Published on June 18th, 2015 | by drkkr


The New Culture of Culture

Culture is now no longer the moniker for a easily comprehended world. It would be stating the obvious to say that it means many more things than it used to; the challenge is that it requires us to embrace ever shifting meanings at every turn. Not too long ago we had a clear sense of culture: it was the world of traditions, sensibilities and practices that populated our home, family and community. We expressed it in society and practiced it all without a break at work and among our colleagues. All across the spectrum, we made friends from different communities and enjoyed their cultures too.

While all that remains, what has changed is that the boundaries along with the agreed divides began and stopped, (many a time the borders more emotional than anything) seem to have changed. While we are keenly aware of the change and we are no longer sure what to make of the changes, or the changing.

One easy example is the matter of marriage in India. India has a long history of a very unique marriage device: the classified matrimonial advertising. You would have to be an outsider to appreciate the bemusement of someone observing a nation whose culture has extreme notions of propriety and so unabashedly advertising the availability of their children. That ‘service’ has now been blithely segued into cyberspace by Indian websites. Indeed, parents who as a demographic would not bother to have even an email address, now have one only to facilitate the advertising of their daughters and sons on the many matrimonial websites available today.

But this is a broad and glancing example. My immediate world, and the world that most concerns me, is education. Indeed this is one world that sees many cultural upheavals first simply because we all make passage to life’s next level under the roof of an educational institution. In the Indian education universe, parents teach children that a teacher possesses spiritual significance and entrust every teacher to be in possession of the knowledge and art of decoding the new meanings of new life chapters to their children. Well-aware of this, teacher’s looks to their leaders for guidance and direction, and the demand on the director of an institution can become very complex indeed.

Personally, speaking, I am very keenly aware that the challenge, before me, as an educator, is two implicit charges from the parents of my students: that I will shepherd my charges unerringly to and across these emerging and shifting boundaries. The timeless verities once repeated to students are now just time-worn platitudes. They certainly do not suffice. I recognize that my responsibility has now morphed into alerting my students that they are embarking on a journey whose efficacy demands that they travel through multiple cultures and subcultures.

Managers know that 90% of management is really people management. I would add that 90% of education is now culture management!

So how many cultures must we account for, anyway? There is a ‘native’ culture, the culture at their home and their community. This culture is unquestioned by the guardians of that culture: parents, priests and familial peers. The student entering college has to deal with the college culture, which has long been considered a highly combustible mix where hormone meets anarchy. The ‘college culture’ has long been considered as permissive and pernicious as it is promising and potent.

Now there is there is the digital culture, the culture that gives birth to the ‘virtual self’ and promises expression, interaction and connections but also contains the danger of wantonness, anarchy and bohemia. Running through this confounding soup is the ever more clearly defined culture of being ‘informed’ and ‘clued in’ and prepared’. Then again, there is the ‘professional; culture, which they have to deal with once they graduate, they will have to absorb, adapt to, and survive the culture of the company they work for. These worlds fuse and separate at different points for different reasons, and the currents of potential they carry can be overwhelming.

It’s not a chessboard, its one chess game played on multiple boards, with teammates and competitors. The emotional and behavioural permutations and combinations are infinite!

To illustrate, many of my students come from traditional South Indian backgrounds. So they have a clear set of traditions and verities that they hew to. But every single day, as they set out for another day at college, they wade into another stream: their peers, who all practice a universal ‘young’ and ‘adventurous’ and ‘experimentative’ culture
that has bedevilled their elders for centuries. Now these peers all inhabit digital spaces (Facebook, for one) where, to complicate things, they turn into digital natives, assume ‘virtual selves’ and indulge in a virtual culture that is making moot of global culture because it is essentially non-cognizant of even national boundaries.

