Editor's Page

Dec. 21, 2004
Jungle protocol vs. corporate culture.

We all know that the more things change, the more they stay the same. What we often don't realize is how little and how slowly they change. Consider a couple of anecdotes from Throwim way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums and Penis Gourds (1998, Atlantic Monthly Press) by Australian scientist Tim Flannery. The book recounts Flannery's numerous expeditions into the (very) wild back country of Papua New Guinea in search of rare mammals. It also chronicles his adventures among clans whose cultural development is separated by several thousand years from that of the average corporate tribe. Yet for all the difference in garb (e.g., Armani suits vs. feathers through the nose), the behaviors and types remain remarkably similar. For example, upon arriving via Cessna in the mountain settlement of Lumi, Flannery is greeted by Lumi Man:

    Lumi Man looks official. He wears a clean white shirt and blue shorts. Sometimes he carries a clipboard and pen. Lumi Man greets each stranger as they step from their aircraft with a long, detailed harangue. This harangue can be disconcerting, for Lumi Man delivers it in a language that no one else can understand. On subsequent visits to Lumi I have seen Europeans stand puzzled and embarrassed for long minutes as they strain to understand Lumi Man and his function. Meanwhile, everyone else in Lumi enjoys the joke enormously. The best response, apparently, is to shake Lumi Man's hand rather formally, an honor which he delightedly returns with a crisp salute.
Sound like any of the vice presidents at your company? More serious was Flannery's discovery of the importance of business entertainment. His arrival in the remote village of 3Fas was even more disturbing than the one in Lumi, with a rude welcome followed by a lengthy bonfire debate during which Flannery overheard villagers making arguments for and against his own murder. He sneaked out of 3Fas before dawn, and headed two hours upstream to another village. But instead of staying, he bought a pig and returned to 3Fas -- where he gave a speech in Pidgin:
    I began by saying that I felt that the people of 3Fas were bel i hat (angry) and had a grievance with me. I had no idea what the basis of the grievance was, but I had brought this pig as a "talking pig," so that we could sit down and eat it, then discuss the nature of their problem.
The village accepted his gift and then told him of their poor treatment by previous "wildlifes," i.e. researchers. In fact, the clan had resolved to kill the very next "wildlife" who appeared, i.e. Flannery. Yet the talking pig -- and Flannery's ability to turn his hosts' complaints into a written contract for how 3Fas would work with him and any subsequent scientists -- turned a potential killing into two weeks of productive research. If only your vice presidents could be so civilized. John R. Brandt is Editor-In-Chief and Publisher of IndustryWeek.

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