Culture Past and Future

In his 2015 Wall Street Journal article, “Data is our New Middle Manager,” Christopher Mims chronicles the emerging management practices of lean startups. The article suggests that, in an era of radical transparency where ALL employees have access to ALL the relevant data that impacts a company (small or large), there is less and less need for managers to translate information to the ‘little people.’ Peter Drucker’s much-loved professional manager, it would seem, is no match for data. But I am not here to write the obituary for middle managers, that has been (prematurely) done already.


Rather, as I am exploring in a new book, After Corporate Culture: Managing Culture in the Sharing Economy (out in Spring 2018 hopefully), what Mims is really getting at is a fundamental culture clash across the generations. Millennials and others who share in the psychographic of the sharing economy, engage with the world of business according to a different core set of cultural values than their Baby Boomer predecessors. Traditional, Baby Boomer (and Gray Gen) managers, who make up the Boomerang generation and still comprise the vast majority of corporate managers, operate within the basic assumption that the past, predictability, hierarchy and social order are the goals of business strategy and growth. Particularly in our current shareholder driven business environment, what matters is that the net result of business activity, as Clayton Christensen and Derek van Bever argue in their HBR article, “The Capitalist’s Dilemma,” is that capital begets capital and that dividend yields and share buy backs move ever-upward. Indeed, between 2010 and 2015 “spending on buybacks and dividends exceeded not just investments in research and development but also total capital spending.” That is, if executed properly, the system feeds itself and reproduces itself over time, and what suffers is future-oriented strategy and capital allocation. This is the boomerang culture and economy in a nutshell.


Meanwhile, in other parts of the economy, an entirely different and future-oriented set of cultural values has taken root and is disrupting numerous industries-transportation, labor, hospitality, workplace, etc. Unmoored from “tradition” and predictability, sharing economy business models are firing shots into an unknown future. This is more than just efficient platform technologies (Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, UpWork, etc), it is a cultural form premised on experimentation, innovation, and the belief that business can be an instrument of social good as much as it can be a generator of wealth. As I outline in the book, slingshot cultural forces, which have their roots in the communitarian and egalitarian cultural movements of the late 1960’s, are gradually finding their place alongside the supposedly coherent and meaningful ‘corporate cultures’ which boomerangers have written about over the past forty years. A brief glance here…

Boomerang /Slingshot

  • Companies /Networks
  • Individuals/ Communities
  • Proprietary /Open-Source
  • Scarcity /Abundance
  • Predictability/ Emergence
  • Hierarchy /Autonomy
  • Control/ Transparency
  • Corner Office/ Coworking
  • Tenure/ Results

Beyond Binary

Of course this list is a simplification, but it is a helpful heuristic nonetheless. The point, at this stage in the process, is to insist that culture is a driver of what happens in our economy in ways that often goes unnoticed. It doesn’t help that for economists cultureis merely an annoying ‘externality’ that is difficult to stuff into their models. Behavioral economics helps, though. Hopefully cultural economics is next.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.