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… and West Is West

Here is a dramatic example of the importance of culture to a business.

In April 1989 the announcement of a merger (which eventually fell through) between Novell and Lotus Development Corp. caused a sensation in the entire computer industry. The trade press gave it front page/special section treatment, and scores of analysts and industry pundits were interviewed for their reaction and predictions. Virtually everyone agreed that a major problem in the merger would be the clash of corporate cultures, as the yokels from Provo got down to business with the yuppies from Cambridge.

It seems odd to the uninitiated that culture should be an issue. Is Utah really so different from Massachusetts? Is life at Novell so unlike life at other computer companies? And if Novell’s culture is unique, how important a factor has it been in the company’s meteoric success?

In the early days, from its beginnings up until the late 1980s, most people in the computer industry correctly thought of Novell as a Utah company managed by Mormons. As the company grew through acquisition, both the reality and the public perception of Novell’s nature changed. Yet in some ways the perception changed more than the reality. Novell in the 1990s still retained many of the characteristics that distinguished it in its first decade.

Novell grew up in Utah. Most of its employees were Mormon Utahns. As one might expect, this regional and cultural influence shaped the way the corporation went about its business.

Utah in a Nutshell

Utah is a large, very scenic state located on the western side of the Rocky Mountains. It occupies an area almost the size of New England, yet only 2.2 million people reside there, versus the 14 million or so in New England. Most of the year, even in the winter, the weather is sunny and pleasant. Its climate is semi-arid and much of it is a high desert. Provo and Orem are about 4500 feet above sea level, with urban rainfall about 16 inches a year including an average 5 feet of snow (accounting for about 5 inches of the so-called rainfall). Of course it gets a lot deeper in the nearby mountains, providing an awe-inspiring view especially for first-time visitors.

Tourists come to Utah for the skiing (and now snowboarding) in the winter—state license plates boast “The Greatest Snow on Earth”—and for the spectacular scenery and recreational areas in the summer. The state is home to 5 national parks, 7 national forests, and 41 state parks. Thousands of square miles of public land, more than 40% of the state, is managed by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Besides the mountains and the canyonlands, Utah’s most distinctive natural feature is the Great Salt Lake, a vast inland sea (salty because it has no outlet) some 100 miles long and 50 miles wide, but averaging only 25 feet deep.

These facts were of some interest to Novell’s US customers. Although international customers seldom had trouble locating Utah, Americans in other parts of the country were sometimes deplorably misinformed. Some thought Utah was near Iowa, others placed it in the Northwest, and more than one believed it was somewhere in Canada.

The Utah Territory was colonized in 1847 by the Mormons, the followers of their recently killed prophet and church founder, Joseph Smith. This group had been persecuted everywhere it put down roots—from New York State, to Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois. After Smith’s murder by an angry mob in 1846, the Mormons commenced their great thousand-mile trek to Zion, their promised land, by walking through roadless wilderness. They arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in July of the following year, under the leadership of Brigham Young, the new church president. The Kingdom of Deseret, as it was called in the early years, flourished. By the time the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was completed 22 years later in 1869, over 80,000 people were living in the territory. (A final symbolic golden railway spike was driven at Promontory, Utah.)

Utahns are proud of their pioneer history, and for most this history is also the history of their church, officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally referred to as the LDS Church. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, about 62% of Utahns are Mormon.[Footnote 1] Their faith teaches strong devotion to family, strong devotion to community, and strong devotion to the Church. They believe that spiritual progress can be made by living in accordance with Church teachings. They are also urged to work towards continual self-improvement.

Like members of other faiths, Mormons are inclined to think of themselves as a people chosen and blessed by God. Indeed, Church doctrine holds that the early Native Americans were descended from the lost tribes of Israel, and the LDS Church uses many of the terms and symbols associated with the Jews: “Zion” in reference to Utah, the six-pointed star, and “Gentile” in reference to non-Mormons. (It is jokingly but accurately said that only in Utah can a Jew be a Gentile.)

They are active proselytizers. Between high school and college, many young Mormon men and women leave home to go on a one- or two-year “mission” for the Church where they seek converts and spread the good news of their faith. Many Mormon Utahns speak a second language more or less fluently as a result of their missionary training. Since the LDS Church has a lay clergy, an active Mormon may hold various positions within the Church hierarchy and may even rise to positions of Church leadership while working full time.

Over six million people around the world belonged to the LDS Church in the 1980s, and the largest Mormon population lived in the western United States, especially in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, and California. The prototypical Utah Mormon has or comes from a large family, goes to hours of Sunday services at the “ward” (the equivalent of a parish), and may devote one or two additional days a week to Church work or some other community service. He or she is likely to be well-educated, politically conservative, respectful of authority, an avid sports fan, accustomed to working in groups and committees, and closely involved in the affairs of the ward and community. Mormons abjure the use of tobacco, alcohol, and coffee. Utahns in general, including many Mormons, enjoy athletics and other outdoor activities.

Although Utah’s population boasts a wide variety of ethnic groups, including many people of Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Irish, Dutch, Afro-American, and Native American descent, the vast majority are of English, Scottish, or Scandinavian ancestry. This makes for a rather homogeneous-looking population—lots of tall, blond, blue-eyed people.

Life in Utah was a bit more placid and laid-back in the ’80s and ’90s than it was in more populous areas of the country. There were virtually no traffic jams—not by East or West Coast standards, anyway. Salesclerks were mostly courteous; at grocery stores they would not only bag your groceries but take them out to your car as well (and at least some supermarkets still offer to do so in the early 21st century). Real estate prices were low and gas was cheap. Cities were clean of litter, and are still comparatively so. The airport was very easy to negotiate; Utah was only a two-hour flight from almost any point in the US west of the Mississippi.

Utahns tend to be offended by direct, openly aggressive, or impatient behavior. Conversely, people who move to Utah from out of state are sometimes annoyed at the slower pace of life and business. And those individuals who do not share the values of the majority are sometimes made to feel unwelcome.

About 80% of Utahns live and work on “the Wasatch front”, an urban area some 100 miles long including Ogden in the north and Provo in the south (Salt Lake City is in between). Novell, founded in Orem and relocated to Provo, is situated in Utah County. Because the population there has been over 90% Mormon, locals sometimes refer to it facetiously as “Happy Valley”.

Footnote 1: or, “Mormon portion of Utah population steadily shrinking”, 7/24/2005.

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