Launching 2018 with a cover story on "The Culture Factor," the Harvard Business Review (HBR) could not have touched a more loaded concurrent issue than this. To be sure, the HBR subject is "corporate culture," and its objective is to find how best to manage the "critical elements of organisational life." Coming as it does on the heels of the Brexit vote, Donald J. Trump's election, and a surge of nationalism and populism, the eight "critical elements" examined must confront a ninth and more unwelcomed counterpart: the political context.
Will this become the dominant business dynamic in 2018? It helps to review the eight established elements to determine an answer, based on their vulnerabilities to various developments. Drawn from the larger literature on the subject, they include 'caring' (warmth, relational), 'purpose' (sustainability and responsibility), 'learning' (innovation oriented), 'enjoyment' (uplifting work morale), 'results' (single-minded, goal-driven), 'authority' (dominant decision-making), 'safety' (risk management), and 'order' (rule-abiding). Each is placed within a matrix defined by two continua: flexibility and stability, on the one hand, and independence and interdependence, on the other. We will find 'learning' and 'enjoyment' falling between flexibility and independence, the former more towards flexibility, the latter closer to independence; 'purpose' and 'caring' likewise falling between flexibility and interdependence, the former closer to flexibility, the latter interdependence; then 'order' and 'safety' between interdependence and stability, the former nearer to interdependence, the latter stability; and 'authority' and 'results' between stability and independence.
It is not important to know them and their positioning for this article's purposes, but how they are prioritised against each other tells us plenty about the business culture of any locale. Based on a survey of corporations, the HBR article found a 'results'-oriented career was ranked a first or second priority 89 per cent of the time, the highest of the eight cultural styles. The next highest was 'caring' (63 per cent), followed by 'order' (15 per cent), 'purpose' (9 per cent), 'safety' (8.0 per cent), 'learning' (7.0 per cent), 'authority' (4.0 per cent), and 'enjoyment' (2.0 per cent). In other words, corporations today mean business, and they fear 'enjoyment'. In other words, a business should proceed as it always has (that is, "business as usual"), while a relaxed and easy-going work ambience is seen as a step towards indiscipline and disorder. Note how 'order', 'safety', and 'authority', three terms we more routinely associate with the social setting rather than business, demand more attention than 'enjoyment', but still remain low-profiled at an age of increasing social concerns and constraints.
Though a very polished framework, we can easily see how these cultural styles do not (a) exhaust all possibilities, (b) increasingly face dissolution, and (c) distinguish more severely between business types. To understand these nuances, the endogenous domain must be disentangled from the exogenous: whereas the former includes all dynamics within the specific cultural style of any given business, the latter opens up to dynamics outside that domain, for example, within society, over which it has little or no control.
Endogenously, not only do we have drifting/relocating businesses, but also many different business climates coexisting simultaneously. For example, when a low-tech industry climbs the technology ladder, the commensurate low-wage culture automatically and incrementally adopts some of the trappings of a high-wage counterpart. Bangladesh's RMG (ready-made garments) industry shifting from low-wage women workers to robots, for example, would exemplify how a business culture could not only change, but almost diametrically at that.
Be that as it may, when a hi-tech, and therefore expensively producing, US corporation, for example, goes off-shore to remain competitive, we automatically see not only two different business cultural types interacting with each other, but also becoming hopelessly diluted in the process, a price that must be paid because of their very need to survive in the competition. US President Donald J. Trump may be faulted for just about any action, comment, or tweet, but he has forcefully exposed how (a) more than two business cultural types prevail, for example, when he rails against China's low-wage exports out-pricing US manufactures; (b) since disharmony characterises this relationship, such business cultural styles as 'order', 'safety', and 'authority' end up climbing the priority ladder, while 'caring', 'learning', and 'enjoyment' move in the reverse direction; and (c) because of these incongruities, not only are the eight HBR-extracted business cultural styles no longer as polished or impermeable as presented, but that the seeds of business disharmony sown have been breeding even more rambunctious styles before our very eyes, which cannot but influence future cultural patterns.
Trump's policy positions not only rock endogenous business cultural styles recklessly, but also fire up the neglected exogenous business counterparts. Even as the HBR "cultural factor" piece appears in print in January 2018, the US president's derogatory and insulting labeling of other countries (read: markets) may have irreversible and very reprehensible business consequences, so much so that the business cultural style emphasising 'results' (HBR's top-ranked business imperative), 'caring' (the second-ranked imperative), and so forth, may actually vanish from the business circuit faster than routine profits may accumulate. In that sense, the year 2018 may prove decisive in wrecking our notions of business and business culture, and dwarfing them by more sanguine, subjective, local, and non-comparable traits right out of our raw political instincts. Why, for instance, would Canada or Mexico, two of the largest US trade/business partners, want to continue deepening their transactions with a country belittling their business or social practices?
In an age with increasing working mothers, part-time workers, retired people seeking work, and multicultural workforces, it will take a huge leap of faith for existing business practices to let the "business as usual" HBR model survive coherently. As manufacturers shift to adopt artificial intelligence contraptions and service-sector workplaces become more maternity-friendly and childcare-receptive, the 'results'-based cultural style may be threatened by the 'caring' counterpart, while 'enjoyment', already a factor in many IT (information technology) industries, may spiral up the business priority list. Even new entrants may end up shattering the HBR cultural glass-ceiling in an age when the "political culture" may be dictating its business counterpart for change.
In short, when the market-friendly neo-liberal environment confronted such rude political shocks as Trump's election, Brexit, and other populist threats, expecting the "business culture" to remain static would be like missing the boat to expanding transactions. History tells us each time a boat is missed, businesses and the economy must start again from square-one to win confidence before returning to normal transactions. It predicts a shakier 2018 flow than business-as-usual models bring.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.