Keeping up with the times

Thursday, 01 March 2012

Michael Moore  photo
Michael Moore

    Michael Moore warns directors to look out for cultural lag in the boardroom.

    There is such a thing as a cultural lag in the boardroom. The slow take up of software, innovations, social networking and cloud computing challenges long after they have been in use are good examples.

    The term cultural lag refers to the concept that there is a lag between the introduction of some innovation or new concept and the time it is taken on board, so to speak. It does not necessarily apply just to technical innovation. It can also apply to social changes as well as strategic and management changes.

    The term was coined back in 1922 by noted sociologist William F Ogburn in his work Social change with respect to culture and original nature. His theory on cultural lag inferred there is a period of maladjustment while the present culture is struggling to adapt to the new.

    Usually one can first see resistance to the new culture: "We have always done things this way, no need to change." After a while, the resistance falls away or, perhaps, in spite of the resistance the old culture eventually changes and "catches up" with the new culture.

    According to Ogburn, cultural lag is a common social phenomenon due to the tendency of material culture (which comprises concrete and tangible man-made objects) to evolve and change rapidly and voluminously while non-material culture (which includes the intangible and abstract such as customs, tradition, habits, and manners) tends to resist change and remain fixed for a far longer time.

    Due to the opposing nature of these aspects of culture, adaptation of new technology can become difficult.

    One example of cultural lag is Dr Ignaz Semmelweis’s discovery of the cause and cure of childbed fever. For well over half a century after the discovery, women were still dying in agony after child-bearing. Eventually the culture caught up to it and an illness responsible for thousands of deaths was prevented. Dr. Semmelweis’s discovery was "ahead of its time" and suffered a cultural lag.

    Other examples include motor cars, aeroplanes, many medical advances and stem-cell research. The latter was widely resisted on moral and ethical grounds for many years, but is now widely used.

    So cultural lag is not just a technological matter; it can relate to social, physiological and even psychological areas.

    This can be apparent in the boardroom as directors, who have been serving on a board for many years, struggle to adapt to new, innovative ways of "doing things".

    How many boards are familiar with and can see the future potential of social networks for their company?

    A good example here is websites. The World Wide Web was initiated by Tim Berners-Lee in 1991 and from that point websites were able to be constructed and linked together. This opened the door to a presence on the internet. The first website was (still going, by the way) and others followed suit. But it was a long haul before many of the larger companies took up the option of a website. Even now, 20 years later, you can still find companies that have a cultural lag and do not have a website.

    Boards need to be very aware that new innovations and improvisations are regularly available and should consider how these can be included in strategic planning.

    This particularly pertains to such issues as green technology and the environment, the addition of women in the boardroom and health and safety issues – factors that have often been seen as constraints rather than ways to maximise shareholder value.

    These are cultural lags as eventually even these boards will be obliged to take up the slack and incorporate such issues in their strategies.

    Cultural lag is something that can be addressed. It does not have to be an emotive or socially resistive issue. In many ways, reducing cultural lag, from a boardroom perspective, could place a company in the forefront of competitors and that can only be beneficial for all stakeholders.

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