Thursday 12 March 2020

Culture! (Hacking HR panel)

I moderated one of the panels at Hacking HR's global digital conference on HR innovation and the future of work last week.

On the panel was Juan Luis Betancourt, CEO at Humantelligence culture diagnostic system; Siobhan McHale, Executive General Manager for HR at Dulux, Steven Chapparo who uses design thinking for culture development, and me. (Britt Provost wasn't able to join us.)

We talked about the meaning of culture, its measurement, its development, HR's role in this, and whether culture is a useful thing to talk about anyway. The archive will be available via Hacking HR in a few weeks time, but here are my reflections on the session.

What is Culture?

The question on what is culture fell mainly to Siobhan McHale as our sole remaining internal HR executive and author of a new book on culture. You’ve probably seen Siobhan’s videos on Linkedin? She defines culture as the deeply embedded patterns within an organisation that shape how people think and respond at work, eg the issue / opportunity in her work at ANZ wasn’t about changing values and behaviours (the dancers) but the ongoing patterns of blame (the dance) taking place between branches and head office.

Steven talked about the use of metaphor and culture as the operating system of the organisation.

How to measure Culture

Measuring culture was mainly picked up by Juan since Humantelligence provides an individual and organisational diagnostic tool which reviews behaviours, motivators and work style. Here is my 'BMW' report:

Juan suggested he and Siobhan were saying pretty much the same thing, but I don't think they were. That's important because you can't measure something until you know what you're talking about. So IF culture is Juan's BMW factors that his diagnostic provides a very appropriate measure. Clearly if it's patterns, or something else, you'd need a different measurement mechanism. And that wasn't knocking Juan's system by the way, just trying to ensure people use it for the right thing.

I shared a few other concerns too.  The first of these was that as culture is now so important and central to success (something I think we did all agree on) we increasingly want to change culture and change it quickly, not just understand it in the way of an anthropologist. Does measuring matter when we generally know the aspects of culture which we need to change, either to support our strategy, or to make it more compelling for people - or I suppose for many organisations, a bit less horrible. For example, if we have a bullying culture, we don't necessarily need to understand the amount or extent of bullying in that much detail. We just to change the culture so that there is no more bullying. It's the future state of culture which is important, not the current state.

The second was that for culture to be useful, we need to focus on what we're doing, rather than worrying about other organisations and best practices. So any type of benchmarking is bound to be at least partly misaligned.  We want to ask the questions which are important to us, not those someone else has come up with.

Then there's the problem that the more important something is, in HR at least, often the harder it is to measure. This means that putting quantitative metrics around culture is bound to subtract meaning from its measurement. Culture needs at least an element of qualitative, subjective, discursive interpretation as well as hard measurement.

How to co-develop Culture

Developing culture is also more difficult if we don't have a clear understanding of culture, ie we don't know what we're developing! Are we changing the behaviours, values / motivators, patterns or something else? Steven talked about co-developing culture with employees and I agreed this is crucial, actually not just for culture but everything we do.

It's easier to gain agreement and engagement when you've involved people in making a decision than if you try to sell it to them later on.  In addition, with something like culture, it is often the process of developing it which is more important than the description which is developed from the process.

But if you ask employees about how things can be better, they're not going to stick to any particular definition of culture. So you're not really co-developing culture, you're co-developing the whole organisation.

Steven uses six steps to co-developing culture, similar to the Design Council's Double D design thinking approach. The first D is plan, emphasise and reframe. the second D involves ideation, prototype and test.

However, as the first diamond is really determined by the strategy I'm not sure you need the first three steps. (Though of course it would be useful to co-develop the strategy in a similar co-developed way too.)

And also I'm not convinced a Minimum Viable Product approach will work - culture change needs to be holistic and just changing one element or aspect of culture, or the culture in one aspect of the business, is unlikely to have much impact. 

