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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 the 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 know. 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.


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  1. Isabel Collins

    Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely. In fact organisations with ‘one culture’ can be brittle and unresponsive. I find them a bit disturbing. A bit too much like an absolute State.
    Yet it’s the very word that’s so often used in engagement programmes – ‘One [insert company name here]’.
    And the talk of ‘cultural alignment’. It all smacks a bit too much of the gulags or the Chinese cultural revolution.
    I agree that a healthy culture is marked by a bubbling set of tribes and subculture. The trick is that they can all belong together, comfortably and productively, in the same organisation. This is exactly what I’m looking at in current work on Belonging.

  2. Scott Fahlman

    … And even in relatively monolithic corporate or subgroup cultures, there are always individuals who don’t fit, and maybe don’t want to fit. If they happen to be charismatic people, they can create a mini-culture around them, and this can spread, depending on the visibility and connectedness of that one person. You can’t stop that, and I don’t think you want to, unless the mini-culture is bad in some way. So it ends up being an odd mixture of top-down and bottom-up. I think it’s up to the people at the top to make clear the mission and the non-negotiable limits, and then lead the culture by example. The rest will take care of itself.
    I know of some large organizations that have hired professional anthropologists to figure out what the REAL internal culture is, in all its parts. I don’t know first-hand whether that has produced useful results.

    • Leandro Herrero

      Corporate anthropology creates in me the highest level of frustration. A ‘function’ and skill set that had the potential of truly understanding and changing organizational development big time, has ended up servicing marketing with consumer behaviour reports and other operational observations. The anecdotes about how X and Y company hired an anthropologist and discovered something are … anecdotes. They give journalism a bad name. I have not yet, but I will (if I ever finish my book on serious corporate anthropology) make the biggest noise possible in this. Official (if there is one) Corporate anthropology has let us all down. Yet, there are of course some great individuals in this field, doing their own thing, often invisible to the world.

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