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Monoculture, Corporate Culture, and Cultural Change

Today, I'm introducing a guest blogger to this page. Responding to my recent posting on corporate monoculture, Senior principle Software Engineer and Six Sigma Expert Maysa-Maria Peterson comments. Maysa says:

So what is corporate culture? According to Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., “Corporate culture is a broad term used to define the unique personality or character of a particular company or organization, and includes such elements as core values and beliefs, corporate ethics, and rules of behavior.” Corporate culture thus guides how we think, act, and feel in our work environments. So understanding corporate culture is important because it affects us in many ways, such as hours worked per day or week, how you dress, whether you polish your nails or not, training and professional development, how people interact and corporate expectations.

Monoculture, as you say, is the practice of producing or growing one single crop over a wide area, i.e to ‘culture’ or grow one thing. In the Japanese auto industry, we have seen it applied in the setting of the large manufacturing corporation to utilize instruments of social control unique to their production environments. The corporate monoculture in Japan is facilitated by an environment that is very different than those here in the United States. Some factors include the relative absence of ethnic, racial, or religious subcultures. They have historically hired mostly men into permanent positions in their plants, providing corporate dormitory style housing or subsidized mortgage or construction loans under rotating shifts. Housing being scarce and expensive outside the corporate estate, this is a real benefit that instills loyalty. The corporation provides more than work but a work and personal life and livelihood where people socialize with each other and establish a unified identity. Back in Michigan we see a diverse group of people from many backgrounds, race, age, ethnicity, religion and gender living in private homes commuting on fixed shifts, each bringing to the work force their different and rich perspectives that are not as easily compressed into one entity.

We look to the East because of the degree of quality and efficiency we see from the items they produce and want to emulate that here. We want to reduce defects, optimize production, and squeeze everything we can out of each nickel. Out of this desire come concepts of lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. I believe you can be pretty lean if you only produce one item – monoculture, and hopefully quality will fall out of this – though that is not a certainty. But are we trying to “make mono our corporate culture?” And, is that realistic? Will that be the key to success and larger profit margins, more efficiency, more responsiveness to the customer needs and the market?

If corporate culture is the unique personality of an organization then, like personality disorders, you can have cultural disorders. As you know recently, I left the National Laboratory environment and went back into private industry for an engineering company that supports the public sector. The history of my current company comes from many backgrounds due to the merger of 5 separate entities into one business unit. For such a long time now, I’ve been confused. I’m trying to socialize into my new culture; really I am, but… I get mixed messages. This is why. My current company has Multiple Personality Disorder – or Multiple Cultural Disorder – and not having the experience and the social network established yet, I never know which ‘personality’ is speaking to me. I came from an organization with Narcissistic Cultural Disorder and it took me years to integrate but looking back I can now see that I, too, slowly developed a small feeling of entitlement that came with that disease.

So, here I am trying to bathe myself clean of that and adopt the new way of ‘thinking’ that I will need to be successful here, only to discover the answer normally given by culture of “this is how we do it here” all depends upon where I'm standing at the time. We are working hard here to create “one” company – a corporate monoculture. We even have a new intranet web site introduced in 2008 that strips us from our past. To make matters worse, we are several companies all blended into one.

What will success look like at the end? What is the goal of this effort? Warren Bennis would say, “managers do things right and leaders do the right thing” so in this frame, managers work on being more efficient while leaders try to be more effective. And, aren’t things more efficient in a monoculture? I guess it depends upon what you want in the end.

The final questions I would ask you are: How do you stay competitive in this one culture? How do you preserve innovation? Where do the new ideas come from?

Just a few weeks ago I read an article titled, “Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike.” The message was that as “our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off.” Why? The walls of our boxes thicken with our increased level of experience as we approach our goal of maximum efficiency. Hmmm… So as you specialize in a field, you start seeing things only one way – building and thickening your box. Sounds like, “if all you have is a hammer, everything else looks like a nail. It’s for this reason that my new company tends to engineer itself out of business by designing products ultimately useful only to other engineers. We can’t think of why you wouldn’t want all 52 buttons on your DVD remote control. “It’s why managers have trouble convincing the rank and file to adopt new processes. And it’s why the advertising world struggles to convey commercial messages to consumers.”

The solution to the innovation killer, according to Cynthia Barton Rabe in her book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” is to bring in outsiders that she calls ‘zero-gravity thinkers’. (And so... I was brought in). Now… isn’t that contrary to adopting a corporate monoculture? Who better to tell management that “the emperor has no clothes” than the new person who doesn’t know better? I guess there has to be diversity for healthy 'evolvement' to exist. Those who don’t evolve, dissolve. Now, if we can just stop killing the messengers.

- “There’s a crack in everything … that’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen

Maysa-Maria Peterson,Senior Principal Software Engineer

Software Engineering Center Six Sigma Expert,Raytheon Missile Systems

I'll respond to Maysa's questions in my next entry. david "pure" schmaltz

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