Local culture eats corporate culture for lunch

I’ve had the rich opportunity to work with many global clients on challenges related to culture, especially with the introduction of social media tools in the workplace. The ability and desire to connect across offices creates fascinating questions about what a single global entity can understand and relate to as ‘its’ culture while dealing with the incredibly local reality of culture.  This become particularly evident when a single person located in a corporate headquarters is responsible for driving ‘engagement’ and ‘communities’ worldwide.  It also is especially visible when considered in the scope of global technology or process roll-outs, M&A activity, and implementation of shared services for global businesses.

Companies are starting to see the value of a ‘branded’ culture – a culture that everyone understands, embodies, and protects. The challenge, especially for older or larger companies, is shifting to a common understanding of an organizational culture, when powerful micro-cultures have existed and thrived for decades self-reinforcing over time.  These are particularly ‘wicked’ challenges, and require broad thinking coupled with the ability to understand narrow needs – ambidextrous thinking at its best.

In my work, I’ve learned three things about how to approach these challenges:

1) Never underestimate the power of the local culture. Headquarters tends to apply a command and control approach to “culture change” that honestly never works. They might think it does, but spend a few days out in the field and you will find a very different view.

2) Use the tools that are available to create conversations specifically about culture. People need to talk about it to create a new mental model – they can’t just get it off of a piece of paper, no matter how artfully rendered. Conversation is critical.

3) Accept that local cultures will always exist, and that they can serve a positive purpose. Focus on the big things that need to be consistent – mission/vision/values if you use those tools, or common purpose, or whatever it is that is the anchor for your culture. There is value in local color and connection, so long as it exists hospitably within the larger cultural paradigm.


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