when cultures meet


By Frank Curran, CIPFA Associate

A person enters a new workplace. Two departments have to work together on a critical project. Two organisations merge. Two religions exist in the same small place. Immigrants enter a country. Civilisations clash.

Everyone has experienced culture clash, and yet we tend to think of the world of work as isolated from this experience that we’ve seen played out in the grand sweep of history. The drive for efficiency means mergers, collaboration and partnerships are playing an increasingly important role in public services. Different cultures are being brought together. In order to create savings without devaluing services, the challenges cannot be ignored. Nor can the opportunities.

It may feel odd to think of different organisations, or even departments, as having different cultures. It’s not as if the people in the next room are speaking in another language. We’re programmed to build routines and group identities. Every institution has its own values, ethos and social customs. These aspects of a culture are every bit as real and powerful as food or language. 

So why is culture clash a problem? When two groups work together there’s a serious risk of the differences in culture impeding their work. This could be on a professional level: employees used to following strict instructions and procedures may falter when asked to create their own projects. Or it could be on a personal level: if one side considers the other to be unprofessional, or alternatively too cold and overbearing, the personal antipathy can result in minimal cooperation or even deliberate sabotage of a project.

But there is an alternative. Organisations need to learn how to build ‘robust cultures’ that can benefit from the introduction of a new culture, rather than shut themselves up. When two cultures come together there’s a greater range of strengths, a greater variety of ideas. New people bring new perspectives and expertise. When these capacities are harnessed they create more adaptive organisations that can deliver more effectively.

This isn’t an easy task: achieving the necessary co-operation requires tolerance, open-mindedness and most importantly, you need to be willing to go outside of your comfort zone. But it is by being in unfamiliar situations that you avoid stagnation, learn most and improve.

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