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Decoding Culture Newsletter by Dr John Curran - 
July 2020 Issue 1


This is the first issue of the Decoding Culture newsletter and thank you for subscribing. The overall focus will explore the connection between anthropology, organisations, business and culture.Culture needs to be central to how business moves forward, so I hope you find this newsletter helpful. 

Office comeback

It seems a distant memory when the CEO of Barclay’s Bank stated "The notion of putting 7,000 people in the building may be a thing of the past". I have been monitoring the conversations around the future of work post lock down. There is a swath of opinion out there which is generating much debate. There are shifting narratives, from working via Zoom, to a flexible working. However, what is clear now is that the office will not be redundant. There are too many social and cultural factors that exists in this space that provide meaning to humans as social beings. In 2009 IBM allowed 40% of their 386,000 staff to work remotely, only to call them back to the office in 2017. Trust will no doubt be a key theme in  regards to the future of work.

Remote working throws up interesting questions around organisational culture. I wrote a piece on reducing cultural anxiety on zoom calls. In a recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville, shows how culture is key to successful remote working.

Cities and Culture

The centre of cities have always been the driving force of finance and economics. Yet, Covid-19 has disrupted this concept. The shape of cities are beginning their transformation. It is not clear what they will look like in respect to work and use of offices. Bruce Daisey, Ex-Twitter VP and host of the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast, uses the metaphor, developed by the architect Cedric Price, of the city as a fried egg. At the centre is a condensed place where business is. He explains how work in the city could transform to a scrambled egg model with many micro work spaces. What is interesting about this model is that ‘the local’ becomes interweaved with work. How will this change the concept of 'neighbourhood'?

The physical, social and symbolic body

The desire for social and physical interactions at work points to the need for the office. Research I conducted a few years ago focused on the commute to work. One key insight was that the commute and office provide social oxygen that help people form, develop and maintain their identity. These routines are full of cultural codes that work towards preserving a sense of self. Interactions at work offer a large slice of the required cultural codes that we need to feed off as social beings. The sociologist, Dr. Daniel Beunza, has written an excellent book based on his ethnographic study of a Wall Street trading floor. He explains that traders find face-to-face contact as an important part of their work. More so than using remote trading technology at home, such as the Bloomberg terminals. 

The body is central to these conversations and debates about work. Technology cannot replace the human need for physical daily encounters. How the office will change will be fascinating to observe.

The body is also central to other areas of work culture. The murder of George Floyd has unleashed global protest against anti-Black racism. The body is embodied with political and moral meaning. Sports stars are ‘taking the knee’ with the support of their professional sport bodies. But, a quick cultural analysis of LinkedIn shows that brands and industry are scrambling to provide a moral account of themselves. At the same time, many businesses are fearful of looking inwards and confronting the lack of racial equity and equality in their work. 

The Black Lives Matter protests have jolted businesses and institutions to make changes. Cass Business School has announced they are changing their name due its link with Sir John Cass. He was a merchant that benefited from the slave trade. While in sport, The iconic NFL team, The Washington Redskins have stated they too are looking at a rebrand (took them this long?). Time will tell if these are proactive or reactive changes and if they signify a start to address the systemic issues around racism that exists within organisations. 

What I have been up to

I have moved all my coaching, team facilitation and training online. This has been an interesting and creative challenge. Online coaching and facilitation throws up interesting challenges in regards to how the coach reads the room to understand those subtle cultural and psychological performances that are at play. Such performances are bursting with meaning that the coach needs observe, listen to and decode.

I am really excited about my new training course that has just been launched. It's called Creating Impact with Projects and Clients: Leveraging Organizational Culture. What makes this course unique is the focus on organizational culture. It provides agencies with the tools to decode their client organisational cultures to deliver value. To run this course, I am partnering with an exciting organisation in the US called EPIC. EPIC's focus is all about "Advancing the Value of Ethnography in Industry"...This is much needed. It starts on the 3rd September and there are only 20 places!

I have recently delivered a number of key note talks on organisational culture. Key points I emphasis in the talks. 1) the importance of incorporating an anthropological mindset when implementing change. 2) Embracing organisational conflict as a form of communication. 3) Understanding the role of sub-cultures to get group alignment. 

I am also in the process of creating 'one-off' webinars on organisational culture and anthropology.

Decoding Culture Podcast

I mentioned Dr Daniel Benuza’s book earlier. I interviewed Daniel about it on the Decoding Culture podcast. Well worth a listen. Since the podcast Daniel's book has featured on the BBC's Radio 4 Thinking Allowed programme and in the Financial Times

I have a two part podcast coming out soon with Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville. Jen is the Diageo Professor of Organisational Culture at the Cambridge Judge Business School, Cambridge University. Episode one focuses on what organisational culture is and why businesses often get it wrong. In episode two, Jen and I discuss the anthropological theory of liminality and how this can drive culture change in organisations. We also discuss what the future of work might look like.

Interesting Stuff on Culture

I am reading Dr Simon Robert’s book The Power of not Thinking: How our Bodies Learn and Why We Should Trust Them. It's a fascinating account of why the body is key for learning. Simon will be a guest on the podcast next month to discuss it. But it is great to see the book already getting mentioned in the Financial Times.

There is a great book called Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval. It explores the rise of the office and provides some fascinating accounts and stories.

Margaret Heffernan's new book Uncharted: How to Map the Future Together 
explores how we think about uncertainty and the future.

Dr Nicola Rollock writes in the Financial Times about how the concept of Whiteness sits at the core of racism. She makes the claim for 'active allyship' in the workplace.

Professor Les Henry and Professor Les Back discuss Whiteness and the danger of silence. You can watch their inspiring conversation
I have been listening to the Bridges to the Future podcast. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) chief executive, Matthew Taylor, speaks to a range of experts and thinkers to assess the wide-reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thanks for reading! It would be great to connect with you on LinkedIn or Twitter (see below) and also feel free to contact me concerning coaching, facilitation, training and speaking. - John
Copyright © Dr John Curran, All rights reserved.

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