Culture rethink needed

As our economies become consumer-led, change must become a constant inside every business. Leaders must adjust the internal workings of the machine as it runs. Small changes make big differences both to employee and customer experience.

One day, these small changes may lead us to an organisational culture model that works in Africa. That fits the society that surrounds our enterprises. It’s long overdue because we have unthinkingly accepted the Western industrial model as the default way to run companies.

Most businesses in Africa are structured and run on a 200-year old model. Initiated during the British Industrial Revolution, this way of doing things replaced the collaborative social model that had prevailed for centuries. Taking people away from the land and packing them into cities to live adjacent to the factories that employed them.

The shrill note of the steam whistle replaced the cock’s crow. The natural rhythms of life gave way to behaviours essential for the efficient mobilisation of labour. Time was given a new, and not altogether positive meaning. Early shifts, late shifts and overtime. Precisely defined breaks for tea and toilet. Vacations timed to suit factory maintenance closures. Public holidays for workers introduced as a sop to people whose leisure time was now severely curtailed.

The social fabric that had supported human beings for millennia was torn apart. Town became very separate from country; political parties evolved to represent this split. Men and women travelled long distances to find work and lived  far from their extended families. When they settled in the cities they lived in squalor. Their air was not fresh; their water not clean; their food not healthy. They had to develop harsher behaviours to compete and survive.

In the early 20th century, the Americans got hold of organisational culture, and they really turned the screw. The disciplines that drove the exponential growth of that country’s manufacturing capacity squeezed even more humanity out of collaboration. People became components to be hired, then worked until they failed through incompetence, sickness, injury or age. Discarded when no longer useful. Vertical management hierarchies were built to consolidate control and drive internal competition. Commercial bosses became kings. Workers sought protection in another form of collaboration – unions.

This story should sound familiar to all of us who work and live in Africa. For we have repeated it here, and never questioned it. African people, no matter how modern and well educated, enter formal employment and experience a real cultural disconnect. If you’ve ever wondered why staff steal, abscond or simply make no extra effort, the answer lies in the unthinking repetition of the tropes of organisational culture.