Innovation 101: The business of Culture

This post is a modified version of an article I wrote. Some patriotic leanings are evident …

Mohandas K. Gandhi

“A culture is an organization’s collective mind-set – its beliefs, intentions, and memories”, said Mark Youngblood in his 1997 book, Life at the Edge of Chaos: Creating the Quantum Organization. “Organizations that will survive and prosper in the twenty-first century will be fast, flexible, responsive, resilient, creative, balanced, and full of vitality.” He calls them [these companies] Quantum Organizations. Quantum Organizations, in direct contrast with the machine-like design of industrial era companies, operate using the principles of living systems. They are organic webs of life: dynamic, interconnected networks of relationships that are constantly learning, adapting, and evolving.”

Quantum or not, an organizational model based on his prophetic understanding of the new millennium business world is urgently needed today. A key ingredient for building the firm of the future is the setting up of a culture that can evolve, sustain and grow. Relationships, learning, adapting, evolving – simple to use words – not so simple to understand or, for that matter, apply in a particular context. For one, the mechanistic worldview [what became the order in the Industrial era] suggests the need for rigid structures. Today’s realities are quite different. Relationships are being formed without any physical contact: very deep relationships are being founded on areas of common interest.

In my opinion, the Internet has promoted globalisation as a natural way of doing business in today’s world. It has also made “individualised” infrastructure ubiquitously available. Which means that ways of working have changed from mono to network. As a natural outcome, all monolithic organisations are morphing into networked enterprises; all solo endeavours are seeking interdependence.

I wonder if this could point towards building a business culture, especially valuable from my point of view, for small entrepreneurial ventures. Building a culture consciously, methodically and based on a value system that reflects India’s ethos, history and diversity. I come from a generation that has taken pride in the American ‘twang’ and has been celebrating capitalism, without quite understanding that it won’t work in its yankee avatar in India. Do we understand our own contexts? It’s high time we did.

In my view, India has much more to offer besides low costs if we could do two things. First, get rid of the disposition leading to ‘ji huzoori’ (subservient ‘YES SIR’) and second, gain self respect by being able to ‘show’ the world the richness of India’s intellectual heritage. At the risk of sounding too critical, I think the answer lies in the work culture we’ve come to accept. It lies somewhere in our endemic obsession with technology and our fascination for tools. We have learnt to accept that our only responsibility is to get ourselves specialised to a level. Somehow, this narrows our potential to becoming a headcount number for the mercenary western businessman. A commodity that he can monetise in his organisation’s annual report.

In my company, Ideafarms, we consciously built a culture based on the values I have espoused. Admittedly we took it for granted that people who came on board along the way would automatically imbibe the founding values of our company culture. My big learning has been that one has to grab every opportunity to talk about these values while, at the same time, living them.

So my point here is to show the culture within a culture – my business culture within my country’s culture. For centuries, India has helped shape world thinking. Concepts like “shunya” (Zero), “satyagraha” (Non-cooperative non-violence), “karma” (Motivation sans motive), and individuals such as Gautama Buddha, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Ravishankar, Zubin Mehta have stamped enduring impressions on the world’s cultures. The alluring, hand-woven carpets of Kashmir, the exquisite pottery of Khurja and the scintillating silk sari of Kanchipuram, all demonstrate a prolific unity in India’s art, craft, technique and ability.

I am continually spurred-on by the possibilities that emerge if we combine these portions of our native ethnic character with new global technologies. And naturally, for me, our biggest contribution to ourselves would be to retain our Indian-ness. In thought, word and deed. And to build a work culture that the world would try to emulate as a tribute to the richest civilization in the world!

On that high note I wish you, dear readers, a very Happy New Year 2009!

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