Is culture pure corporate drivel?


Its May this year. It’s Toronto. Over dinner an old family friend from Calcutta is lamenting the invasion of the boisterous immigrant Chinese into her once quiet township of Richmond, Ontario. I ask why she needs to be so xenophobic, given that she herself is an immigrant of “questionable” origins.

Cut back to early 2000. I’m sharing a beer with my ex-chairman, one of the giants of branding. He led an amazing bunch of consistently motivated people, who delivered some impossible results year upon year. A very difficult environment to replicate or even resurrect. So we end up talking about the good old days…yet again.

Forward to 2014. A mammoth Indian transnational shares an existential dilemma with us: “we are a very culture driven group, but how do we get business verticals to keep the faith, under the sword of growth and margin pressures?”

What is it about words like culture and environment that make us feel either nostalgic or deprived? If it is so good to have then why do we lose it with such ease?

Why should we pay any attention? What good does a unique culture do? What created it in the first place? Is it worth protecting?

Consider my friend in Toronto for a while. What is she lamenting? That strange and unfamiliar people have taken over her neighborhood? Not really. She was ruing the loss of a very particular kind of community character that she traveled 7000 miles to live in. She left home and hearth in search of it. Pre 2000 Bangaloreans feel the same. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against immigration. The US was built on it. But can we stand by and watch the disintegration of a distinct way of life? Some will argue the benefits of evolution. But equally, what is worth preserving?

My ex-employer’s issue was not very different. He led by example and created an environment which many large multinational agencies would have given their left hand for. Armed with an indomitable (almost Gaulish) spirit, with little politicking and a penchant for questioning the obvious, these Davids took on the biggest Goliaths of their time and bested them.

With growth and the infusion of “professional blood”, the environment died and it’s soul departed. Did they lose what made them win in the first place? Was it worth preserving? Should they have fought to retain that soul at the cost of blazing growth?

So finally, when we ponder on our prospect’s existential dilemma, it is indeed a very serious question. Think of a large, low profile conglomerate like The Murugappa group. They have a way of life which is not negotiable. Decency, fairness and prudence are its underlying principles. What was their motive for committing themselves to these traits so many years ago? Why is there a governing body that protects these with a ferocity uncharacteristic of an otherwise gentle and pacific demeanour?

The million dollar question then is whether there is really a business case for defining and nurturing a culture. Like heritage buildings, or art. It reminds us of what is most precious about us and allows the world to celebrate and revel in. It etches a character that then extracts and encourages the best in ourselves.

But does this produce business results? Consider how easily some organizations (and countries) attract talent and capital. How smoothly they achieve transnational mergers. The effortlessness with which they sign up business partners.

The big issue for many countries, companies and communities is whether we would should actively define and defend culture, or like a colleague said recently “Let it ride man”.