Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Corporate Culture (hardly!)

I was recently in a telecon with the CTO of a Mumbai-based company. The subject was a case study for one of their vendors. The vendor's marketing offices are in Delhi and Bangalore, apart from Mumbai. So, I dialed a number in Delhi, the Bangalore and Delhi marketing persons joined, then the CTO was called, after which the Mumbai marketing person also joined in. Here we were, talking seamlessly from three corners of the country, discussing how the vendor's solution had helped the company. It made me wonder if technology contributes to the illusory sense of self-importance that the corporate world is reeling under.

On a similar project, I had once gone to interview a senior manager in another company. He looked at me in wonder and said, "So you have come alone...", probably expecting an entourage of reporters and cameramen keen to find out how his security solution had helped his company.

Anyone who's worked in a corporate would have encountered situations of being in the same elevator or the same cafetaria queue with senior management. In most cases, the manager will look through you even though he knows you; if you aren't on his project, he sees no reason to even acknowledge your presence. (Of course, you can say this of many co-workers too.)

It's easy to imagine the sense of power at that level. Making decisions worth millions, being invited to give your opinion on sundry matters, giving media interviews, taking calls on appraisals and recruitments.... Swollen heads and bloated egos are natural consequences, as managers begin to feel they have a God-like status in their respective domains. Interestingly, the more incompetent the manager, the more drunk he is on his power... or should that be vice versa? Even more interestingly, this attitude tends to seep down as the company grows. As rounds of promotions happen, the promotees pretend to move to a different universe and divorce themselves from the unchanged realities of their yesterdays.

Having been part of this world for a considerable period of time, I have shifted from disbelief to resignation to sheer amusement. The last time I shared that elevator with two managers who were still in the company because they were too complacently incompetent to go anywhere else, I could hardly keep a straight face. I mean, here were these two guys, trying very hard to talk about strategic decisions and bringing in business, in a space that they were sharing for less than a minute. What were they doing the whole day, if this discussion had to happen at 8 PM in the elevator? And even if they were extraordinarily busy (hard to believe as we had very few projects or pitches at that time), surely there was tomorrow?

And I haven't even started on other corporate paraphernalia like meetings and processes. The intentions behind both are always good, I admit, and they're designed to make life simpler for those involved. Experience, however, shows that only about 10 percent of the meetings I've attended in my working life, and an even less percentage of processes, have met that purpose. I've created training sessions on how to conduct meetings and make them productive...need I say more?

My point is this. When the company is small and is exploring new ground, there is very little hierarchy and very few processes. At that stage, everyone has fun working. Dedication, creativity, imagination and quality of work are all-important; new thoughts and ideas are welcomed and employees are encouraged to think out of the box. As the company grows, all this takes a backseat to hierarchy and processes; decision making becomes slower and more cautious, fewer risks are taken, and 'corporate culture' sets in, acting as the last nail on the creativity and innovation coffin. All of this is reality, even though there will be exceptions. Isn't there something wrong with this picture? Shouldn't things be different?