Proximate Environment

Under the conventional organizing approach and beyond, a culture develops over time at least partly as a direct result of the outside world's inluence. By “outside world” I mean the proximate environment in which the organization operates. Key elements of this proximate environment are the realities of the market and the industry and (often) the geography in which the organization inds itself.

An activist, not-for-proit, service-oriented organization may operate in an inner city, in public schools, or in any number of other well-deined sectors of society. The space in which a Rotary Club operates will be quite different from the one in which the Salvation Army operates, but each organization will be well aware of its proximate environment and how it affects its members' character and behaviour. Similarly, the people at Google can easily deine their culture, and so can the people who work for the Canadian National Railway (CNR). They operate in very different market spaces and have quite different aims – Google might say it is moving knowledge; the CNR might say it is moving materials and people.

So the reality of your marketplace, and of the environment in which your business operates, will do much to deine the character and behaviour of the people in your organization and often the skills they must have. Each organization, given its proximate environment, must do certain things very well. For any organization, it is the customers or service receivers who deine the marketing, selling, inventory, manufacturing, and other functional processes and skills.

Customer needs and the character attributes of the customer base are relected in the organization's culture. This is easy to understand in reference to a business organization that is a single-product, single-service provider. But what about large, complex organizations that serve the needs of multiple sets of customers? DuPont Canada was a large company with many diverse business units when I was there. The customer base for the “paint” business was quite different from the customer base for the “synthetic ibres” business. How could people working in each of these business units be culturally deined as DuPont Canada people?

In strong but complex organizations, the culture can be deined in terms of character and skills. For example, DuPont Canada can be described culturally as a “marketing technology” and “manufacturing in potentially hazardous environments” company. The multitude of products and services offered by DuPont Canada shared these cultural descriptors. Thus, people in DuPont Canada – and in similar business organizations with diverse business units – can recognize common behaviours and character attributes. Each business unit at DuPont Canada was marketing functionally complex products; some of these products were sourced from potentially hazardous manufacturing processes. This created cultural bonds that in turn affected the behaviour and skill sets of the people.

This point, about a coming together of skills and character attributes even in complex organizations, is relected in DuPont's tag lines as they have changed over the years:

Better Things for Better Living through Chemistry

Better Things for Better Living

A Science Company
The global DuPont Company is about 200 years old. The phrases that its marketing people have developed to describe the company have changed over that time, but DuPont has always been and is to this day described by its character attributes, behaviours, and skills. It is often described by the new products it engineers and by its ability to regularly reinvent itself, its technologies, and its products. This is one statement of culture as seen by the proximate environment.

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