Article: We need to find better ways of talking about what we mean by ‘culture’: Jon Ingham


We need to find better ways of talking about what we mean by ‘culture’: Jon Ingham

The best way we can develop organization effectiveness is to focus on creating the organization outcomes we need – the qualities of our people, the organization and the connections between the people, as well as the expectations of our people, says Jon Ingham, Director of the Jon Ingham Strategic HR Academy.
We need to find better ways of talking about what we mean by ‘culture’: Jon Ingham

READ the June 2021 issue of our magazine: The Digital Culture Reset

Jon Ingham is an analyst, trainer, and consultant on people and digital transformation. He is also the Director of the Jon Ingham Strategic HR Academy. Jon provides insight and provocation enabling companies to innovate their people and organization strategies, better fitting the new digital world of work and also their own strategic needs. He has been a co-author with Dave Ulrich on the future of HR and is the author of ‘The Social Organization’. He is based in the UK but works globally, including by providing training through his digital Strategic HR Academy.

Here are the excerpts.

How is the world of work going to look like on the other side of the pandemic? Are leaders on the right track to make the future of work better –diverse, more equitable, and tech-savvy?

The pandemic has mostly just accelerated changes that were already underway, at least in organizations that knew what they were doing. A more people-centric approach, greater use of digital technologies, even remote working, were all already increasing in adoption before COVID-19.

Leading these changes does require a different leadership approach from that traditionally in use. Again, that isn’t actually that new. For example, MIT’s 2020 leadership playbook identified emerging leading styles as including being purpose drive, nurturing passion, demonstrating authenticity and empathy, and making data-driven decisions – all things which we’d associate with the digital, hybrid new normal environment today.

Similarly, the build I’d make on these behaviors now is the same one I was making before the pandemic. Due to the increasingly collaborative nature of work (also accelerated during the pandemic), leadership increasingly needs to focus on groups, not individuals. And that as these groups are quite varied, incorporating teams, communities, and distributed networks as well as functions, that leadership needs to be varied too. That is, the leadership approach we use needs to link to the type of group we’re leading.

So, I do think leaders are generally on the right track now but are often some way behind what’s required, especially if they didn’t start making this change before the pandemic.

As companies start marching on in the COVID-stricken world with renewed vigor, how important, according to you, is getting work ‘culture’ right especially in the hybrid world of work? 

Culture has become really important, in fact, so important, that we now need to find better ways of talking about what we mean by culture. I don’t use this word. I think what you probably mean by it is either the type of organization that leads to business success, or possibly the organizational approach which employees find compelling. If either of these is the case then clearly, yes, these are very important.


The best way we can develop organization effectiveness is to focus on creating the organization outcomes we need – the qualities of our people (human capital), the organization (organization capital), and of the connections between the people working in the organization (social capital), as well as the expectations of our people. These should be supported by clear principles which articulate how we’re going to achieve the outcomes and employee expectations we’ve identified.

Once we have a longer-term vision of what we want to create, developed with our people, we can start to work towards this in an agile, incremental way. That will create the right organizational environment and the ‘culture’ will change as we do this.

And yes, organization effectiveness has been challenged by the pandemic and hybrid working. Organizational cohesion has been challenged by the different experiences of those living privileged and precarious lives and between those working mainly remotely and those in an office or location most of the time. We can deal with these challenges by responding to individual needs for office-based working, alongside the needs of the teams, communities, and networks these employees work in. And by organizing around the needs of remote workers first, putting in place additional networks to partly compensate for the office-based communities they may be missing out on.

In today’s digital world, how important is a data-driven culture and data literacy skills, and what’s your advice on how to best leverage insights from the pool of data organizations produce?

Having an organization that uses data appropriately is important, yes. However, most of this is about using appropriate technologies which generate data through their use and then analyze this data to provide insights we can use. Video interviewing is a good example. We might use this because of the flexibility it provides, as well as the need to interview remotely. However, many of these technologies gather data on the way candidates answer questions and use AI to infer which of these people may make a better recruit. The data is important, but we don’t really need to worry about this too much.

A more important need is to be clear about our strategic objectives for managing and organizing our people. This includes the business results we need to align behind, the organization outcomes we need to support and inform these results, and the HR, management, and organization activities we need to undertake to create these outcomes and lead on to the required results. Once we’re clear about these objectives we can identify how we’re going to measure them and collect data against these strategic measures.

This data, which may be more qualitative and subjective than in our workforce technologies or HR system, are likely to much more useful in guiding our strategic actions than focusing on the data that we currently have to hand (typically things like headcount changes and sickness absence rates which are important, but won’t guide our strategy at all.)

What traits will distinguish highly successful companies in the transition to the post-pandemic workplace?

