At a recent workshop, I spoke to a roomful of Human Resources directors about Blue Ocean Strategy® and how it was relevant to their roles in organizations that are changing. Their biggest challenge, they said, was less about adapting their strategies or enabling their organization to execute on new strategies. Rather, each of them had been given the job of changing the corporate culture.
Assuming that meant there was a connection between business strategies and corporate culture, they were doing important work. Their challenge was the articulated disconnect between the changes taking place in the organization and the demands upon them to manage the culture.
Why, I asked, is changing corporate culture in the hands of human resource directors alone?
Their companies ranged from mid-market engineering firms to large retailers and pharmaceutical companies. Yet from all corners of the room, I heard the same refrain: corporate leadership had told them it was their job to change their organization’s culture while at the same time, onboard a new generation of employees and meld them into the current culture or even the new culture—they weren’t sure which. No doubt, this was quite a challenge.
Their corporate situations were varied: one was the product of a merger; a second was growing organically and recruiting new, young professionals; a third was dealing with shrinking revenues and seeking more productivity; a fourth was tasked with changing the culture and making it more innovative; and the rest were indicative of the range of challenges facing human resources and their companies across the U.S. today. But at the end of the day, they were all facing the uphill climb of changing the behavioral foundations of their companies. And, as I saw in their faces, they were all tired, frustrated and struggling.
Is HR now the bearer of good and bad news about company culture change?
Where to begin? First, in the workshop we worked on why these Human Resources directors, and so many of their colleagues, were now key figures responsible for changing their company’s culture. Why was this delegated (or abdicated) to their departments?
As intelligent individuals, they knew that changing a culture was hardly a simple “task” to be done. It was the essence of the organization, the way the company did things.
But how could one department enable the entire organization to shift its values, beliefs and behaviors—along with the symbols and rituals that support them—to a new set of cultural elements that could better position that company for a new set of goals or achievements?
Tellingly, the literature in Human Resources journals speaks widely on this critical role. For example, the outstanding article, “HR Impact on Corporate Culture,” from HR.com (2005) states, “Because culture is so important to the success of a firm, human resource professionals need to increase their proficiency at impacting culture. Ask an HR leader to describe their employer’s culture and most will provide an insightful answer. Responses like ‘team orientated,’ ‘performance-driven’ and ‘family atmosphere’ might be some common responses. However, ask this same HR leader to articulate their role in shaping corporate culture and their responses become a bit vague. The reason is that few terms have been more ignored or misunderstood by human resource professionals than corporate culture.”
HR professionals have control over many of the tools needed to impact, and change, a culture.
These include, of course, pay systems, performance management, recruiting and selection, and staff development. These tools are crucial to ensuring the organization is recognizing and reinforcing the values, beliefs and behaviors it wants to encourage and penalizing those it wants to stop. But to think that a culture can change by changing these forces is putting the cart before the proverbial horse.
What is a corporate or business culture anyhow?
Culture cements an organization’s employees to its values, norms, stories, beliefs and principles, and incorporates these assumptions into their activities and core sets of rules and standards. Not only that, a company’s culture enormously impacts its overall effectiveness and quality of its product and services. MIT’s Edgar H. Schein in his article, “Culture: The missing concept in organizational studies,” defined organizational culture as a dynamic force. He was surprised by how little we actually knew about culture and also how little it was being studied ethnographically in order to better understand corporate-specific cultures.
As we know from the work of Cameron and Quinn, authors of the influential book “Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture,” successful organizations have cultures that are consistent and commonly shared across the institution, even when there are modifications in departments. Culture isn’t just “stuff.” It is shaped by the employees at all levels through the meanings imparted to symbols, gestures, behaviors and attitudes. These basic patterns of shared assumptions, values and beliefs become the “correct” way of thinking about and acting on problems and opportunities. It is what is important and unimportant in the organization.
Another way to think of culture is as an organization’s DNA. Like DNA, it is largely invisible and seems to just “happen.” Yet it is a powerful foundation shaping what happens in the workplace.
Its importance stems from the power it holds over how people work together—and live together. The ability of a strong, unique culture enables a company to:
But why is culture change being laid at HR’s feet?
Here are three answers to that question shared by the HR directors that day:
If a company’s leadership believes that it is a good time to assess and perhaps change the organization’s core culture, it needs a process to do so that has the legitimacy its employees expect and deserve. They are going to be challenging not just the job being done but the essence of the person doing it—which will lay bare the deep set of beliefs that are manifested in their daily habits, conversations, celebrations and irritations. This is no small task, but the learning that comes from identifying and then changing a culture is nothing less than revolutionary.
Need some more reading?
In my new book, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, (due out July 5th), we dig deep into these questions and show you how a little anthropology can help companies like yours better understand your culture today and how it needs to change for the future. You can download the first chapter and preorder the book as well.
Could your business use a culture change?
At Simon Associates Management Consultants (SAMC), we help organizations change, grow and thrive amidst today’s changing times. Specifically, we can help you pinpoint what your company’s culture is today and what it needs to be to take you successfully into the future. If this might be of interest to you, we would like to offer you a free consultation. Please contact us!