Company Culture Can Be A Powerful and Valuable Intangible Asset, If…

Michael D. Moberly   July 3, 2012

Throughout the past decade, especially following the 2001 publication by the Brookings Institution of two seminal books; (1.) Intangibles: Management, Measurement, and Reporting authored by Baruch Lev, and (2.) Unseen Wealth authored by Margaret Blair and Steven Wallman, there has been a relatively steady stream of well intended and thought provoking articles, studies, position papers, and books written about the role and potential value of the intangible asset ‘company culture’.

Still for some, and one must respectfully include management teams, c-suites, and boards when I say this, ‘company culture’ appears to remain elusive, nebulous, perhaps even mystical insofar as its relevance, and not just its (singular) dollar value, if any, but, its ‘contributory value’ to a company, its stakeholders, and market position.

It’s clear, that the unfortunate passing of Steve Jobs has rejuvenated interest in examining and studying ‘company culture’ which numerous accounts have drawn attention to Jobs’ self-characterized maniacal interest, i.e., embedding and sustaining Apple’s culture.

With all due respect to Steve Jobs and the extraordinarily capabilities of Apple employees, and I do mean respect, having visited the Apple campus, I’m confident countless academics, technology management observers and analysts are devoting time to articulating a ‘before and after’ picture of Apple’s culture. 

In other words, I expect there will be much needed and well intentioned research devoted to offering various perspectives whether Apple’s culture has permanence?  If so, how much can be attributed to personal (Steve Jobs, Apple’s) goodwill, which according to some analysts, may have little or no actual commercial value?   

More specifically, we can anticipate numerous research initiatives, representing a broad spectrum of disciplines, will be examining Apple’s culture to determine if, among other things, it can be replicated, for good or bad, in other companies, and again, if so, what is an objective means to assess and measure its relevance and contributory value to a company?  But, let’s not forget, ‘company culture’ is an intangible asset!

In an article titled “Apple Without a Core,” (Report on Business, January 2012) author Timothy Taylor asked how valuable ‘taste’ is, as an asset, which readers know was a consistent refrain of  Steve Jobs, and also is an intangible (asset).  To support his perspective, Taylor identifies three attributes of Apple’s brand, i.e., (1.) Jobs’ own sense of taste, (2.) Jobs’ personal energy, and (3.) Jobs’ himself, as constituting a unifying symbol to and for the company.  Personally, having visited the Apple campus, I find myself in general agreement with the importance Taylor attaches to these attributes.

Without Jobs, Taylor suggests, Apple’s brand (and, presumably its culture) will be vulnerable to competitors that is, if one fully buys into the three attributes of brand noted above.  To further support his view, Taylor applies one of countless quotes from Jobs himself, i.e., “The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. People like symbols. So I’m the symbol for certain things.”

In America, we sure seem to be receptive, in certain circumstances, to what I refer to as a ‘john wayne’ persona.  That is, the oft repeated statement ‘there is no I in team’ is not consistently practiced. Instead, we appear quite willing to grant credit for a range of achievements, and in some instances rightfully so, to the deeds and efforts of a single individual.  I certainly grant you that one person through behaviour or expression, in particular circumstances, can indeed serve as an impetus, foundation, and rallying point, through persistence and sustained focus, for long-lived change, i.e., culture.  No argument here!  Still, it appears, we’re occasionally too quick to suggest there is ‘an I in team’.  

On the other hand, we need look no further than the top floor of Houston’s former Enron headquarters’ building or to the much ‘globalized wall street’ to see how the embodiment of a culture, albeit generally adverse, can actually and repeatedly, play out.  Now that’s where, in my view, much research is warranted in terms of assessing and measuring the impact of a culture that went far beyond the doors of Enron or investment banking firms.  I believe one would be hard pressed to attribute ‘those cultures’ necessarily to a single individual, whether they were imprisoned or never actually charged with a criminal act.

(This post was inspired by articles respectively titled ‘Defining the Value of Culture Within An Organization’ authored by Bill Bliss and ‘Apple Without A Core’, authored by Timothy Taylor.)


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