Why labels of culture are a fact of life

Geert Hofstede, who has written several books on organisation culture, following his seminal research on national cultures in IBM between 1967 and 1973 was asked the question:

"Between the time that you were first analyzing this data and now, has your definition of culture changed at all?"

His answer was: 'No, not really. Of course, you have to realize that culture is a construct. When I have intelligent students in my class, I tell them, "One thing we have to agree on: culture does not exist." Culture is a concept that we made up which helps us understand a complex world, but it is not something tangible like a table or a human being. What it is depends on the way in which we define it. So let's not squabble with each other because we define culture slightly differently; that's fine.'

But far too often people describe the culture of an organization terms of a label, as if it were a tangible as in Apple being described as having "created a culture of secrecy", and Walmart "an austere culture built by old man Walton" or Unilever's CEO, Paul Polman who wants to develop 'a culture of accountability'.

These labels are a fact of organisational life – and very difficult to get away from as you'll see if you pay attention for one week to the number of companies you read about or come across whose culture is labelled in a single phrase or word. Think of your own organisation – what label do people attach to its culture? Common ones are: a culture of innovation, a culture of collaboration, and a culture of teamwork. A rather more vivid label is one I found in the Economist of July 31 2010 (the week I was writing this article) that talks of PIMCO, one of the world's largest bond-fund managers, having "a culture of constructive paranoia."

They are a fact of life because they serve several useful purposes:

1. They are identifiers – much as a luggage label on a suitcase.
2. They act as flags for waving and mustering behind (or tearing down and attacking)
3. They are a quick and easy to use form of shorthand or sketch which people can recognise or picture
4. They are yardsticks for measurement or comparison
5. They can act as defenses

On this last a good example is the comment made by one of the staff on hearing of the appointment of Markus Dohle as chief executive of Random House (a division of Bertelsmann, a global media company). He wondered whether Dohle, "known for his entrepreneurial zeal" would be able to lead Random House "without harming its creative culture. On the face of it, it looks like the guy is a complete production bean counter. It doesn't look hopeful that he'll share the romantic idea of literature and publishing."

Given their usefulness and their ubiquity why is it that they should be treated with caution? Think about this as you think about the cultural label of your own organisation and read tomorrow's blog where I'll make some suggestions as to why.