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
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?
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.
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.