Rituals, restrictions, and relationships

What are the rituals, restrictions, and relationships that define cultures? I ask because last week I was in two events where multi-cultures were in play.

Event one was in Dubai and one of the things I did there was facilitate a two-day organisation culture course. Dubai is a great place to discuss culture as its population is so nationally diverse – the 10 course participants represented Lebanon, Canada, UK, India, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Pakistan, not to mention various professional cultures, and various corporate cultures. We also had the full mix of generations. So, a diverse group with many different perspectives and lots to say on designing organisational culture.

Event two was my daughter's wedding. She's lived and worked in many countries. Her list of 80 or so guests represented Tanzania, Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland, Ireland, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Finland, Sudan, Iran, Hong Kong, England, Scotland, Australia, Holland, and Jamaica. As with the Dubai event it wasn't just the national cultures represented, there were multiple professions and the entire age range. It was a joyous experience to participate in a World Cafe in its truest sense.

What was so enjoyable about the events was not identifying or labelling people by nationality which is a relatively easy label to apply, but talking with them about their experiences and identities that were not only, or even, about nationality.

It is Taiye Selasi, in her TED talk 'Don't ask me where I'm from ask where I'm a local', who states 'I'm not a national at all. How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept?' Instead she asks where are you a local? She proposes 'a three-step test. I call these the three "R's": rituals, relationships, restrictions … that would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are.'

Her talk is well worth listening to, because what she suggests is not just true of national cultures but also of organisational cultures and professional cultures. Each is defined by protocols and experiences known to the locals. As one of Selasi's friends said, 'All experience is local. All identity is experience.'

As the participants in the Dubai workshop discussed the various elements of the Johnson and Scholes cultural web they compared their organisational experiences of restrictions associated with such elements as hierarchy, grades, power, control, job descriptions, and decision rights. They talked about the way work really gets done – not usually via the defined business process flow but via relationships and who you know. They enjoyed telling each other about the various organisational rituals they have experienced.

At the wedding the guests were invited to talk about how they knew the bride and groom, and they told wonderful stories that were nothing to do with national culture but to do with the experiences that had brought them together – teaching, supporting, living in shared accommodation, being at university, having friends in common, sharing mutual interests. It was the relationships that forged the bonds.

Woven through the day were lovely stories and comparisons of the differing rituals of weddings and wedding customs people had experienced – clothing, food, roles of family members, songs, dances, …

Restrictions were also apparent – one invitee called in by phone to tell us of her long and valued friendship with Rosa – her physical absence caused by visa restrictions, while another beloved friend was restricted from attending by having had a very serious illness. But her voice was heard through a different invitee talking of and for her.

I'm intrigued by Taiye Selasi's view that 'History was real, cultures were real, but countries were invented', and the way she argues not of doing away with countries but of not giving nationality a primacy over other cultural characteristics. As she says 'Culture exists in community, and community exists in context.'

As we think about organisational culture would it be helpful if we agreed with Selasi's view 'In fact, all of us are multi -— multi-local, multi-layered. To begin our conversations with an acknowledgement of this complexity brings us closer together, I think, not further apart.'?

From an organisational culture perspective, it may matter much less where people are from, our ethnic monitoring may be a distraction, and matter much more on how people feel or experience the rituals, restrictions and relationships of the organisation. I'm wondering how or if we can design cultures that reduce the inevitable restrictions, and make the rituals and relationships both transparent and welcoming?

Can we design multi-local organisational cultures? What's your view ? Let me know.

(See also my previous blog on Rituals, restrictions and relationships)