Originally published on June 30, 2014 on Forbes.com.
Companies use to be able to create their own oases. Once inside the focus was strictly on the company’s business. Developments in the outside world not directly related to the company were deemed unimportant. In a less connected age, this was an acceptable way to proceed
But these days, no company is an island. In fact, I’ve already argued that understanding contemporary culture is a competitive advantage. What you’re looking for are ways that developments such as new products, services and new expressions of culture are changing attitudes, needs, preferences and behaviors. For example, how will meal replacements like Soylent change notions about mealtime, and what are the implications for the QSR and grocery businesses?
Contemporary culture is growing in importance to companies precisely because it’s increasingly making its way past the walls that have separated the corporation from the outside world. Here are four forces that are driving that change.
1. Social Media
Contemporary culture is riding into the corporation on the back of social media and all the data it throws off. What people are sharing, reacting to, and commenting on is indicative of what’s meaningful to them. These signals require interpretation. But there’s no way to create actionable context without an understanding of the various rituals, norms, language and systems of belief at play.
It’s only with a firm grasp on culture can we begin to make sense of the Twitter retweets, Facebook shares, LinkedIn likes or +1′s on Google+. It’s culture that helps us understand the hopes, fears, aspirations, anxieties and other underlying emotional drivers of human interaction. And it’s social media that’s given culture a beachhead inside the corporation.
2. The Human Business Movement
Smart companies are changing the way they deal with their employees, customers and partners. The human business movement, as it’s called, is growing because of a simple idea: People relate to people, not soulless corporations. It is an effort to get companies to communicate in a simple, straightforward manner; be empathetic; and create workplace optimism. A few of the proponents of this movement include PureMatter’s Bryan Kramer; social business visionary Nilofer Merchant; and influential business expert Ted Coine, who notes, “This isn’t a ‘people first, profits second’ movement, but a ‘profits as a direct result of putting people first’ movement.”
When employees are able to bring their full selves to work–not just the parts that are good at managing and executing company business—they’re inevitably bringing outside culture in via their individuality, their personality, their interests and their meaning matrices. As a result, the company is better connected to the world.
3. The Purpose Economy
The Great Recession caused many people to stop and answer this question: “What matters most to me?” As a result, we’ve seen the rise of purpose-driven companies, entities that focus on solving some of society’s most intractable problems poverty, literacy, clean water access, etc. Standing for something of consequence reflects a desire for greater meaning, both in terms of the brands people support and the types of companies they work for. Consumers are also keenly interested in companies that bring value to their lives and to society at large. Havas Media’s 2013 Meaningful Brands index, an ongoing ranking of companies that do just that highlighted the fact that its 134,000 participants in 23 countries wouldn’t care if a full 70% of brands disappeared. Because they’re ultimately meaningless.
Smart companies, such as household products manufacturer Method, funding platform Indiegogo, and media company Participant Media, to name only a few, are seeing higher profits as a result of clarity on their purpose. That’s resonating throughout the value chain with employees, customers and fans.
Purpose becomes the needle that threads culture through a company’s constituencies and connects these companies to what matters to the outside world.
4. Rethinking The Organization
Whether it’s 37Signals’ Jason Fried and David Hansson in Rework, Forbes contributor Jeff Boss, or Aaron Dignan and Undercurrent’s development of the responsive organization, it’s clear that we’re seeing the dawn of an organization that evolves with its business environment far quicker than its 20th century counterparts. As examples, Dignan points to companies such as Medium, AirBNB, Uber, Facebook or Amazon that, among other things, have a visionary purpose; make products that are built to evolve; and are platforms that the world builds on.
And, as noted in a recently published “Employee Bill of Rights,” employees at responsive companies are explicitly encouraged to “ bridge the expanse between [their] organization and the outside world.”
The give-and-take that responsiveness implies—organizations letting more outside culture in, the company moving beyond its traditional boundaries to engage the world more fully—offers a path towards an adaptability most companies have yet to be capable of.
By dint of the happy accident of technology, deep shifts in attitudes about the nature of work or by organizational structures that align with our hyper-speedy, connected world, culture is penetrating deep into the organizations.
It’s a moment we should wholeheartedly embrace.