With some exceptions, there is no such a thing as single, global, monolithic corporate culture. There is usually a confederation of cultures under one umbrella, which may be very visible. The exceptions however are so noticeable that they give us the impression that the single, unique, monolith company is the norm. It isn’t. Yes, Apple is, for example, an exception, for reasons well known. I am not saying it is intrinsically wrong to talk about ‘the culture of Microsoft’ or ‘the culture of Apple’ or ‘the culture of Zappos’, for that matter. However, there are traps. Number one, there is only one Apple, one Microsoft and one Zappos. Number two, once these are labelled, we tend to justify anything in that culture as a consequence of the Master (cultural) Plan.
In my consulting work, I always prefer to start with the opposite assumptions: there will be sub-cultures, let me find them, and see how they coexist, glue with each other, play Lego and form something of a Higher Common Denominator. I suppose you could say, how symbiotic the system is.
There are two obvious places to start ‘looking up’
1. Regional, local and geographical sub-cultures. Anybody who has worked in a multinational knows that, although there is a lot of HQ culture passing as ‘the culture’, the differences between, say, the French affiliate and the Italian affiliate, may be significant.
Cultural studies tend to show that the regional or local subcultures could be stronger than the official HQ/Central one, which reinforces what I have just said. However, in my experience, things are not that straight forward. I have found ‘local affiliates’ mimicking and mirroring the HQ/Central in such a way that they become a caricature of the visible traits of HQ/Central. It’s what we call in Spanish (a very old saying) ‘being more papist than the Pope’. It’s a form of mega-group conformity with the Centre of Power that often includes lexicon, narratives and even colour of the shirts. No kidding.
2. Tribal sub-cultures: The engineers, the accountants, the sales people, the R&D, the HR tribe, the (bank) traders, the expatriates, they are all different. In some cases, the tribal affiliation is stronger than the corporate one. This is very visible, for example, in medical divisions within pharmaceuticals, or IT people.
There is a lot of ‘stating the obvious’ here, but my point is, start with sub-cultures, go up and find the glue, the ‘corporate culture’. Starting the other way around will immediately bias you and may make sub-cultures a bit opaque.
My default, and working model, is ‘corporate culture’ as a host, an umbrella with distinctive rules, mostly unwritten, plus algorithms and logic, which glues the tribes. I am using this bottom up approach (start with understanding the subcultures) as a pragmatic one. It gives me more chance to see and understand diversity (or lack of it), rules and rituals and, eventually, the role that ‘the central one’ may or may not play.
The ‘tribal lenses’, to see what is going on, have never failed me.