culture is complex

I am in a rural village in France enjoying my last day here before heading home. This week was spent mostly in Paris, running a workshop and meeting with a few people. One of the frequent topics was AI: artificial intelligence, not actionable insights. I admit that I know very little about AI, but luckily I know other people who know a lot. My network helps to keep me informed.

My first evening in Paris I attended the student digital awards at the ESSCA graduate business school. Of all the prizes, only one was focused on learning. Most of the projects or applications were ways of eliminating humans from the business process, ensuring purchasers could buy things quicker. This is what we call progress today.

The famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker is that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. French culture is not unaffected by international business pressures, as witnessed by the fast food outlets everywhere. But the local markets are full of natural produce. Many people cook their meals and families sit down to eat. Even during our workshop it was unthinkable not to take a decent amount of time to share a cooked meal.

When I was in Sweden last Fall I noticed that many of the young programmers left work early in the afternoon. It was explained that usually their partners dropped off the children at day-care or school in the morning and then the (mostly) men picked them up in the afternoon. Later in the evening the programmers would go back online and get some more work done. Just imagine such a routine in North America with everyone leaving the office at 15:00 h.

Travel helps you understand culture. Just as walking around in your workplace does. The best leaders I have met are curious and talk to people in order to better understand them and the current state of affairs. Tom Peters summarized this on Twitter last week:

“Essence of ‘strategy’:
Read eclectically. Form formal study group.
Hang out with interesting people (restaurateurs, car dealers).
If boss, avoid hiring same-same.
Promote no one who’s not demonstrated people-development fanatic.
Radical MBWA. [management by walking around]
Practice aggressive listening.

Understanding culture is something that AI cannot do. I listened to John Seely Brown several years ago where he explained there is only one way to understand a complex adaptive system (namely one with people in it): you have to marinate in it. The ability to marinate in a culture and understand the subtle nuances is the competitive advantage humans have over the algorithms and machines. Let’s not forget that. One of the benefits of culture that I enjoyed this week was sharing a glass of 1945 Armagnac with my friend, Christian Renard. Machines cannot do that. Culture is complex.

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