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Is culture pure corporate drivel?

Its May this year. It's Toronto. Over dinner an old family friend from Calcutta is lamenting the invasion of the boisterous immigrant Chinese into her once quiet township of Richmond, Ontario. I ask why she needs to be so xenophobic, given that she herself is an immigrant of "questionable" origins.

Cut back to early 2000. I'm sharing a beer with my ex-chairman, one of the giants of branding. He led an amazing bunch of consistently motivated people, who delivered some impossible results year upon year. A very difficult environment to replicate or even resurrect. So we end up talking about the good old days...yet again.

Forward to 2014. A mammoth Indian transnational shares an existential dilemma with us: "we are a very culture driven group, but how do we get business verticals to keep the faith, under the sword of growth and margin pressures?"

What is it about words like culture and environment that make us feel either nostalgic or deprived? If it is so good to have then why do we lose it with such ease?

Why should we pay any attention? What good does a unique culture do? What created it in the first place? Is it worth protecting?

Consider my friend in Toronto for a while. What is she lamenting? That strange and unfamiliar people have taken over her neighborhood? Not really. She was ruing the loss of a very particular kind of community character that she traveled 7000 miles to live in. She left home and hearth in search of it. Pre 2000 Bangaloreans feel the same. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against immigration. The US was built on it. But can we stand by and watch the disintegration of a distinct way of life? Some will argue the benefits of evolution. But equally, what is worth preserving?

My ex-employer's issue was not very different. He led by example and created an environment which many large multinational agencies would have given their left hand for. Armed with an indomitable (almost Gaulish) spirit, with little politicking and a penchant for questioning the obvious, these Davids took on the biggest Goliaths of their time and bested them.

With growth and the infusion of "professional blood", the environment died and it's soul departed. Did they lose what made them win in the first place? Was it worth preserving? Should they have fought to retain that soul at the cost of blazing growth?

So finally, when we ponder on our prospect's existential dilemma, it is indeed a very serious question. Think of a large, low profile conglomerate like The Murugappa group. They have a way of life which is not negotiable. Decency, fairness and prudence are its underlying principles. What was their motive for committing themselves to these traits so many years ago? Why is there a governing body that protects these with a ferocity uncharacteristic of an otherwise gentle and pacific demeanour?

The million dollar question then is whether there is really a business case for defining and nurturing a culture. Like heritage buildings, or art. It reminds us of what is most precious about us and allows the world to celebrate and revel in. It etches a character that then extracts and encourages the best in ourselves.

But does this produce business results? Consider how easily some organizations (and countries) attract talent and capital. How smoothly they achieve transnational mergers. The effortlessness with which they sign up business partners.

The big issue for many countries, companies and communities is whether we would should actively define and defend culture, or like a colleague said recently "Let it ride man".

3 comments:

paritoshzero said...

Since you invoked the almost quaint genteel values of the Murugappa, it is appropriate to examine the character of hyper-competitive, alpha male businesses in the financial markets. Cast your mind back to the recent Hollywood film "Wolf of Wall Street". The protagonist, Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio builds a business with a distinctive 'culture' too; mercenary, brutal, stretched taut to the break point and attracts a team that is nearly messianic in its zeal and cult-like in its unqualified deification of the boss. There is a morality tale in here too. Cultures are genetic material. DNA can be adaptive or not. Murugappa's DNA is adaptive. Lehman Brothers' DNA wasn't.

Kuruvilla Abraham said...

August 13, 2014

Broadly culture can defined on three counts

1. Relationship of Man to Man
2. Relationship of Man to Material objects
3. Relationship of Man to Time

On the first count we Indians are part of a very highly evolved culture, where every kind of social kinship or relationship is accurately defined and the codes of conduct viz-a-viz the other finely articulated. Cousin on the father's side has a different name from the cousin on the mother’s side. So also grandparents, aunts, uncles and spouses thereof on both sides! Such nuances and the genetically programmed bureaucracy thereof have made us a very absorbent culture. It is very difficult to destroy us and also very difficult to unite us in a sustained manner. …… On the other hand, on this front, the western culture is a very impersonal one where everyone is either an aunt or an uncle or a cousin or a grandma or a grandpa and all relationships are contractual

On the second ‘Man to Material’ front unlike in the West we don’t care much for material objects despite or false possessiveness. We care little for maintenance of material objects and unless associated with religious rituals we couldn’t care a damn about taking care of them.

On the third ‘Man to Time’ front we know where we stand in contrast to the West. We also know why we are so.

Looked at through these three lenses nothing much has changed; improved or deteriorated over the past 100 years, so what are we cribbing about?

Trishna Pandey said...

In our experience, and we do services that bring exponential results in change in behaviour and performance... Organizations are living... and they are made of people. The purpose with which the organizations came to exist, and the values with which it is formed (usually a reflection of founders personality) dictates the organizational decision making and behaviour. This is subconsciously driven. Have you seen employees join a company, and their behaviour slowly changes to match that of the company. Have you noticed how we say, this person is not used to Corporate "Culture". Which means that person is not exposed or equipped to make meaning out of nuances of behavior in the corporate world. To answer your inquiry, does decision making and human behavior in the context of a business ecosystem have an implication on performance...the answer is obvious.