Organizations have to be more remote, or at least take a hybrid approach to remote working. Given this is the case, we need to work more asynchronously too. Even before the pandemic, we spent far too much time having meetings, and now we’re often just carrying on doing the same thing but having those meetings using Zoom or Microsoft Teams, etc instead. We need to give people more flexibility in the times they are working as well as the location they work from, and do more work asynchronously, eg via collaborative documents rather than always getting people together at the same time in the same room or Zoom.

This also opens the door to recruiting and employing people from all over the world meaning that organizations will become much more heterogeneous, not just in terms of traditional protected categories of workers, but in broader differences such as national culture.

These new ways of working together with this more diverse workforce will accelerate the existing trend away from hierarchical, vertically focused, functional organizations to more use of horizontal teams, communities, and especially distributed networks where people can connect with others across the whole organization.

Therefore, successful companies will need to be heterogeneous, asynchronous, remote, and distributed (organizationally as well as geographically). This leads to a new approach to managing and organizing people I sometimes refer to as ‘HARD’ HR.

With the rise of the machine, it is more important now than ever before to build human connections at work. How can we leverage tech to build a human-centric world of work?

Yes, digital technologies should influence everything we do these days. However, we live in the age of the human, not the age of the machine. And as I suggested earlier, the human-centric approach which is required isn’t just about focusing on individuals, but also on the collaboration between these people, so social as well as human capital.

Social capital is about the value of the connections, plus the relationships and conversations taking place between our people, or the value of the way people work together in teams, communities, and networks. In most organizations today, it is the most valuable organizational outcome we can provide.

Think about your own organizations – what determines its success or failure the most – is it the skills, engagement, diversity of the people who have working for you, or is it the way they co-operate and collaborate together? For most organizations, it’s the second of these today.

So why do we still manage, measure, develop and reward the performance of individuals if what we need is performing teams? It’s because we’ve not connected the value chain I spoke of earlier – linking our activities to the required outcomes which will support and inform our business result.

In terms of your question, yes, the role of the machine is important here. New technologies like Virtual Reality offer the hope of connecting people remotely much more effectively than we’ve been able to do before. But we also need to use the systems we have access to today more effectively too.

I’m thinking in particular of our social technologies like Microsoft Teams and Yammer. Teams adoption has shot up but the same hasn’t been seen for Yammer which is Microsoft’s distributed networking tool. The consequence of this is that our strong ties, the connections we have with the people we work with closely, have been improved during the pandemic. But our weak ties, the people we know but don’t know well, have deteriorated badly. These are going to be crucial to innovating through and beyond the pandemic, and we should be using our technologies to redevelop them.

What have you learned about the best ways to embrace disruption and harness uncertainty as an inflection point for reinvention? What are your priorities today?

I think this is about understanding what you need to do and then finding an agile and incremental way in which to do it. Let me give you an example.

I’ve been providing a lot of training for HR practitioners over the last decade. Most of this is through day-long courses in London and other cities (I used to come out regularly to Singapore). But about five years ago I started to think that in today’s digital age this was a poor investment of my time, and a poor learning experience too and that what I should be doing is building a digital learning system where I only had to record my sessions once and people can then access this flexibly and asynchronously. I would then flip the focus, so instead of getting people together to talk at them, our valuable time together would be spent in the most valuable way, through discussion about the training content.

I never made this shift because I was so busy delivering face-to-face training. This is the typical innovator’s dilemma – that you have to back off what you’re doing, and even cannibalize this work, to develop what you need to be doing in the future.

But at the start of the pandemic, all my face-to-face training stopped. Therefore, I took the time to develop my Strategic HR Academy which is now supporting practitioners' capability development much more effectively, with members from all around the world.

I’m pleased I’ve made the change, but I should have started it much earlier. I think this need to understand the future and begin making moves towards it applies to larger organizations than my own in a very similar way.

The role of HR leaders has changed in the new people-first world. How do you see the role of talent leaders evolve in the post-pandemic days?

People are at the center of business strategy. HR is therefore the people who provide our organizations’ competitive success.

We need to live up to this opportunity by creating people-based business strategies – strategies that lead the business forward through what we do to manage and organize our people. And we need to inform as well as support the rest of the business. Ensuring we offer our businesses the opportunity to set more stretching business goals, not just support the business objectives they have today.

This requires us to focus much more on organizational outcomes and to take accountability for creating the outcomes our organizations need, across a particular organization.

The opportunity doesn’t come from focusing on the business. Yes, we do need to understand and focus on the business, but our organizations already have lots of people who already focus on the business. We also need to understand and focus on technology and the data it provides. But again, that’s not the difference that makes the difference in our roles.


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Topics: #Culture, #DigitalCultureReset, #HRTech

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