‘Culture’ as a term is a loaded word. Experts from different fields have their own definitions, which makes it that much harder to comprehend. It is also understandable when people react negatively as it gets bandied about. It’s used as a scapegoat – “Our product launch failed because we didn’t factor in the culture”, and often elicits eye-rolling – “We’ll boost company morale with our culture change programme!” It’s also a common phrase in job ads – “Come join us, we’ve got a great culture!”
Are any of them valid statements? I think it’s time to strip culture back down to basics, in order to understand how it affects us.
Mind you, this is a blog post not a thesis, so we won’t be able to comprehend every facet of culture but we can at least cover some ground. The best analogy I’ve come across likens culture to the air we breathe. It’s all around us, but we don’t notice it until it’s gone. It’s also surprisingly hard to define. Yes, we can define the air around us as a mixture of hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases. But that will ignore its life-sustaining properties, the nuances in different smells (pleasant AND unpleasant!), and what it means to us. The same is true with any definition of culture – it’s at best incomplete and you should keep that in mind with the next few blog posts.
At its core, culture is “the way we do things”. ‘We’ is a very fluid term that can refer to any grouping of people that have a shared identity. The most common example is the idea of a national culture, that people within a country act or behave a certain way. No discussion of national culture would be complete without mentioning the comprehensive work of Geert Hofstede, who profiled national cultures along a range of cultural variables. Check some of the results out on the Hofstede Centre to see analyses on national cultures.
It’s an utterly convenient set of results, but I need to point out some shortcomings in his work. First, his initial results are derived from studying employee values in IBM in their international subsidiaries. This is hardly representative although subsequent studies have expanded their respondents to include “commercial airline pilots and students”, “civil service managers”, and “’up-market’ consumers” (Hofstede Centre). Sampling bias, anyone?
Secondly, some countries are so big, i.e. India and China, that there will undoubtedly be geographic variations within the results. Hence, Dr. Hofstede’s results are a mere launching pad for further analyses on culture. For more information on this, check out the GLOBE study and Trompenaars’ ten-year study of management.
Most people simply stop at national culture, which would be a disservice. The fact is culture binds people in groupings beyond geographical boundaries. Logical groups such as organisations will have its own culture, and if we expand our magnification level, we’ll note that departments might have its own sub-culture too. Look closer again and you might pick out individual teams as having their own culture quirks. And that is the messy reality when we try to study culture and how it affects everything from strategy implementation to hiring an employee.
And how exactly does one study culture? My next post will detail some basic elements of culture and a simple analytical tool that might help uncover the nuances of culture.