When culture is discussed within business continuity standards and guidance documents it usually refers to the internal corporate culture. However, in this paper Wallace W. Koenning, Jr. looks at external culture and influencers of this; and discusses ways to consider it within business continuity programs.
Globalization has substantially changed how and where businesses operate and interact; both within the business itself, and externally with suppliers, business partners and regulatory organizations. Inevitably, these international interactions and business dealings expose corporations to the challenge of understanding, integrating with, and working within different cultural frameworks and value systems. Corporate diversity and inclusion programs are working to bridge some of the culture-related organizational gaps, however, most functional disciplines are still lagging in this area. The business continuity planning discipline has a long history, documented within its industry standards and guideline documentation, of how to embed its practices and deliverables within the culture of the organizations to which they serve; however, in order to catch up to the changes brought on by globalization, the industry needs to build upon these strong foundations and flip the paradigm to embed culture within business continuity programs.
Whether you are new to business continuity, or have been practicing the discipline for decades, you have likely been indoctrinated with the importance of embedding business continuity into an organization’s culture. Andy Mason, in the abstract to his 2009 Business Continuity Journal article entitled Embedding BCM in the Organization’s Culture, talks about some of the early discussions on the subject as it made its way through BCI’s Good Practice Guidelines, into PAS 56, featured in the original BCM Lifecycle diagram, and then into BS25999 (1). This practice is now part of the ethos of most business continuity practitioners. However, the rise of globalization, and widespread adoption of corporate diversity and inclusion programs, has introduced new cultural challenges and opportunities into our industry. Is it possible that the time has come where there is a need to flip the paradigm and progress our business continuity practices to ensure that culture is embedded in our business continuity programs?
For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that the cultural elements being referred to here are primarily external cultural influencers that are reflected within a corporation, not the internal corporate culture itself. A primary premise being that ‘traditionally’ these external cultural elements were considered to be reflected within corporate culture, and relatively easy to understand and manage due to the homogeneous nature of the organizations and business. However, globalization has drastically changed how and where businesses operate. While corporate diversity and inclusion programs have advanced cultural understanding and business practices within the HR discipline at the local level, the application of the practices at the international and supplier levels, and in other disciplines such as business continuity planning, is rarely discussed and reflected in industry practices or standards.The majority of cultural references within current business continuity standards and guidance documentation generally focus on internal corporate culture, and how as practitioners we can influence and embed our practices and requirements into that culture through training, awareness, or other methods. In terms of the handling of external cultural influences in business continuity planning, the most relevant references seem only to be found in guidance documentation such as ISO 22313. Section 4.1 of ISO 22313, Understanding of the Organization and its Context does put the subject at the front of the cycle in the context of the business impact analysis stating that “Evaluating the organization’s external context should include…
- the social and cultural, financial, technological, economic, natural and competitive environment, whether international, national, regional or local;
- Perceptions, values and culture; (2).”
Globalization and business continuity
The KOF Swiss Economic Institute maintains globalization statistics, from 1970 to the present, in the KOF Globalization Index (3) based on Axel Dreher’s original 2006 research published in Applied Economics (4). According to the index, the pace of globalization increased steadily between 1970 and 1990, then almost doubled between 1990 and 2015. In a recent Review of International Organizations article, the KOF Globalization Index was slightly revised with new dimensions a definition of globalization that, when examined through the business continuity lens, lends perspective to the topic under discussion.
Globalization is defined as “…the process of creating networks of connections among actors at intra- or multi-continental distances, mediated through a variety of flows including people, information and ideas, capital, and goods… erodes national boundaries, integrates national economies, cultures, technologies and governance, and produces complex relations of mutual interdependence.” (5) Interestingly, the definition includes the majority of asset categories fundamental to business continuity planning including people, tools and technology and suppliers; and is process focused. The fact that they have included culture into the definition not only adds to the complexity of the interdependence they reference, but also potentially provides the keys that facilitate integration.
The case for culture
So, why should we care about culture? Cultural influences on disaster planning, response and recovery, especially within the aviation industry, has been extremely well researched and documented due to media attention and the existence of global regulations and regulatory bodies. Tragic events such as Korean Air Flight 801, Avianca Flight 52 and Tenerife all highlighted in their findings how culture contributed to the incidents.
