We don't know what's next for business - but what we do know is how to help you be ready. This blog is all about anticipating the future and positioning you for success.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Corporate Culture: Intentional or Accidental

A recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about the Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways merger had me examining the question, "Do most organizations have the cultures they intend to have, or is their culture more 'accidental' in nature, dictated by voids in leadership?"

The organization development profession has come a long way to have an article dedicated to the challenges of culture on the front page of the Business section. So in a way I’m glad to see the progress of organizations relating to the importance of culture; but at the same time, I’m concerned that executives hearing so much about culture and not familiar with its relevance to successful performance may discount it as the next "flavor of the month" business trend. We need to be careful to continue our educational efforts on this topic.

The term corporate culture was coined by the McKinsey organization. There are many definitions, including: "how we do things around here" and "real-time reflection of an organization’s rulebook." An important element of the latter is the "organization’s rulebook." Who wrote yours - the owner of the business, the management team, or the strongest subcultures within your enterprise? It’s not a given that management and employees are working out of the same book.

What Do We Know About Culture?

For this blog I’m assuming that culture is the "stuff" that:
  • influences how work gets done
  • impacts whether or not the company is viewed as a high performer to be benchmarked against
  • orchestrates the processes to determine who fits in and who doesn’t
  • controls the overall tempo and mood of the enterprise
We often observe the "stuff" by the way language, stories, rituals, symbols and power are displayed on a daily basis as tasks are completed. Although efforts to guide the culture are attempted by publishing handbooks, P&P manuals, job descriptions, annual reports, and a host of other corporate documents, culture "stuff" goes beyond the written word.

It’s great to have so much research on culture today to help guide organizational performance improvements. Even the Defense Acquisition University has written, and is teaching about culture because of its impact and importance to government agencies. We most often hear about culture when organizations are merging, such as the Southwest – AirTran example. But the importance of recognizing, understanding, and working with culture is a skill set all leaders need in anticipation of future acquisitions, as well as restructurings, and the need to re-conceptualize work as a result of change. Certainly there are examples of mergers where the integration of the cultures has worked. But on the opposite side of the scale are the outweighing mergers that didn’t work: Novell/WordPerfect, Daimler/Chrysler, Matsushita Electronics/MCA, Inc., to list a few.

How Do We Assess and Change Culture?

Whether you are considering merging or planning for changes to improve alignment with the needs of 2012, here are a few steps you can take to improvement your culture. In 1992 Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes developed The Cultural Web. This model identifies six interrelated elements that create the pattern (Paradigm) of the work environment. Using these steps you can analyze your current culture and identify what’s working and what needs to be changed, as you consider the gaps between what the culture currently is and the culture you want in the future:

1.  Assess the current culture:
  • Ask about and listen to stories – what past events are people talking about? 
  • Observe the rituals and routines of daily work behaviors, signaling "acceptable" behavior.
  • Study the symbols most pronounced in the organization - logo, marketing, website, social media, dress code, office layout and decorations, etc.. What do they tell you about the organization?
  • Identify how power and influence are used to accomplish those activities and outputs valued by the organization. Look closely at the formal organizational chart, as well as the many informal factors influencing outcomes.
  • Review the written day-to-day control processes involving finances, quality, performance management, and other metrics the organization monitors and reports on. Do the activities match the procedures?
  • Identify those individuals and groups within the organization that have the most influence on decisions, operations, and the strategic direction the organization seems to be headed in.
2.  With the assessment of the current culture complete, follow the same process to identify the culture desired for the organization in the future.

3.  Comparing the themes of the current and future culture assessments, identify the differences between the two. Examining these gaps will lead to a list of strategic steps to be taken in order to eliminate the gaps, or at least minimum the differences.

4.  Prioritize the required changes and develop a plan for implementing a cultural transition.

So What’s Next?

The tagline for my business is Transforming Human Behaviors Through Cultural Evolution. I seriously believe that we can’t expect employees to perform any differently if we don’t address the environment they work in and the "stuff" that influences how they do their jobs. Culture change requires a realistic change management plan and the patience to implement it. It doesn’t happen overnight because you’re striving for a collaborative process where employees and stakeholders embrace the changes and participate as much as possible. Culture change is something that can’t be rushed.

Often organizations seek OD consultants and experts to assist them with culture assessments, change readiness capabilities, planning and implementation of the rollout. I don’t want to sound like a commercial, but often internal views are distorted by what they want to see. The eyes and ears of an outside expert are valuable in taking an unbiased approach to mapping and navigating the path to cultural change. Experts share experiences and knowledge to revise performance expectations and the workplace environment in which individuals can flourish. They provide strategies for introducing an updated vision, mission and values, along with appropriate changes to systems, policies and procedures.

Kelly Yamanouchi reported in the AJC that Southwest and AirTran are hard at work implementing their Plan to blend more than 8,000 AirTran employees into the culture of Southwest. Keep in mind that Southwest Airlines views their culture as one of its most valuable assets. Trying to integrate their culture with another organization would be difficult enough. However in this case, they are layering that job with the task of integrating it into a unionized environment. Talk about challenges!

