Nothing is so painful to experience than when a company or a nation begins to deteriorate from the inside out.
Every business organization has a unique identity and purpose that differentiates it from the others. And these elements of uniqueness are evidenced in the corporate culture. Corporate culture, the habitual way people behave towards each other and customers, and the beliefs they hold about their role in the business world, are a combination of the beliefs and actions of the original business founders, combined with organizational policies and business process.
In the early life of a company, the culture is usually very strong as the founder(s) keep a tight control over how things are done and who gets hired. And it is often this cultural alignment inside the company that allows it to be successful in the market place (assuming its products and strategy are sound).
But unless tightly guarded and reinforced, a culture can easily become diluted as the company grows and adds more managers and employees from other companies and as it becomes more global, brining in different national cultures as well. Very few companies that I have studied over the past 35 years have been serious about keeping their special culture intact. In fact, culture often takes a distant back seat to profitability and cost control measures. Hiring focuses more on skills and experience than cultural fit, adding to the dilution of the culture.
As a result of this cultural goulash, subcultures begin to form and alignment about who we are, what we stand for, and how we work together tends to deteriorate.
As the culture weakens and fragments, performance suffers. Internal friction grows, we-they, finger-pointing and lack of accountability are common behaviours that further erode internal cohesion and alignment.
A good case is Blackberry, once the dominant market leader in smart phones. In just 10 short years since it went public, Blackberry garnered 20% of the global market and 50% of the US market. But with such rapid growth came a dilution of the unique corporate culture of innovation and leading edge technology. Strong subcultures and fiefdoms began to emerge and internal bickering and lack of alignment on strategy, goals, processes and technology became the order of the day. In just 4 short years, from its market dominance in 2009, Blackberry routinely missed product release deadlines, failed to innovate and keep its technological advantage. By 2013 its US market share plummeted to 2.1% and has never recovered.
What about the US Culture?
The current state of the US as a strong and unified nation is seemingly in peril of decline. No longer is the US the most admired nation in the world. US infant mortality is the 6th highest among the OECD countries. Japan, a country in ruin just 70 years ago has an under-five infant mortality rate 2 1/2 times lower than the US. The US education system is not world-class, especially in science and math. Of 76 countries, the US ranks 29th on maths and science results for 15 year olds. Singapore ranks first, a country that only became a sovereign nation in 1965. And the political fragmentation and dysfunction within the US Congress and the state of the current presidential campaign has become the laughing-stock of the press.
How has the US fallen from its once position as the country everyone admired? I have a theory that has to do with the fragmentation of the cultural glue of America. When I grew up in the US in the 1950’s, the constitution was taught in my school as a compulsory subject. It was called Civics. We studied not only the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but also how the government works, how laws are made, why the rule of law was critical for a healthy society. We saluted the flag said the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of every school day. We took field trips to visit with the police, firemen and others who work for the good of our society. We learned the rights, and the responsibilities, of being a US citizen. This was the 1950s version of “cultural on-boarding”. Understanding the way our society worked and most importantly, why.
Like many businesses, over the years in the US this cultural on-boarding has been diluted and in many cases abandoned altogether. The cultural norms that define the US are dissolving, and as a result, performance is declining. I believe the solution is not more laws, tighter regulations, restrictive gun freedoms. I believe that we can be the cultural melting pot of the world and still have a strong, aligned culture that defines who we are as a nation and as people.
The solution is to bring back an acculturation process. Come to the US for opportunity. Come for the freedoms. But if you do, your responsibility is to become a citizen and not an outsider with your own rules. And early school education should bring back Civics as a required class. Parents should work to become role-models for children again. Responsibility should go hand in hand with Rights and Freedoms.
And here is a practical solution to jump-start the cultural realignment. Introduce compulsory military, public or social service for every person between 18-21. And develop a curriculum of cultural groundrules, discipline, rights and responsibilities into each. Switzerland has compulsory military service. So does South Korea. Both nations with strong, aligned cultures (no matter what you think of their cultural attributes, they are definitely aligned as nations).
This is the debate I would like to see in America, not the vitriolic Presidential debates currently going on. We need to do better. We need to be better. For the nation and the world. Cultural realignment is a key.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
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John also writes thriller novels!