The Importance of Cultures


This is a subject that has recently been treated extensively in the literature and I have little new to add.  However, the intended audience for these essays is not likely to have considered this subject, so it bears repeating.  Generally, scientists and engineers do not spent much time worrying about subjects that are not technologically oriented and which are not quantifiable.  And yet it affects them in serious ways in their everyday work life.  So it is included here to alert them/you to the subject and to give a first overview of its meaning.  Here goes:


The critical notion is that all organizations are cultures.  This would be far less important if all organizations had more or less the same culture.  But the key notion is that:


All organizations are unique cultures that differ widely from each other.


What is a "culture"?  Is it a set of beliefs, practices and ethics shared by a group of people.  Corporate cultures may involve qualities such as:


1.      Service orientation

2.      Dedication to quality

3.      Intolerance of office politics

4.      Work ethic

5.      Long work hours

6.     Strict promotion on merit

7.    Loyalty


Of course, these are the positive statements of these parameters.  Each can also be a negative aspect of a culture either by the group not really caring about it or even by negating the above statement (e.g. tolerance/encouragement of office politics).  An example: recently an executive with no experience in the utility industry was brought in to help prepare for deregulation.  He was astounded to find out that the people he thought of as "customers" were referred to as "ratepayers" -- thus displaying an entirely different attitude in the culture he was joining -- one he found very hard to change.


Which brings up the next key thought:

 The culture of an organization is very difficult and very slow to change.


Until recently, little thought was given to the differences in cultures between two companies planning a merger.  But the repeated failure of mergers involving companies with very different cultures has finally caused some consideration of this important aspect.  By failure I mean that the two organizations could not and/or would not work with each other in a satisfactory fashion because they believed different things, had different value systems, or a completely different list of priorities.


When you visit another organization -- a customer, a supplier or a competitor -- be careful to be sensitive to their culture.  It may or may not be similar to yours and this will tell you a great deal about how difficult it will be to work with them.


There is another important aspect to this topic.  Within one company, particularly in large companies, the functional organizations themselves are different cultures.  Functions will differ to a lesser degree than whole companies, but the differences are still there, in this case reinforced by the differences in the training and tradition of the functional fields themselves.  As an extreme example, think about lawyers and scientists.  My father was an attorney (who probably would have been a scientist if such a career choice had been popular in his youth).  But I didn't really realize the way the legal profession thought and worked until I gave a day and a half's testimony at the IBM anti-trust trial in 1975.  Fundamentally, scientists are truth-seekers, while lawyers believe in the modern equivalent of trial by combat.  Lawyers believe that if they do the best they can to display their side of the case, and if their opponent does the same, the truth will emerge.  Scientists (and other technical professionals such as engineers) believe that they have an obligation to seek and present a dispassionate and balanced view of whatever they are investigating.


In this way, the culture of functions like engineering, finance, legal, manufacturing and human resources will all have basically different beliefs, practices and norms.  While it has often been a caricature, engineering and science do tend to be "thing"-oriented functions rather than people-oriented.  They believe in fairness and reward for performance, rather than politics.  Of course, there is a wide variation among individuals, but these tend to be the characteristics found most often.