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Agar-ing the Future

Corporate culture. Every company's got it, good or bad. Every company wants a strong one as they continue to search for proverbial excellence. But does "corporate culture" actually mean anything? According to sociologist John R. Weeks, author of the forthcoming book Unpopular Culture: The Ritual of Complaint in a British Bank, no.

Weeks' research found that journalists, investors, and analysts will praise a company's corporate culture as long as the company performs well and makes money. Studying the use of the term in the Wall Street Journal and the Economist between 1994 and 2001, Weeks found that companies rise and fall in favor as their stock price rises and falls.

Also drawing on his eight months working with the British commercial bank NatWest as a PhD student, Weeks concludes that the people who talk most about improving a company's culture usually end up merely grousing. "They should not talk about culture at all, or at least very rarely," he says.

Because it's the walk, not the talk that matters. If you're not changing attitudes, practices, or processes, talking about "corporate culture" is blowing so much smoke.