As companies become more global, it is important for management teams and boards to realize the effect that a company’s national culture can have on its performance. In their book, Fish Can’t See Water, Kai Hammerich and Richard D. Lewis argue that often management and boards are blind to their own culture, and may not realize the negative effects that culture can have on their company’s success. The book describes two different models of identifying how culture affects corporations, describes national cultures in seven different countries and how they affect corporations, and then walks through a series of case studies.
Hammerich and Lewis define culture as, “the social programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one category of people from another.” Fish Can’t See Water focuses on the effect of national cultures on corporations in different life cycles, including the innovation, geographical expansion, product-line expansion, efficiency and scale, and consolidation phases. In the innovation phase, corporations need to be agile, pragmatic, and short term oriented. In contrast, as a firm matures it needs to have longer term perspectives and disciplined decision making.
The book describes three different national culture types: linear-active cultures, multi-active cultures, and reactive cultures. Examples of linear-active cultures include the United States, Germany, and Canada. These cultures tend to be task-oriented, highly organized planners, who prefer direct discussion. Multi-active cultures include many southern European and Latin American countries. Multi-actives tend to be more emotional and impulsive people who attach great importance to feelings. A majority of the world’s population falls into this category. Reactive cultures include many of the Asian countries. Reactive tend to be very reserved and listen very carefully. For example, when negotiating reactive ask the other side to speak first. When doing business with a firm that is culturally different, it is crucial to understand and adopt to their attitudes and customs.
Finally, the book takes the reader through a series of different case studies that cover large corporations in different parts of the corporate lifestyle and how their cultures affected their performances. The companies in these case studies include Austin Motors, Apple, Dell, Microsoft, Nokia, Walmart, Samsung, Sony, Toyota, and many others. The book gives the reader an opportunity to put the knowledge given earlier into real context.
Fish Can’t See Water, is a must read for entrepreneurs, management teams, and boards that are competing on a global level. The book is able to open one’s eyes to some of the derailing effects that a company’s corporate and national culture may have on its performance. In order to have a successful corporate strategy, it is important to see the water around you and understand your company’s corporate culture.