American culture* and the Harvard Business School discovery

When the Harvard Business School invited me to teach a few years ago, I had one question.


Why, I wondered, would a business school want to hire an anthropologist?

The answer was illuminating.

“We are good at solving business problems, but we notice that around 20% of the time we are wrong. Not just wrong but spectacularly mistaken.”
“Really?” I exclaimed.
“Really,” they assured me.
“We do a postmortem to figure out what we did wrong with our analysis. And often the answer is American culture. We don’t know how to think about culture. You do. Help us.”

I now think the figure might be higher than 20%.

American culture is the dark matter of contemporary business. People know it’s out there. But they don’t quite know what it is or how think about it.


Hence the Culture Camp I’m teaching in June. (More details here.)

I am running this camp because I believe understanding culture has become an imperative for every organization, for the C-suite, for anyone who cares about how people buy, vote, seek entertainment, engage with culture, and respond to communications, innovation, advertising, and PR.

And not a moment too soon.

I believe there is a new culture in place. The future is here. It is not, as William Gibson used to say, “badly distributed.” It’s right under our noses.

I believe that there are 5 structural properties that now define American culture.

But more on that later.

Let’s concentrate on what we might call the HBS discovery:

that culture matters and business is bad at it.

In the next 7 posts, I offer the following tiny case-studies:

Case Study 1: The story of OJ (Wednesday, May 2)

Case Study 2: Fixing the Coca-Cola world (Thursday, May 3)

Case Study 3: The crisis at P&G (Friday, May 4)

Case Study 4: Culture in Silicon Valley start up (Monday, May 7)

Case Study 5: Making memes out of culture (Tuesday, (May 8)

Case Study 6: The trouble with Cool Hunters and other trend watchers. (Wednesday, May 9)

Case Study 7: American culture and its 5 new structural properties (Thursday, May 10)

Come join us at Culture Camp June 7, New York City. The details are here.

Why do I call it “American culture?” To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture we have to understand and manage. Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.” 
And there is Culture Outside. And that’s American culture. We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the corporate.