Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Putting the Culture Back in 'Corporate Culture'

© Katherine Stanfield

Imagine a group of individuals: relating to each other every day, sometimes sharing tasks, sometimes working separately, who value community and play, who wish to enrich their lives, excel at what they do, work with purpose, and are always on the search to find their place in the world. They have complicated relationships that shape expectations of themselves and others.

Now is this a description of a Maasai village in Tanzania, or is this a description of the employees in a North American business.


The culture of an organization is as integral a part of the staff's everyday lives as it is for African villagers, or indeed, any community of individuals that share spaces and common goals. To understand what really drives your business from within you need to get a sense of your corporate culture. First, you have to be aware that it already exists, that it is a composite of the needs, habits, work ethics, values and goals of the staff. You cannot create and enforce a corporate culture, you need to take the ethnographic approach, and discover what is already there. Then you have a new way to look at the functionality of your workplace, in a deeper way, which can inform some of the most important decisions of your organization.

Many business books that discuss the way to hire the best staff often discuss the elusive 'fit.' Can you tell if the potential employee would 'fit' within the team that you are hiring for. Try looking at it from a cultural perspective. Would hiring this potential employee be like an arranged marriage between two African tribes, or more like replacing the tribal shaman with a pediatrician from Texas? How does your internal culture measure status and worth and how would this new employee stack up by those measurements? Selecting good employees can also be about minimizing culture shock.

Internal Communications
If you're developing an internal communications plan for a small consulting group where everyone is over 50, you're not going to be able to use the same plan for a large Silicon Valley start-up where no-one is over 21. The management goals for the plan may be almost identical, but the choice of tools will differ drastically. That's because the way these groups of individuals communicate is very different. Their lifestyle, habits and values dictate different means of sharing information. They have drastically different cultures. Imagine one of the consultants showing up in the Silicon Valley firm. They would be as out of their depth as the Texan pediatrician in the African village, for the same reasons. The language spoken is different. The social hierarchy is unfamiliar. The work ethic is foreign. An internal communications plan must be aware of how your staff already talk to each other, and any attempt to rewrite that system is creating unnecessary challenges.

For over 120 years, there has been a line of research called diffusion of innovation. According to wikipedia, it is a "theory of how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures." If you are bringing in a new management system, a different technology for manufacturing your products, or even new smartphones for your sales staff, diffusion of innovation theory will give you an idea of how fast (or not), how willing (or not) and how effectively (or not) your staff will embrace the change. You don't have to be a cultural ethnographer to get a sense of this. Just use the cultural metaphor and think carefully about what changes you are bringing in. Are you asking a group of

Conflict Resolution
The secret to conflict resolution is understanding the true source of the conflict. Many conflicts between staff are frustrating for management because they cannot see the reason for the argument. The actual 'facts' are rarely the source of the tension that leads to conflict. Often it is the relationships, the values, the undercurrents that create an atmosphere ripe for dissension. Understanding the culture of your organization means knowing these real factors that are contributing to a fracas or potentially leading up to one. If the 'shaman' of your corporate tribe doesn't like authority, they are going to be butting heads with the 'chief' no matter what policies you put in place. Do you eliminate the shaman with all his knowledge and power? Do you give him free reign? Or do you find a way that the shaman and the chief can be on equal ground in their own respective areas, to be able to work like a team?

Marketing and advertising is not about product features - though many would argue that. Marketing is about discovering the values and beliefs of your customer and finding solutions to their problems that are in sync with those values and beliefs. How are you going to be in sync if you don't know what your own 'cultural' values and beliefs are? How can you craft a convincing, valuable message if you don't even know what you value? Good marketing is not sanitized and interchangeable. Good marketing is a communication from a rich, complex tribe to others who resonate with that tribe.

The people in your workplace are a culture. They all have belief systems, values, opinions and goals. They all interact in terms of how those things relate. Your corporate vision will either mesh or clash with this culture. How can you make sure it meshes?

There are many ways - other than what I've mentioned above - in which an organization can be looked at like a culture. Can you think of any? I'd love to hear some of your ideas in the comments!


And for those who got here from the Twitterverse, you may have heard something about a free gift. I have four $25 gift certificates from Studio J Urban Spa in Edmonton, Alberta, for the first four people who tweet this blog. Make sure you include my Twitter handle (@Randwulven) in the tweet and I'll contact you to see how I can get your present to you. 'Tis almost the season after all...

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