Apple Computer – Culture Assessment as Part of a Long-Range Planning Process

Apple Computer decided in 1991 to conduct a cultural analysis as part of a long-range planning exercise focused on human resource issues. How big would the company be in five years, what kind of people would it need, and where should it locate itself geographically under different size scenarios? A ten-person working group, consisting of several line managers and several members of the human resource function, was assigned the task of figuring out how Apple’s culture would influence growth and what impact it might have on the kinds of people who would be attracted to it in the future. The vice president for human resources knew of my work on culture and asked me to be a consultant to this working group. He functioned as its chairman.

The original plan was to sort out various planning tasks and delegate these to other committees for more detailed work because the presentation to the company meeting was six months off. One of these other groups was charged with analyzing the impact of Apple’s culture on future growth. My role was to help organize the study, teach the group how best to study cul­ture, and consult with the culture subcommittee down the line.

The first meeting of the group was scheduled for a full day and invol­ved the planning of several different kinds of activities, of which the culture study was just one. When it came to deciding how to study the Apple culture, I had twenty minutes in which to describe the model of artifacts, espoused values, and basic underlying assumptions. I also described in general terms how I had used the model with other organiza­tions to help them decipher their culture. The group was intrigued enough to accept my next suggestion, which was to try the ten-step process in this group. The group agreed, so after the twenty-minute lecture, we launched directly into uncovering artifacts and values. It was easy for the group to mix the analysis of assumptions, values, and artifacts, so we ended up rather quickly with a provisional set of tacit assumptions backed by various kinds of data that the group generated. These were written down in draft form on flip charts, which I organized into a more ordered set of what we ended up calling Apple’s “governing assumptions”:

  1. We are not in the business for the business alone but for some higher purpose—to change society and the world, create something lasting, solve important problems, have fun.

One of Apple’s major products was designed to help children learn. Another major product was designed to make computing easier and more fun. Apple engaged in many rituals designed to be fun, for example, after­hours parties, playfulness at work, and magic shows at executive-training events. The group felt that only what is fun and what is unique gets the big rewards.

It was alleged that many people at Apple would object if the company went after the broad business market and if it sold products to selected groups who would misuse the product (for example, the Department of Defense).

  1. Task accomplishment is more important than the process used or the relationships formed.

The group listed several versions of this assumption:

    • When you fail at Apple, you are alone and abandoned; you become a “boat person.”
    • Seniority, loyalty, and past experience don’t count relative to present task achievements.
    • When you trip, no one picks you up.
    • Out of sight, out of mind; you are only as good as your latest hit; relationships formed at work do not last.
    • People are so intent on their mission that they don’t have time for you or to form relationships.
    • Bonding occurs only around tasks and is temporary.
    • Groups are security blankets.
    • Apple is a club or a community, not a family.
  1. The individual has the right and obligation to be a total person.

This showed up as the following assumptions:

    • Individuals are powerful, can be self-sufficient, and can create their own destiny.
    • A group of individuals motivated by a shared dream can do great things.
    • People have an inherent desire to be their best and will go for it.
    • Apple neither expects company loyalty from individuals nor expects to guarantee employment security to individuals.
    • Individuals have the right to be fully themselves at work, to express their own personality and uniqueness, to be different.
    • There is no dress code and no restriction on how personal space is decorated.
    • Children or pets can be brought to work.
    • Individuals have the right to have fun, to play, to be whimsical.
    • Individuals have the right to be materialistic, to make lots of money, and to drive fancy cars no matter what their formal status.
  1. Only the present counts.

This assumption was discussed earlier, but it had some other ramifications, expressed as norms and artifacts:

    • Apple has no sense of history or concern for the future.
    • Seize the moment; the early bird gets the worm.
    • Apple is not a lifetime employer.
    • Longer-range plans and tasks get discussed but not done.
    • People do not build long-range, cross-functional relationships.
    • Nomadic existence inside Apple is normal; people don’t have offices, only “campsites” and “tents.”
    • The physical environment is constantly rearranged.
    • It is easier to fix things than to plan for perfection; flexibility is our greatest skill.
    • People are forgotten quickly if they leave a project or the company.
    • “We learn by doing.”

These governing assumptions and the supporting data were passed on to the subcommittee dealing with the Apple culture, where they were tested and refined with further interviews. Interestingly enough, after several more months of work, no substantial changes had been made to the list, suggesting that a group can get at the essentials of its culture very rapidly.

Lessons Learned

This case illustrates the following important points:

  • If a motivated insider group is provided with a process for deciphering its culture, members can rather quickly come up with some of their most central governing assumptions. I revisited Apple several years after this event and was shown a recent report on the company’s culture.

The same set of assumptions was written down in this report as still being the essence of the culture, though the various assumptions were stated in somewhat different order and with some additional comments about areas that needed to change. I have no current data on the Apple culture, but their range of products and the way their stores are run suggests that the earlier description is still valid, especially with one of its founders returning as CEO.

  • Stating these governing assumptions allowed the company managers to assess where their strategy might run into cultural constraints. In particular, they realized that if they were to grow rapidly and enter the broad business market, they would have to deal with members of their organization who grew up under the assumption that business should involve more than just making money. They also realized that they lived too much in the present and would have to develop longer-range planning and implementation skills.
  • Apple reaffirmed its assumptions about task primacy and individual responsibility by starting to articulate explicitly a philosophy of no mutual obligation between the company and its employees. When lay­offs became necessary, the company simply announced them without apology and carried them out. Apple was one of the first companies to articulate that employment security would gradually have to give way to employability security, by which they meant that an individual would learn enough during some years at Apple to be attractive to another employer if laid off. There should be no loyalty in either direction, in that employees should feel free to leave if a better opportunity came along. Where, then, would commitment and loyalty reside? In the project.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

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