In the age of networked enterprise, strong cultures may turn from assets to liabilities.
We are evolving toward the age of networked enterprise, in which the traditional hierarchies of the corporation will be supplanted by self-organizing systems collaborating on digital platforms.
It will be the era of entrepreneurship, distributed leadership, and the continual reorganization of people and resources. It will be the time of disintermediation both within and between organizations. Layers of management will fall; the need for centralized systems and trusted go-betweens will dissipate, if not disappear.
Or so many experts predict.
As for me? Yes, I do believe this is the future toward which we are slowly advancing. Those of us deeper into our careers may not see it come to full fruition during our organizational lives, but the trends are real, and they are already on display if you care to look for them.
And that makes me genuinely worried for my friends in the corporate-culture business. Because I’m not sure that culture is going to matter all that much in the future — at least not in the ways we conceive of it today.
Jon Katzenbach, one of the field’s most respected and creative thinkers, defines an organization’s culture as “the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done.” It is “made of instinctive, repetitive habits and emotional responses.” Culture is meant to provide a well-rooted sense of purpose within an organization, exemplified by a recognized set of behaviors and shared beliefs. It gets — and keeps — everyone marching in the same direction.
Creating and maintaining culture is, thus, painstaking work. It demands focus and commitment throughout organizations. During my work life, I have been lifted by strong corporate cultures and nearly drowned by weak ones. I have no doubt of culture’s power to align an organization and enliven its workforce. And there are plenty of studies to back that up.
But that’s history speaking.
As to life in the digital matrix, there is reason to question culture’s role. Our relationships to institutions will become increasingly defined by the activity in which we are engaged at any given time. We will come to view ourselves as “affiliates” more than “employees” as we think of that term today. We will encounter new partners and colleagues on a rolling basis. We will weave in and out of relationships and flow across broad platforms of commerce in individual and small-group nodes, working interchangeably with people who belong to the same organization and those who do not.
In this world, we will no longer prize alignment; we will prize realignment.
Such an environment benefits from clear and universal rules of engagement. It does not benefit from habits that are distinctive to one group of people — which is the essence of organizational culture.
In his 1966 book, The Will to Manage, the celebrated father of management consulting Marvin Bower described a company’s philosophy as “the way we do things around here.” Those words helped to establish the role of corporate culture and to solidify its purpose over the next 50 years. But we are embarking upon a time when the “way we do things” will be reinvented with each new collaboration on the network. And in these waters, a tool meant to reinforce consistency of behavior over long periods of time transforms from a motor to an anchor.
I expect that some of you may disagree; I welcome your comments.