Talking Creatively about Culture

In a recent interview, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, commented, “Nobody works the way we do. The Google culture makes sense if you’re in it, and no sense if you’re not.” In one brief comment, Schmidt captures a principle that leaders are slow to grasp: the culture of an RD&E; organization has more potential for achieving and sustaining competitive advantage than any products, processes, or organizational structures. It is virtually impossible to replicate “culture”.

Talking about culture can be a challenge. Why? Because the vernacular in many organizations does not include words and phrases that adequately describe its very uniqueness. Karin Knorr Cetina in her book, Epistemic Cultures, How the Sciences Make Knowledge, describes in her research how knowledge is generated distinctively in different organizational cultures. In particular, she explores the differences between a molecular biology lab and a high energy physics lab. For example, the latter she describes as “communitarian science”, the former as “individual lab bench science”. Her comparison of these two scientific communities offers many distinctions that prompt new ways of talking about culture, especially in technical organizations.

Week before last I had the opportunity to hear Scott Anthony and Mark Johnson of Innosight (Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School, is the co-founder) speak at the Masters Forum here in Minneapolis on the subject of innovative business models and disruptive innovation. They cited some of the cultural impediments to innovative business models (e.g. “rigid adherence to financial metrics, business rules and norms or fighting against mindset; the illogic of core competencies”). Much of the time leaders fail to address adequately the unique and distinctive characteristics of culture which, for example, define a Google, and that allow innovation to flourish. These cultural elements cannot be benchmarked because they cannot be readily replicated. But that is no reason not to try to describe them.

Sometimes analogies or metaphors help when our language seems limited. Is your organization more like a high energy physics lab or a molecular biology lab? Why? Is it like Google? Or maybe it is more like eBay? How would you describe the differences?