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Island culture at the workplace

Emilie Jo Ipsen
Emilie Jo Ipsen

Many companies are characterized by corporate structures similar to islands. This is because they are organized by division (marketing, controlling etc), by national or international locations or byproduct and service offerings (helpdesk, product A, product B etc). This is quite logical in itself, as it clearly demarcates responsibilities and prevents overlapping work and clarifies the structure for employees.

Islands can be found in nearly all companies. This is because most companies are organized into small units that perform a specific set of tasks. Departments, locations and teams form a group with each having its own subculture: a common way of seeing, evaluating and responding to the (working) world.

Group formations or islands fulfill a human need to know, trust and belong to a specific set of people. This works well because it is safe and reliable. The most persistent groups and islands are therefore in the minds of the people and not de facto in the structure of the organization.

While Island cultures come about naturally and institutionally, one must keep in mind that they can also complicate working together, especially across groups. It is important to still identify with the company, even if one's day-to-day interactions are limited to a certain group.

In order to promote a healthy island culture, we have collected some tips to achieve a positive working environment within the corporate island culture.

1. You like what you know

As soon as people have regular contact and get to know each other better, trust is created. This happens within groups or islands, but also works between islands.

This can be achieved in many ways: For example by setting up temporary working groups or project teams with members from different islands or by permanently changing the organizational structure. Could be by setting up interdisciplinary groups with a wide range of a product or service instead of the islands of marketing and production.

It can also take the form of working lunches or team-building activities and training for members from different islands, where they formulate a common mission, set common goals and agree on working methods.

2. Create common interests

The common interest, in this case, is one level higher than the islands themselves. Those responsible should make it clear that if such a common interest is not achieved, it will ultimately be to the disadvantage of all islands.
As the person responsible, make sure that the employees in the islands always have the common interest and objectives in mind so that they act accordingly, and start to see the benefits of collaborating with other islands on this common goal.

3. External reference and alignment between the groups

Unhealthy islands are created by the internal reference of groups who take their own values, criteria and goals as a starting point, instead of the organization as starting point. "We do our work well because it meets our own standards. We want to receive information in our own way, otherwise, we don't do anything with it."

Contrarily, an external reference is based on the other person and the values of the company: What is important for this department or person? External reference leads to customer orientation, which is important for every company.

An external reference can be learned by seeing and above all feeling common interests, by seeing colleagues as customers and supporters, by listening.
To promote this type of perspective it is important for teams to pay attention to the similarities with other islands and not to the differences. What are the advantages of adapting to some of the other’s working methods? What are the disadvantages of not doing it? How tangible are these disadvantages or benefits?

A short action program based on these meta-levels can work wonders because it promotes understanding and solidarity and grabs the islands where they persist: in people's minds.

You can reach our international team in Hamburg by phone at +49 40 53 799 1400 or by mail at

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