HR's role as a Cultural Anthropologist

When we got onto HR's role we had our most obvious disagreement. Siobhan argued that HR can't own culture as all leaders need to do this. I suggested that whilst everyone, not just leaders, should be responsible, HR should take accountability for culture. We got into a long discussion on 'co-accountability' and I suggested that although I believe strongly in co-development, the rules of accountability haven't changed that much. Ie I can see a really, really strong, mature team taking collective accountability, but if you've got that in place, culture's not an issue for you anyway. Most organisations will want to ensure there's only ever one person who is accountable. And I think that person needs to the head of HR. Fine if your CEO wants to do that instead, you can just be a traditional support function HR director. But if they don't, or if they don't understand what being accountable involves, then HR needs to step up and take culture on for them.

Is it useful to focus on Culture?

The last topic was my addition to the agenda. I hardly ever talk about culture. Eg in The Social Organization, which is really all about culture, I only mention the term to say that I'm not going to refer to it.

Although I used to find the term useful, these days I find people are often talking about different things even when they're really speaking about things which are really very different.

And this isn't just about behaviours, values and patterns. Eg the late Clayton Christiansen saw culture as the impact of processes and principles. Dave Ulrich suggests it's the brand in the minds to your customers. There are probably another 500 definitions out there too.

So, these days, I prefer to focus on the thing we're really talking about. Eg if by culture we mean values and behaviours, let's talk about these. If we mean patterns, let's talk about this. But most often, as I suggest above, we're talking about the whole organisation. So let's talk about the organisation. And what we want it to to become rather than just what it is now.

That is, let's talk about organisational capabilities.

In The Social Organization I refer to one of Dave's suggestions that resonate for me which is to compare capabilities and culture to personality and habits (so Dave does agree with Siobhan that culture is a pattern):

We change our habits if our personalities change. But we can also make more limited but more direct changes to our habits. We can make similar changes to organisational culture. However, organisations are not people. We can change them and therefore we have a lot of potential to form new capabilities. We can manipulate these much more easily than we can the culture.

And it is capabilities that link directly to organisational performance. Therefore, to a large degree it doesn't matter exactly what the culture is, but this will generally follow on someway behind the new capabilities which are being created.

Therefore, it's both easier and more effective to change an organisation's capabilities rather than the culture.

Often the most important capabilities are aspects of social capital. This refers to the value of the connections, relationships and conversations taking place between people, and is what many people are really referring to when they talk about culture. Eg I'd suggest it's behind Siobhan's habits.

But I also think it, like capabilities more broadly, is more useful than culture - firstly, because it's more specific, and secondly, because it is defined as value, so it's tightly linked to business performance in a way that culture isn't.

Boeing's Culture of Concealment

So as an example, what should Boeing do about changing its culture of concealment? Should it seek to change its people's behaviours and patterns of thinking and responding - yes it should (it doesn't need to change its formal values - these already include safety and being a good global citizen etc).

But the easiest way to do this is to focus on the organisation capabilities the company needs to be successful, which I'd suggest include designing and managing for safety and organisational sustainability; enabling everyone to have a voice and be taken seriously; and perhaps the ability to handle paradox (eg the need to build planes efficiently and safely at the same time). 

Safety is an example of what I refer to as value for money - it's not going to make the firm competitively successful, but if it's compromised, could jeopardise the future of the business.

There's a human capital aspect to this - people focused on and engaged in the safety agenda and skilled in designing for safety. There's a big organisation capital aspect too, ensuring the way that people are organised enables them to do the right thing. And there's a big social capital aspect - engaging people in open conversations so that they arrive at an informed view about their planes which include the perspectives of the workforce and their stakeholders.

This then will require various activities to create these capabilities - such as the Safety Committee which Boeing has now set up.

Your Views?

I'm not that tightly wedded to these views - I'm testing them out rather than lecturing you on them. And the other panelist's perspectives have at least as much validity as my own. But as my BMW report suggests, I like to ask questions and challenge assumptions, which is what I'm trying to do here.

The report also notes that I am open to practical and constructive ideas. So I appreciated all the questions we had during the panel, and would value more thoughts, suggestions and challenges too.

And if you want to know more on my own ideas, please do read The Social Organization.

Jon Ingham, +44 7904 185134


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