Tribal Business

Bad luck, folks, I haven’t been run over by a bus, I just had a breakdown in communication with my ISP which made them think I wanted to cancel my account. All sorted now and no harm done.

This book review in People Management looks interesting. Tribal Business School, by management consultant Jo Owen, draws lessons from the survival skills of traditional communities and applies them to business. As the reviewer Rob Sheffield tells us:

Fewer than 20 of the original FTSE-100 companies still survive after 25 years, says the author. He has researched traditional communities that have been around a long time: if they’ve survived for so long, “perhaps they are doing something right”. Owen spent seven years trying to understand their various practices and thinking. This included the Aborigines in Australia, Saami in Finland and Likipia in Africa.

Almost immediately, my natural scepticism kicked in. You could argue that the English, the Swedes and certainly the Basques have “been around for a long time”. The Saami and Aborigines are distictive only in that ever diminishing numbers of them have tried to cling to their old ways in the face of a rapidly changing world. Should such communities really be used as models for today’s businesses?  Surely that can’t be the core message of this book.

Reading the synopsis on Amazon gives a slightly different perspective.

If you want to learn about survival and success, learn from people who have survived hundreds of years in the most hostile environments in the world. The indigenous people of the world cannot afford the modern corporate luxuries of complexity and confusion. For them, the penalty of failure is not to miss a bonus, the penalty is often death.

Once you strip away all of the corporate life support systems of HR, IT, Legal, Help Desks and manuals you discover the real rules of leading for survival and success, you discover the heart of management.

Well, yes, I can see that but the findings, as reported in the review, are hardly Earth shattering. I realised why I was sceptical when I read this quote:

Each tribe has a very strong mission – to survive. Modern organisations face the same challenge, but their employees don’t share the same mission.

And why the hell should they? Most people don’t stay with organisations for very long. Sure, they want them to survive for as long as they are there but after that, most couldn’t care less. Three of my previous employers, all well-known blue-chip companies, have either ceased to exist or have been taken over by others and are now completely different from when I worked for them. Do I care? Not really. They gave me great experience and paid me reasonably well but now, most of the people I knew there have left. The companies are just names on my CV.

That’s the problem with trying to draw parallels with companies and other forms of social organisation, such as families, tribes and nations. Companies are, by their nature, ephemeral. They change their names, their locations and their people at a much faster rate than tribes or nations. Individuals can also choose whether to belong and can be expelled relatively easily. Membership of tribe and nation is more permanent. My employer can sack me and remove me from the firm but I would still be British, even if Gordon Brown decided to send me into exile for saying rude things about his silly ideas.

The idea that companies should inspire the same feelings of belonging and, therefore, the same stake in their survival as tribes do is preposterous and even a little sinister. Your community, nationality and family are part of your identity. A company is, when all is said and done, just somewhere you go to work. Management theorists would do well to remember that.

Having said all that, I have not read Tribal Business School, so maybe I am being unfair. Perhaps I have misinterpreted its message from a selective reading of the reviews. All the same, I don’t feel any urge to go out and buy it.

If anyone has read the book, please drop me a line and let me know what you think.

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