The Opaqueness of Corporate Culture

Hat tip to The Economist‘s Bartleby column (and its unnamed author, Philip Coggan) for continuing to shine the light on possibly the most powerful business force on the planet — “corporate culture.”

In my earliest career, “corporate culture” both built, and then savagely destroyed, the two then-world-leading enterprise application software companies, McCormack & Dodge and MSA:

  • In 1983, Dun & Bradstreet Corporation bought McCormack & Dodge for what The Wall Street Journal suggested was around $50 million bucks
  • In 1990, the inelegantly renamed “Dun & Bradstreet Software” bought its biggest competitor, MSA, for around $330 million bucks
  • In 1996, the whole sorry mess of incompatible corporate culture was cleaned up and taken off D&B’s red-ink-bleeding books by GEAC for a fire sale valuation of around $190 million—half the cash that had been previously paid for the pieces

Those looking to quantify an explanation might point out various macro forces contracting the application software industry at the time. However, those of us who lived within the ensuing nightmare, M&D and MSA employees alike, will tell you it’s the inevitable result of jamming a square peg sales culture (MSA) into a round hole engineering culture (M&D). The ultimate problem? Nowhere in the net present valuation of any corporation has anyone figured out how to truly quantify the intangible value underneath that’s embodied by the people doing all the magic, nor determine how best to nurture and preserve it.

History is full of examples of how single-ness of vision and purpose will enable a small group of people to do remarkable things. (Apple’s design culture comes to mind). But only employees instinctively know the difference between “do as I say” platitudes and “as I do” realities, though they rarely say it out loud until they quit. (Otherwise, they would be fired). The hardest part for outsiders has always been distinguishing corporate lip service from truer, unspoken, culture.

This, then, is the ultimate flaw in Bartleby’s suggestion that corporate culture is becoming more discernable. Let’s face it—people lie—and most frequently to themselves. Qualtrics can measure all they want, but Google’s removing “don’t be evil” from their code of conduct in 2018 represents a larger truth. For those of us on the outside looking in, whether as job applicants, investors, or researchers, it remains a game of trying to tell cults from culture.

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