Culture has become a very contentious political issue in the past few weeks. However, discussions about culture have a very long history and always evoke very strong responses. This is because culture, “the way we do things”, is what distinguishes one group of people from the next. Consequently, when people speak of culture it becomes very personal because it addresses individuals’ identity and the way they wish to be perceived and differentiated.
Organizational culture is no different. An organization’s culture is what distinguishes it from other organizations. Within the context of commerce, distinguishing factors are sought only to the extent that they provide competitive advantage. Therefore, organizational culture becomes important as it provides an opportunity for organizations to distinguish themselves and leverage their human capital as an element of their competitive advantage.
But the creation and maintenance of a distinguishable organizational culture is a complex affair. This complexity is exacerbated by organizational structure, size, composition, industry and external regulations. Many organizations have attempted to deliver this competitive advantage by creating cultures that they label in accordance with the desired outcome of the culture they seek to build. Some organizations have sought to create learning cultures; high performance cultures; service cultures.
Regardless of the type of culture an organization wishes to create, there are several hurdles that it will need to have a plan for overcoming. These hurdles are as follows:
- Employee diversity
- External culture
- Internal systems and structures
Employee diversity & external culture
Quite often organizations attempt to create organizational cultures in a manner that seems to assume that:
- The individuals within the organization did not have a prior way of doing things
- The individuals within the organization did not have multiple divergent ways of doing things
- The individuals within the organization are insulated from external cultures
- Adults change their way of doing things easily and casually
Modern organizations usually represent a melting pot of people from varied age groups, race, gender and orientations. To create a single organizational culture, it is not sufficient to simply understand the existing dominant organizational culture and try to encourage people to operate differently. If organizations are serious about creating unique cultures, it is important to understand the varied multiple cultures and the meanings associated with work and desired outcome, by the people within the organization based on the factors or age, gender etc.
Members of an organization are also not insulated from the culture external to the organization. Therefore, particularly multinational organizations, need to examine the extent to which the culture they seek to create departs from the external culture. If the organizational culture is significantly different then this must be considered, as employees do not transform when they show up for work. They are still impacted by the way of life outside of the organization.
This is all compounded by the fact that adults do not necessarily change behaviour easily or without significant levels of motivation to change. Adults change also only occurs if the adult decides to alter based on some form of self-interest, however benevolent that interest might be.
Internal systems and structures
To continue the point of how adults learn, most attempts at building organizational culture ignore the fact that adults tend to learn experientially. Whether or not an organization has a formal learning culture, all employees are learning daily. They learn who or what gets rewarded. They learn how to climb the corporate ladder in their specific organization. They learn the written rules and the unwritten rules. Most attempts at developing organizational culture stop at the expression of the culture and creation of formal symbols of the desired culture. Rarely do organizations question or seek to align all their systems and structures both formal and informal to the desired culture. For this reason, the desired culture tends to remain something that most people pay lip service to and a focus area for the HR department only.
But does this mean that organizations cannot successfully create unique and differentiating cultures that deliver competitive advantage? Absolutely not. However, it takes much more than many organizations are willing to give to the effort. In my next article, I will examine the great results some organizations have had with targeted and dedicated effort.