Just to consider Facebook, as it relentlessly collects members, (750 million and counting), many students find their parents on Facebook, (many even help their parents get on Facebook!) and which hesitant student can run the risk of blocking his elders? What about their professors? What about class and semester assignments concerning social media that must be fulfilled on social media? As if this is not confounding enough, they know well they are headed to a day when they will go to work and in the working space, their digital life is examined as a due-diligence when being hired, and posts and pictures that earn them a ‘Like’ on Facebook can cost them their opportunity to get a job, or get fired from a job!

As if this personal cultural universe is not confounding enough, students learn of the cultural theatre of the marketplace. We all know the very long list of great cultural gaffes that major corporations have committed over the years: Wal-Mart’s misbegotten attempt at replicating the Wal-Mart experience in China, Chevrolet’s debacle with the fabulous NOVA car in Brazil, (Nova means doesn’t go in Brazilian). All these mistakes cost dozens of companies hundreds of millions of dollars. These are companies that we presume had access to the best intelligences and did their due diligence and cased out the new market’s culture before they sallied into it. What must a student conclude from all this? Surely the day when all these instances were the stuff of textbooks is long gone. Our students must ready themselves because this is the fibre of the professional universe they must inhabit from day one. It all makes for a provocative mix, does it not?

Like every other educator in India, I have my task cut out for me, and every single educator reading this knows exactly the excitement and the trepidation I feel. I must remind, indeed assure, a student of the solidity and the safety of the culture of the traditions, yet I must ask them to step fearlessly and confidently into the iconoclastic digital culture. There are young students in colleges whose parents view face book with dismay, sometimes express open disapproval, and haven’t seen the logical sidestep with their parent’s plans to post their photograph on

The answer could well be to bring the entire tapestry of all the cultures to the student so that the student does not have to hunt them down and can peruse and enjoy them in the providing, easy place of the classroom. This can be achieved by practicing an extremely rigorous co-curriculum that is embodied in 3 distinct simultaneous programs, all designed carefully to create a cultural context in which our students can understand the many complex issues of the day.

The first program must invite highly successful people to talk of beginnings: the genesis of their own, personal and professional lives, and the lessons they learnt as the students can apply them. The second, a face-to-face format program must invite cultural, commercial and artistic luminaries to close-up encounters with the students. The third should be reserved for the corporate strain, and must invites leaders of business to interact with the students so they can see first-hand the mien and the minds of the business leaders of the country. All of the visitors are individuals whose credentials are incontestable, and are rehearsed day in and day out with their profiling in the media, the awards they earn and the kudos heaped on them by their peers. All these can be covered and featured in the digital space, with students being briefed and updated digitally.

It is now evident that the primary benefit of these three large programs is a cultural one. Students will have different dimensions of each space (Personal academic and professional) have demystified. They will no longer be afraid of anything; they will clearly see that their personal cultural strengths can overcome things. They will no longer feel a techno- or cyber-trepidation; they will understand that professional worlds are equally responsible for adapting to the needs of the employees. They will no longer be in stunned awe of talent, they will see for themselves that the struggle to discover, nourish and hone a talent is a universal phenomenon and they are vastly encouraged.

The sheer excitement and charge of it all makes their time inside the campus worthwhile. Translate that in student speak: there is no more need to bunk a lecture! And the most interesting part? They learn that textbooks can be enormous fun, because most of their textbooks are now onscreen!

What is all this if not a cultural dynamic? It involves all the cultures: a personal culture, a native culture, a educational culture, a professional culture. And here lies the challenge solved …. All cultures together employed to demonstrate that they need not be ‘navigated’ but can be lived profitably, in fusion. The angst that is supposed to bedevil the modern citizen can be vaporized with imagination and ease. The great digital movement can be inhabited
with joy.

Unfortunately, there is no theatre where we can introduce the common citizen to a polyculture-fusing dynamic. There should be. It can be done. It is being done, on every inspired campus. A comfort with living a multicultural life is a basic requirement of the 21st Century. Yes, marketing to a culture and by a culture is important, but living across cultures is even more critical. And when an educator learns how it can be done, they have a moral responsibility to teach it.

Dr K K Ramachandran,

Director, GRD Institute of Management.

Author, From Campus to Corporate.

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