Thursday, 4 June 2015

Culture - the solution or part of the problem?

You'll have heard the same adages - culture eats strategy for breakfast, culture is the new black etc.  And you'll have probably seen some of the recent cases of tech firms promoting the power of their own cultures, eg Netflix, Buffer, Airbnb etc.

Cheese added he was heartened that an increasing number of corporate leaders do seem to now be developing a better understanding of the importance of culture. “I spent a lot of time trying to talk to banks in the early 2000s about culture. They said ‘this is very interesting but we don’t have a problem'. Now we are in a different phase of thinking that recognises you can't change behaviour by writing more rules. We have got to really understand why people do the things they do.”  
“I would point the finger at HR too. We should be the function that understands the corporate culture and helps to educate the business and provide the levers to change it.” Speaking on the financial crisis, Cheese said: “We were not equipped to confront management and say ‘this is what’s going on in your organisation and it’s got to change'. HR has a massive role to play in this.”

I think it's interesting because to me, a focus on culture is often part of the problem rather than an aspect of the solution.

It's something I've changed my mind upon.  When I started in HR and change management consulting I used to find the concept of culture very useful because we hadn't previously had anything to address the most important elements of an organisation, or what Peter refers to as "the hardest parts of the iceberg below the water – the things that are much less visible.” 

These days I generally just find that the concept has been so overused, misused and abused, it tends to do more damage to our understanding of what is needed than it does good.

So when my clients talk about culture I always try to get them to explain what they're really talking about - either through Schein's onion, Johnson & Scholes' cultural web, McKinsey's 7S, the Dennison model, Dave Gray's culture map etc, identifying the the elements of these models which will give us the greatest leverage.  Is it the way power is distributed, or the organisation structures, or the values, or what?  Often of course it's a combination of these, but that still provides more clarity than referring to a more amorphous concept of culture where different people can often be using the same work but are often thinking about very different things.

I often point people at the HCM value chain in which all three steps in the chain can be seen as aspects of culture, but because of their different positions in the chain, have a different impact in the organisation.

Things like the organisation's values are inputs - they don't change anything in the business by themselves but they allow activities to be conducted in the right way.  Activities include communication, recognition and other processes, practices and systems.  These are shaped by the inputs and lead onto the outcomes.  The outcomes, including competencies or behaviours, which I often dissect into human, organisation and social capital, are the most important deliverables of what we in HR do.

In one sense, culture refers to all of the above.  But the one element in the system which probably is probably most central to what people mean when they talk about culture is social capital, is about the connections, relationships and conversations people have within the organisation.  That's why so much of my work focuses on helping organisations create this category of outcomes these days.

To me, it's by unpicking what people are really talking about within this system which offers the best hope of truly understanding what an organisations culture is now, and also how they hope to influence the way this grows.

Unpicking the value chain also provides the best way of measuring the important elements of culture, meaning that you don't need to go for a fishing trip in organisational big data.

Photo credit: Brian Chesky - Airbnb

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