Culture Eats Communications for Iftar

Sean Trainor

Peter Drucker coined the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. The reality is that culture and strategy are two sides of the same coin and any organisation or society that disconnects them, does so at its own risk. The point is that no strategy can be executed effectively without understanding the culture.

Communications is the key to maintaining the connection between strategy and culture - it is the golden thread that weaves them together. Communications can help shape culture and culture should also shape the way we communicate - it is a two-way street. Working in Saudi Arabia has reinforced my view that culture always has the right of way.

Saudi Arabia is a fascinating place to live and work, it has a culture that is deeply conservative, traditional, and family oriented but you cannot define or discuss Saudi culture without referencing religion.

The annual calendar and the working week is determined by Islam, business stops for approx 40 mins, 3 to 4 times a day during normal working hours to observe prayer. For decades there has been a ban on cinemas, concerts, mixed restaurants and women driving and religious authorities police citizens’ observance.

The Kingdom has recently introduced radical reform, experiencing its equivalent of an Arab Spring. Unlike other Arab Springs, which were bottom up, this one is led top down by the Kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). He has been the driving force behind the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.

His strategy will require a fundamental shift in communications to be effective. It demands unprecedented levels of transparency and dialogue in a society that has historical issues with corruption and ethics. This is counter to a culture within an autocratic society that has become accustomed to propaganda.

Although the proposed reforms have been welcomed by many, there is resistance from those in more powerful positions who fear losing control. MBS has to tread a careful line to get everyone on board with the changes.

I was privileged to contribute to part of Vision 2030 and before moving to Saudi, I done my homework by speaking to people who worked there and looking up many resources online. Two pieces of global research I discovered were Hofstede’s cultural dimensions and Myers Briggs Type Indicators both highlight interesting comparisons between cultural preferences of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Kingdom (UK).

Hofstede’s analysis is shown on Figure 1. It identifies a culture that has relatively high levels of power distance (PDI) and uncertainty avoidance (UAI), coupled with relatively low levels of individualism (IDV).

  • High PDI indicates a culture that accepts and expects that power is distributed unequally and a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. This is typical of an undemocratic society.

  • High UAI indicates a culture that feels uncomfortable with uncertainty and maintains rigid codes of belief and behaviour; intolerant of unorthodox ideas. As the future is uncertain, they adopt a fatalistic approach rather than trying to control it. Inshallah (God willing) is a widely-used expression in the Middle East, normally succeeding every verbal agreement.

  • Low IDV or collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit social framework in which individuals can expect members of a particular ingroup to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. This reflects the tribal nature of the society.

Figure 1 - Hofstede insights comparison between KSA and UK

Global Myers Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI) studies show comparisons between the dominant Traits, Strategies, Types and Roles of different countries.

Figure 2 shows that, relative to UK, KSA has a higher percentage of individuals with extravert and observant Traits.

  • Extraverted individuals prefer group activities and get energized by social interaction. They tend to be more enthusiastic and more easily excited than introverts.

  • Observant individuals are highly practical, pragmatic and down-to-earth. They tend to have strong habits and focus on what is happening or has already happened.

The corresponding Strategies show a population with higher levels of social engagement and lower levels of constant improvement.