Training is underway to assist AirTran employees with understanding and embodying the personality of the Southwest culture into their everyday routines. Each AirTran employee received an "Embrace It! Recognize It! Live It!" wristband. Repeated communication and training will continue in an effort to drive the expectation for individual acceptance and transition to the Southwest business model. It won’t happen overnight, but with the right planning, continued assessment, and patience, success is possible.

Successful organizations considering acquisitions or organizational change as a result of current economic and global conditions will be wise to consider a similar approach to cultural integration as this highly visible merger has. From the research I did this weekend, it doesn’t appear that studies over the past few years found many organizations considering the importance of culture in their strategic planning processes. Hopefully we can help them re-evaluate that approach. What are your thoughts about intentional and accidental cultures? What have you experienced that works as organizations attempt cultural change, and what should be avoided? We all look forward to you joining the dialogue by posting your comments below.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Prescription For A Healthy Organization: A Daily Dose of Human Connection

I've recently realized that I am observing more and more "problems" surfacing in client workplaces that have to do with a lack of personal relationships. Investigating the root cause of the situations, the conflicts are most often anchored to behavioral reactions associated with feelings such as a lack of trust, isolation, or a disconnection from feeling part of the team. At a time when organizations should be fostering engagement and designing workplaces that support retention, are business strategies associated with technology, improved efficiencies and work/life balance working against our success?

In a Harvard Business Review article originally published in 1999 and republished in 2010, Edward M. Hallowell wrote about what he termed the "human moment." In 1999 Hallowell was concerned about the problems he was seeing and hearing about from business executives he was counseling in his psychiatric practice. If he was concerned with the impact of the technologies of a decade ago - stop for a moment and consider how much greater the impact of current technologies are on this issue today!

Rather than hold face-to-face meetings with teams, suppliers or clients, it's much more cost effective today to conduct a web-based meeting. Instead of holding monthly staff meetings in the conference room, it has become quicker, easier, and less costly to communicate through conference calls. Training workshops which offered opportunities for colleagues to network and get to know each other while they learned new skills together have been replaced by cost effective and time saving webinars. And the need for office space to centrally locate employees and work teams has given way to new work designs like teleworking and flex offices. There's no doubt about it, technology advancements are providing great opportunities for faster, cheaper work alternatives, but what's the cost of the significant lack of human connections?

The Human Moment
Dr. Hallowell defined the human moment as an authentic psychological encounter that can happen only when two people share the same physical space. The prerequisites for the human moment to occur include people's physical presence, as well as their emotional and intellectual attention to the moment. Yes, the opportunity to create human moments does require energy and an investment in time and travel. However, what we're learning about the brain continues to support the idea that a deficiency of human contact leads to workers feeling lonely, isolated and confused about work assignments, direction and mission.

Emails, text messaging, instant messages, and voice messages are all opportunities for us to communicate with each other. However these communication channels don't provide for the key essential of communications - body language. We've always heard that we hear more though our eyes than through our ears and that is demonstrated time and again as we rely less on face-to-face engagements and more on the convenience of technologies.

What Hallowell's research found was that the lack of human moments results in worry. He wrote about "good worry" that leads to constructive planning and creativity and "toxic worry," which is anxiety. Hallowell found that anxiety immobilizes workers and leads to indecision or destructive actions. He concluded that toxic worry is among the most debilitating consequences of vanishing human moments, and the source of the misunderstandings that result from misconstruing communications.

So What's Next?
Thinking about this dilemma, which I'm assuming will only get more intense if we don't start paying more attention to it, my memory replayed a TV commercial from many years ago. The scene is a corporate conference room. The meeting participants are concerned and worried about why the meeting has been called, especially in light of the downturn in their business. The camera focuses on the boss, who is standing at the head of the table. The boss begins to speak and announces that the decision has been made to get back to valuing their customers. He holds up a hand full of airline tickets and announces they're returning to their roots to improve business: face-to-face customer meetings. He was selling more than United Airlines services - he was selling the power of human connections. Today, not only do we need to be careful not to be too virtual with our customers, we also have to be attentive to adequately connecting our employees.

Many organizations that promote teleworking also require their employees to come into the office on a frequent basis to attend staff and/or team meetings so teambuilding and relationships can be forged. These organizations know that workers are more productive and efficient when employees know each other personally and can tap into that relationship, trust and familiarity to avoid misunderstandings.

With the increasing advancement of technologies encouraging less need for working face-to-face, organizations need to be mindful to craft opportunities for personal interactions into their processes. Perhaps the idea of "open" meetings with pizza and snacks once a month to discuss business and project issues that members are interested in could spark connections.  Or promote lunch and learns to share skill building or project updates to offer another forum for individuals working together to meet each other face-to-face.  Ideas for gathering employees together for the specific purpose of getting to know each other and building relationships they can tap into in the future are more important now than ever. We need to encourage and plan for events focused on human interactions

The Human Resource and academic professions are hearing loud and clear from businesses complaining that entry level candidates are coming into the workplace without strong interpersonal and communication skills. The cause of this may be their personal interaction with technologies, as well as habits learned while at school. I fear this lack of abilities to interact with others will only complicate the struggle organizations are already confronting resulting from the lack of human moments available in each work day. As leaders within our organizations, we have a responsibility to improve productivity and profitability. Could improving opportunities for building human moments at work be a key to meeting those business goals?

What do you think - is the human moment important? If yes, what are some of the techniques your organization supports for making personal interactions happen?

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