In 2014, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent dedicated its entire World Disasters Report to culture. The report, subtitled Focus on Culture and Risk, provides enlightening insights into the link between culture and disasters, how people from around the world view and approach crisis and crisis response, and practical lessons learned for responders.
From the business perspective, a 2016 Deloitte study revealed that 82 percent of business executives believed culture could provide a potential competitive advantage, 87 percent responded that it was important, 54 percent said very important; however, less than 12 percent believed that they truly understood that culture (6). Further, Mark Fields, the former Ford CEO, who is known to have the slogan Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast hanging up on the walls in his time at Ford said: “You can have the best plan in the world, and if the culture isn’t going to let it happen, it’s going to die on the vine” (7). Admittedly, in context, Mr. Fields was referring to a business plan and not a business continuity plan, but evidence supports that a case can be made that the same forces apply on both fronts.
Cultural dimensions and impacts on business continuity planning
Facilitating discussions pertaining to cultural differences within the workplace has always been a sensitive subject, and conversations regarding some of the more sensitive aspects of culture including race or religion are still taboo in some organizations and parts of the world. Aligning one’s business continuity program with an existing diversity and inclusion program, is always a best practice, however, in some cases this is not an option. One option practitioners have in these cases is to familiarize themselves with, and begin referencing, existing cultural frameworks and research instead of specific cultural elements in order to avoid controversies and navigate the veritable minefield of risks of stereotyping, identity politics, or political correctness. A brief review of a few of these cultural frameworks and the ‘dimensions’ defined with them will hopefully provide the context as to how culture impacts business continuity, and how our profession might better understand and analyze it, in order to embed it in our practices and own organization’s cultures.
Two of the most widely used frameworks for categorizing national cultures and interactions were published by Dutch social psychologist and management scholar Geert Hofstede, and Dutch Management Consultant Fons Trompenaars (et al) in 1980 and 1998 respectively. Hofstede’s original four cultural dimensions included power distance, individualism / collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity/femininity (8). Fons Trompenaars included seven cultural dimensions in his original publication including Universalism vs Particularism, Individualism vs Collectivism, Neutral vs Emotional, Specific vs Diffuse, Achievement vs Ascription, Sequential vs Synchronic Time, and Internal versus External Control/Direction.
Power distance, the dimension most commonly referenced in literature and disaster reports, is defined as how a culture deals with, respects, and adheres to power and hierarchy either based on age, rank, social status, or other differentiators. High power distance cultures tend to rigidly respect chains of command and superiors, while low power cultures are more collaborative and have more empowerment to question decisions.
A review of the black boxes from Korean Airlines crashes from 1970 to 2000 concluded that power distance, namely the co-pilot’s unwillingness to question the Captain’s decisions, even when they knew and discussed with others that the decisions were wrong, was a common theme and major contributing factor to several of the disasters. Additionally, incident responders in high power distance cultures are more likely to delay, or not act at all, unless specifically directed by the person they believe is the authority.
The individualism / collectivism dimension is defined as how members of the society relate to groups and social structures. Individualist cultures tend towards independence, personal achievement, and a loose social fabric. Collectivist are characterized by ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’. This cultural dimension is highly correlated to power distance as the collectivist’s in-groups are traditionally hierarchical based on familial, organizational or tribal ties. A highly reported example of how the improper handling of these cross-cultural dimensions distracted disaster response, and caused a public relations crisis, was Elon Musk’s handling of comments about the 2018 rescue efforts of the Soccer team trapped in the cave in Thailand.
Fons Trompenaars defines the cultural perception and structure of time within the lives and activities of a society as either sequential or synchronic. Sequential cultures view time as linear and tend to schedule activities sequentially, one after another. Synchronic cultures tend to multi-task, treating time as flexible and circular (9). In regards to past, present, and future, sequential cultures tend to take a short-term, “what have you done for me lately?” view whereby synchronic cultures view relationships as “a durable bond that goes back and forward in time, and it is often viewed as grossly disloyal not to favor friends and relatives in business dealings.” (10).
