There are six levels of culture.

Over the past 25 years, TMC has developed unique solutions to help individuals, teams and organizations develop cultural competence. The most critical step has been to create an understanding of culture as the key process that allows groups to adjust to new environments or different conditions. The essence of cultural competence, as TMC defines it, is the ability to purposely reduce risk, enhance innovation and maximize opportunities through both cultural differences and similarities. The perspective that cultural competence becomes indispensable when external conditions change lends TMC’s approach particular relevance when tackling a range of risks, opportunities and challenges related to change, efficiency and innovation.

We have created a model of culture in which there are six segments representing the different levels at which culture operates in our daily lives.

The first level of culture is the national/societal level, which has dominated the intercultural field for decades. Awareness of cultural dynamics and patterns by nationality is particularly relevant for (a) entering a new market for product, service and/or talent (b) the cross-border division of labor, and (c) international outsourcing relationships. For example, when large companies outsource IT development, customer service or clinical trials to a partner in, for example, India, they require a keen understanding of the cultural context that impacts the desired outcomes and processes. Likewise, companies need to skillfully navigate cultural differences in business and management practices for knowledge transfer and performance requirements in their operations across the world. Companies focusing on opportunities in emerging markets have to understand culturally conditioned customer behavior to be successful.

Many companies in the intercultural field are content with addressing the above complexities. However, TMC finds that relevant impact can be realized only when culture is addressed at the more granular levels, such as social identity group, the second level of culture. With increasing migration, complex national histories and overall demographic shifts, marking cultural boundaries with national borders is extremely limiting. The diversification of society has made differences by gender, generation, ethnicity, religious beliefs and affiliations, and socio-economic class increasingly relevant. Workforce diversity and talent management concerns cannot be addressed with over-generalized national profiles. For this reason, many multinational organizations attempt to address inequitable gender representation. Some also develop their managers and encourage them to address intergenerational differences on a global scale. Similarly, some organizations seek to serve their ethnically and religiously diverse customer groups through adaptive retention and service strategies.

The third level of culture, organizational, is relevant because neither of the above two levels are meaningfully and sustainably addressed if organizations are not willing to scrutinize and then optimize their own cultures. Global organizations that serve distinct customer and talent markets will need to develop an inclusive culture to truly unleash and leverage the diversity asset of their workforces. At the same time, corporate mergers and acquisitions frequently deliver below expectations, partly because they underestimate organizational cultural differences and dynamics. Many companies have been victims of inadequate understanding and management of organizational cultural dynamics in M&A integration.

In global organizations, functional cultures (that is, the cultures created by business unit functions, such as Human Resources, R&D, marketing, etc.) are frequently as strong as differences on the national/societal level. For that reason, TMC addresses the fourth level, functional culture, and specifically cross-functional effectiveness, as critical to high performance. In practice, cross-functional product or management teams have had to manage and leverage their differences carefully, bridging distinct cultural differences across their constituent units. Professional training creates a strong collective identity and encourages professional ethos, mindsets and behavioral propensities.

The team level, the fifth level of culture, becomes apparent when teams develop a distinct identity and culture over time in response to the organizational and/or market context, purpose, makeup and leadership. Creating a team culture is no small feat, particularly when members are globally dispersed. The need to manage across time zones, language, technology, and a broad spectrum of cultural differences increasingly defines the nature of work within global organizations. Both intact teams and interdependent work groups need to develop shared standards and practices for teaming or collaboration. Clients need to sharpen team leaders’ and members’ mind and skill sets to effectively build global teams, and most employees in matrix organizations benefit from understanding how to collaborate effectively in such a complex and dynamic context.

Successfully addressing any of these cultural challenges is contingent on the sixth level of culture, the individual level. The building blocks of culture at any level are present in both intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics. Understanding cultural conditioning and developing awareness can unleash powerful change and transformation. Leadership development, especially to fill the global leadership pipeline, benefits significantly when it is not reduced to individualized attributes and instead is accepted as a culturally conditioned social process.

When addressing the cultural underpinnings of key performance objectives such as efficiency, growth or innovation, we frequently start by charting the interactions of each of these interdependent levels of culture in the expectations, interpretations and behaviors of those involved. TMC views the cultural phenomenon as an intricate hologram, with each fragment (for example, the individual, small groups, etc.) containing the whole picture of cultural configurations, and the reality residing in the structure, elasticity and plasticity of the human mind. Recent advances in neuroscience have indicated a possible scientific basis for how this may work.

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