corporate image and develop productive teams that might need to operate across borders or cultures, then an innovative and dynamic corporate culture is surely being crafted.

How culture can be used by business is limited only by the imagination, and is so much more than simply ‘corporate culture’. Let’s not diminish the term ‘culture’ by using it in anything less than an unlimited sense. A business will profit from seeing its operations as an extension of its culture, rather than culture being an extension of its business operations and as such, enterprising leaders will greatly benefit from having a broader understanding of culture.

Be sure to check out our blogroll for more posts from wherewordsfailblog.com

photo credit: lost treasure via photopin (license)

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