Culture: between Diversity and Universal Values!

According to Édouard Herriot, “culture is what remains when all else is forgotten”. Culture controls people’s emotions. It determines how and why we love, detest, hate and revere! When the rational is lost in the complexity of the situations it manages or it fails to manage in crises, the emotional takes over with much instinct but also a lot of energy and cultural bias. And this is exactly where culture becomes decisive. Understanding culture is about understanding man, and certainly, as an African proverb says, “A man with no culture is like a zebra with no stripes”. Culture ensures that synergy between individuals takes the form of an inheritance transmitted between groups, generations and between peoples.

In practice, to illustrate the determinants of organizational and/or social cultures, sociological flower diagrams are of inescapable utility. Described by Autissier & Moutot in “Conducting Change” (Dunod, 2010), one such diagram focuses on the following six dimensions:

  • Rites, routine behaviour.

  • Myths, founding events.

  • Symbols, appearances, dress codes.

  • Power structures.

  • Decision-making processes.

  • Organizational structures.

From an instrumental point of view, any effort to change the first three dimensions involves levers of collaboration, education and co-creation, whereas any approach aimed at the last three dimensions requires more directive and interventionist actions.

On the other hand, we tend to talk about culture by associating it with an organization, a country or a region. This is interesting, but deceptive if this association advocates generalization. There is not so much of a single corporate culture as there are in fact multiple cultures in organizations. In the same organization, in the same country and in the same department, you may find yourself off focus if you generalise human and social characteristics of the groups within them. The complexity of cultural designations must be acknowledged, but above all it must be integrated into context-specific approaches rather than generalizations. It is futile to create cultural models that serve only misleading appearances. Cultural diagnoses must be used for the transformation and the conduct of change. They are supposed to identify which levers to activate the desired adoption of certain practical behaviours.

One of the major transformations that has a profound impact on organizational (and social) cultures is certainly the digital revolution, in all its various facets of impacts: professions, skills, collaboration modes, business models … I am not talking just about current forms of innovative digital technologies, but also those going more than 30 years, starting with satellite channels, via the Internet, and ultimately the viral, social media phenomenon. Some advocate a unifying discourse announcing the eminent arrival of universal cultures with common characteristics as described by Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. These arguments make a lot of sense, but they face many limitations and contradictions. Indeed, although values, rites, and routines can be digitized, beliefs and myths can not! Religions and spiritual practices often reflect these two dimensions. Indeed, you will note that the digitization of the world has not only created universal values, but also reinforced extremism in certain beliefs.

We will always live in a world of multiple and diverse ‘cultures’, evolving and adapting to local experiences, but with universal values. This is not an irresolvable equation! The key certainly lies in mutual respect and empathy. Recently, I visited Lebanon, where I had the honor of moderating and organizing an international conference on Agile Transformation. I was particularly impressed by the history of this country, the open mindedness of its people, and the coexistence of its 18 religions. With its ups and downs, the country remains impressive by respecting individual beliefs, by the sheer size of its cultural diversity and by the brilliance of its men and women!

By Farid Yandouz

© 2013 - 2018 by Farid Yandouz