Cultural Risk Management – Part I of a new series by Glen Burridge

This is the first of a series of articles where Interculturalist and Earth Scientist Glen Burridge be looking to highlight a topic that confronts us every day in all aspects of our lives and yet is frequently neglected by both organisations and individuals: Cultural Risk Management

Crowd. A large group of people of a white background.

If we have one characteristic as humans that represents both our greatest capability and our greatest weapon it is our ability to self-organise.

In other words, to create cultures.

In these groupings, we become actors in the world, through our organisations, societies, tribes, networks and communities. Through them, we trade and we exchange, we engage in conflict and war and we create things of beauty and value. In doing so, they form the basis of our identities and influence our behaviour at every moment. Some stem back to the origin of our species, while others are bubbling up as we speak.

Culture as Lifeform

We may do our best to romanticise them, especially those identities to whom we belong and find the most meaningful, yet a culture is – at best – no more than a meta-stable life-form. As ambient conditions vary, vulnerable cultures die, a few coalesce, whilst others are born. They are susceptible to changes in the environment, undergoing perpetual fashioning by external challenge and interaction – an analogy with viral behaviour would not be unfair – and our increasing connectivity with each other accelerates this process.

History tells us that cultural ‘entropy’ has operated since our earliest times: As human populations have expanded and come in closer proximity, there is a tendency for any extensive culture to produce homogenisation of society in their image. In order to survive the onslaught, any target community will require strong traits – either of adaptability, invincibility, suitability or to defy the threat by virtue of distance or size. There are moral and practical consequences to what is lost and gained by such an organic course, but it could be argued that this is simply the to-and-fro of natural selection at play; a culture is no more than an elegant ecological solution to a problem at a given time.

Whatever their origins and health, what the human story makes abundantly clear is that the simultaneous greatest threat to our future wellbeing and opportunity for positive development comes from the interaction between cultural groups. This is where interculturalists operate and (ought to) have a capital role to play in our future.

Yes, it really is as important as that.

Limited Space

The Earth, at present our sole home, has a surface area of 510 million square km. That might sound like a lot to you and me, used to possessing only an infinitesimal morsel of that terrain, but of that immense expanse only roughly 20% is habitable. In terms of the volume of our planet, only a fraction of 1% is a survivable biosphere. We are currently adding over 200,000 extra people per day to that space.

It pays for us to get along well with each other.

The Other

Cultures, with their attendant values, motivations and artefacts will come and go, but the perennial question that matters is whether these groupings – and their representatives – are able to find a common basis in which the existence of the Other is not a accompanied by fear. No group is ever going to fire a nuclear warhead deliberately at itself, it will always be at an Other. ‘Civil’ Wars are anything but civil. They entail the disintegration of the façade of a collective identity under exterior pressure or internal reckoning.

Equally, all valuable endeavours we embark on culminate, in some form, in a collective effort. At all scales of our lives, this entails an association of existing bodies, whether they are political, commercial, humanitarian or social. We therefore know we are going to face a myriad of interfaces in much of what we do. We ought to be prepared. Any organisation that neglects the multiple dimensions and effects of culture is ignoring not only its own DNA, but that of the environment it operates in.

Yet, despite a whole field of solutions that now stretch back more than half a century, the risk associated with cultural interactions remains the one we are collectively most reluctant to address in business and in the world at large.

The worst kind of success

The worst kind of failure is when we ignore a critical factor that was staring us in the face all along. The worst kind of success is one achieved without the capacity to repeat it, carrying threats into the very next situation we find ourselves, but now with a perilous confidence, until the moment of drama when we realise we have made a serious misjudgement, when it becomes no longer a risk, but history.

In the following articles, Glen will open up the discussion to explore further dimensions of cultural risk, how deeply it reaches into our lives, society and business, which go far beyond the familiar cultural realm of national identities.

For a discussion of the topics raised in this article and associated blogs, please feel free to get in touch with Glen at; glen@glenburridge.com or via LinkedIn or leave a comment below.

glenEarth Scientist and Interculturalist, Glen Burridge

 

 

The Problem We Create By Being There – Consultants & Clients by Glen Burridge

The first problem is YOU – A cultural thought piece by our “foreign correspondent”, Glen Burridge

Junger Geschftsmann bei einer Prsentation Why are you here?

