BP, communication and the mis-use of ‘culture’

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TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD — Our friend Stefan Stern, ex of the FT and now of Edelman has written an HBR blog about BP and the communication and cultural issues that got them into the trouble they have been in.

It’s an interesting read and has elicited some long comments from people as well.

One can never be too surprised at the number of people who ‘saw it coming’ or know just how to fix something like this.  And we are certainly not immune from that, so will throw no stones.

However, one area that Stefan’s piece does bring into sharp relief for me is this idea of ‘culture’.  We all have opinions on it.  We can have long conversations about it.  But we’re often talking about completely different things.

There has been a lot written about ‘national cultures’ and that is what is being addressed here.  A Brit running a company that has big problems in the southern states of America — how crazy.  it could be a film.  In fact, I suspect it has been in the past.

My view though is that this may be too easy an excuse to try to shine light on this issue.  What about Sony’s CEO Howard Stringer?  Born in Wales.  Lives in New York.  Speaks no Japanese, etc.  Or the French men running big UK firms, like EDF?

What I find far more interesting is the idea of the corporate culture.  If you look at what CEO’s have said in companies like BP it often refers to ‘the way we do things around here’.  And that’s our handy code-words for corporate culture.

Corporate culture drives a lot of behaviours in organisations.  Things like:

  • Power structures
  • Organisational structures, and
  • Control systems

These are all very influential in how a business acts — they drive what people do and what people don’t do.

But there are others:

  • Symbols
  • Stories and
  • Routines

These are equally important.  And they are just as much in the control of the organisation.

Addressing corporate culture for any major business in the UK is a major challenge.  It’s one, frankly, that many businesses are too scared to try.  But it shouldn’t be.  It’s relatively easy to do and bring great rewards quickly.

As for national culture, maybe I’m not the average employee, but my kids say ‘math’ not ‘maths’.  They have only ever lived in the UK, but speak French and Spanish at home.  And their father still has a fleeting knowledge of Kiswahili.

What the heck does that make us?


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