Last time I attempted to put into some context the importance of business culture in the overall operating model and consequent customer experience. In this piece I hope to give some thoughts as to how it can be identified and managed to positive effect.
In the simplest of terms it's 'the way we do things around here'. There have been many academic studies on the subject but, in my view, intellectualising the subject is unlikely to help a business shape its culture from an operational perspective. What most of the studies agree on is that a culture is created from an amalgam of the businesses' activities both past and current which will include: stories of previous events, organisational structure, how power is disseminated or not within the organisation, symbols such as management parking spaces, dining rooms etc, leadership style and many more depending which study you happen to read.
In essence though, it does amount to 'the way we do things around here' but how do you shape that in practical terms and what is a good or not so good culture?
Well, that all depends on what you are trying to achieve in the organisation which is where it gets so complicated. However, considering what sort of culture you want to create in the organisation is an essential starting point and one many organisations ignore. Perhaps it would help to give a couple of, admittedly extreme, examples to illustrate the point: I don't want a junior surgeon to be creative or empowered if they are operating on me, nor do I want a troop of soldiers to feel empowered to question orders in a battle situation. BUT, and this is the challenging bit, I do want a senior medical practitioner to be imaginative and creative as that is how advances in learning are made and likewise I would want our senior military figures to be creative in their strategy and tactics as that is often how battles are won. So the culture you create very much depends on what you have to achieve in the organisation and, in the examples I have given, this may even change for different parts of the organisation.
Fortunately many organisations aren't responsible for the nation's defence or advances in medical science so it can be a little more straightforward!
Let's go back to the small business I talked about in the last piece. The owner is initially the only employee and is likely to have a clear idea of how the business is to interact with its customers and have a passion for the success of the business. This may be as simple as being efficient and polite, but it may include thinking creatively to offer a very personalised service, or wanting to be known for being informal and especially welcoming or some other point of differentiation the owner has identified. The culture won't be explicitly articulated because it doesn't need to be - it's in the owner's head!
As the business finds the culture is successful and appealing to its customers it will grow and the owner will recruit more people. The people recruited are likely to share the owner's own views and attitudes just in the same way as we subconsciously choose friends with whom we have common views and attitudes. The new recruits are also likely to have an affinity for the business and a passion for it to succeed or they wouldn't have been recruited in the first place. So, we now have a business of 10 employees all of whom know the owner and work closely with them on a day to day basis, being kept abreast of new developments and thinking as the business grows. If the recruitment has been done with care, these ten people will share some common views, attitudes and approaches to the organisation that will bind them together as a cohesive unit with a real sense of common purpose and a desire for the business to succeed. Nothing will have explicitly been done to shape the culture, but implicitly the workforce will have come together as a group of like-minded individuals.
So far, so good but what happens when the business gets really successful and grows to 100 employees?
At 100 employees, the latest recruit often won't have a close relationship with the owner and is less likely to have been personally recruited by them. They may well be working to pay a mortgage, support a family, buy a new car or whatever else, but it is unlikely they will automatically share the passion the owner has for the business. And that's with just 100 people! When you get to 1000, 10,000 or 100,000 the recruitment and its leadership can be so far removed from the original aims of the business that the people making the recruitment decisions may not be clear about the owner's original overall aims, let alone the views and attitudes the people they are recruiting should have to achieve them.
So, at what point does the culture move from something implicit to require explicit shaping and leadership? I don't believe there is a definitive answer for that question, but it is likely to be the stage at which the business has got to a size at which the latest recruit does not have day to day contact with the owner. At that point the owner needs to stop, think carefully and clearly about the views and attitudes that have made the business successful to date and how to ensure they are replicated with every new employee and frequently reinforced for the existing employees. Sounds simple and perhaps obvious, but it rarely seems to actually happen which can be very damaging as it's so much harder to change a large organisation's culture when it has become firmly established than it is to shape it as the organisation builds.
So, I hope I have provoked some thoughts about the culture of a business and how it can be identified and shaped to be a great attribute or, as is often the case, how it can be very damaging to the future well-being and growth of an organisation. Next time we will look at how you define or actively start to change an existing organisation's culture.