There is a barrier that lies at the heart of any consultant trying to transform an organisation, namely that you present an intercultural challenge by your very presence. Yes, you, as a consultant are the first problem the customer has to deal with when they bring in someone to help spur improvements in their organisation.

As a consultant, have you ever had the experience of sitting in a meeting room and, after all the niceties are done with, listening to the most senior person of the room start talking and realise they know next to nothing of why you’re there? Or, they think they know who you are, but the words they’re using are at complete odds with your perception with what you think you’re doing there?

What happens next can range from genuine curiosity – with an eye to why they weren’t briefed properly by their own people – to outright dismissive, even aggressive, behaviour. Experienced consultants will tell you that they’ve felt the full sweep of this spectrum at some time or other and, with a wry smile, it may conceal much more beneath. Even if the consultant is usually the most vulnerable person in the room, the sense of the threat that you may present can be palpable.

Don’t expect sympathy for your own precarious position.

It will be ultimately up to you to either dispel the drama or learn to work within it, since it centres on you and that disturbing vibration around maybe why you were brought you in – to shake things up. And that is the paymaster’s right.

The opposite situation is also worth considering. Where you are so seamlessly integrated in a situation that no-one knows you’re a consultant or they’re forgetting it rapidly. In this scenario, it’s entirely possible you may already know more than many of the people in the room. Remember, if you’re lucky enough to cope with working ‘sideways’, you may soon become the custodian of an entirely unique perspective, which could easily walk out of the organisation the moment you leave. So, this misconception may be something you’ll want to correct very quickly – it is the basis of your livelihood and code to maintain a professional detachment – but, if you’re well established and have a strong rapport with the commissioners of the work, you will be more relaxed and it makes the ‘sell’ of your work seem like another form of ‘internal project initiation’.

In business, we are working in the midst of an organism, some of whose processes are a source of positive wonder, some of which should be exemplary and obvious but have yet to evolve to cope with the role they’ve inherited, some of which is worn out or doing a function it was never designed for. The individual organs that drive this creature might have a long and distinguished history or they may be new and experimental. Some elements will be moving towards each other, others not even aware of what the other ones do. We can never make too many assumptions about who, where and when they can see what. Perhaps one of the defining qualities of an organisation is its opaqueness or transparency. The secret to good organisational consulting is to see enough of the machine working as a whole to do something meaningful at the scale you’ve been engaged at. If you’re lucky, you can build from there, once you gain the buy-in; this might be one level above or below, but in many ways the most interesting – although by far the more difficult – is if you can reach across.

The Client Side

Now consider the perspective of that manager from the client side for a moment.

You’ve just come from three meetings this morning already. You’re thinking that perhaps you won’t eat till 2pm, if you’re lucky, and you’ve learnt about two knotty problems and an uncertain one already this morning. Now, you find yourself on your way to a meeting your PA has kindly accepted for you but wish you could have avoided, with this new person that you’ve never met in your life. They’re not even on the email system. You know they’re something to do with a particular initiative that sounded a good idea a few months back and wasn’t backed by too much of the department’s budget anyway. But, frankly, the context is a little vague, because The Good Idea is not fleshed out yet and no-one’s quite sure if The Team should be setting the agenda or leaving it to the consultant to get on with Do Their Thing; they’re the ‘expert’ aren’t they? If only I had the time I’d sit down and sort this out myself, but we’ve got 30 mins and I’ll try and figure out what the hell we do. You know, these deep-field initiatives really should shape our world, but when can we show something tangible from them? Who but a consultant will want to make these kind of waves though?

Now, multiply that by the range of personalities found in a manager and you get the spectrum of meetings that can transpire.

If the organisation had all the answers to their problem, you wouldn’t have even been invited in the building.

So, we always need to consider that whatever wonderful bag of tricks, enthusiasm, wisdom and experience we think we bring into any organisational setting, we are the source of an out/in-group problem with all the attendant cultural dimensions that entails from the moment we step away from the Reception desk wearing our visitor’s badge.

Our first organisational problem we will have to fix is the one we create by simply being there.

About the Author – Glen Burridge

Earth Scientist, Consultant, Aviator and Intercultural Enthusiast, Glen is just down the road in Perth, Australia…

glen