How different cultures communicate has also been the subject of a lot of important research. Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. discusses the possible conflicts of not understanding the differences between sequential or synchronic cultures in her Forbes article entitled How Culture Controls Communication. “Think of the misunderstandings that can occur when one culture views arriving late for a meeting as bad planning or a sign of disrespect, while another culture views an insistence on timeliness as childish impatience.” (10).
One of the original pioneers in this field, anthropologist Edward T. Hall, defined and identified the dimension of high and low-context communications cultures in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. (11) Low-context cultures express themselves, and interpret others written or spoken words specifically and explicitly.
In high-context cultures, communication can be implied, must be taken in the context and sensitivity of the situation, and interpretive of the communicator’s non-verbal cues, body language or tone of voice (10). Unfortunately, non-verbal context can easily get lost through digital media, or in cases where the receiver is not trained or proficient in the local culture to interpret the clues; which can prove catastrophic in crisis communications scenarios.
Recommendations for embedding culture into the BCM lifecycle
The journey of cultural awareness and embedding can be lengthy and arduous. The benefits however, when the activity is conducted with mutual respect and understanding, can literally open up new worlds in front of you. Below are a few recommendations of practical steps one can take that build upon our strong BCM lifecycle foundations in order to start embedding culture into our business continuity planning.
BCM program management
- Start by engaging with human resources. HR is typically the organization tasked with cultural diversity and inclusion programs and initiatives. Additionally, according to Deloitte, “… a new industry of culture assessment tools has emerged, enabling companies to diagnose their culture using a variety of well-established models. (6)
- Add culture as a regular business continuity steering committee agenda item for discussion and ensure the representation of as many cultures and value systems relevant to business operations as possible.
- Understand geographically from where critical processes, and associated organizational, or supporting asset dependencies are hosted and/or delivered.
- Utilize online research and resources to obtain data on the cultural dimensions for each of the countries in which your company operates. Analyze the delta between dimension for any critical dependencies to identify opportunities and risks.
- Review / adjust communications strategies to ensure their alignment to the cultures, values and norms of the receivers of the messaging.
- Adjust response and recovery team structures, roles, and responsibilities to align with local customs and power distance norms.
- Align strategies and plans with international / inter-cultural dependencies to ensure their inter-operability
- Ensure delegations of authority are clearly documented in plans, and included in drills and embedding activities
- Add realistic cultural injects or scenarios into drills where appropriate.
- Discuss cultural dimensions in drill or incident post-mortem / lessons learned meetings and reports.
- Institute inter-cultural competence training for response and recovery team members.
Intercultural competence includes an awareness of one’s own cultural background, an interest in the cultural background of others, the sensitivity to realize cultural similarities and differences, and the ability to tolerate these cultural differences; thus, leading to a more successful and satisfying interaction between people of different cultures.
Wallace W. Koenning, Jr., Business Continuity Analyst, Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia. Contact Wallace via LinkedIn
(1) Andy Mason, Embedding BCM in the Organization’s Culture, 2009
(2) International Standard ISO 22313 Guidance Document:2012
(3) Guiso, Sapienza, & Zingales, Cultural Biases in Economic Exchange?, Quarterly Journal of Economics 124, no. 3 (August 2009): 1095-1131.
(4) Axel Dreher, Does Globalization Affect Growth? Evidence from a new Index of Globalization, Applied Economics 38, 10: 1091-1110.
(5) Gygli, Savina, Florian Haelg, Niklas Potrafke & Jan-Egbert Sturm (2019): The KOF Globalisation Index – Revisited, Review of International Organizations
(6) Kaplan, Dollar, Melian, Van Durme, & Wong, Shape Culture, Drive Strategy, 2016,
(7) Gregory J. Kivenzor, Why Cross-Cultural Issues in Management and Marketing Are That Important and Worth Our Undivided Attention? 2018, Journal of Management and Training for Industries Vol.5, No.3 DOI: 10.12792/JMTI.5.3.1,
(8) Geert Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values, 1980, p. 25, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
(9) Fons Trompenaars et al., 1998. Riding the waves of culture: Understanding diversity in global business. McGraw Hill.
(10) Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., How Culture Controls Communication, 2011, Forbes,
(11) Hall, Edward, T., Beyond Culture. Anchor Books (December 7, 1976). ISBN 978-0385124744