Why all this talk of Culture now?
There is every indication that many of the changes which transformed the global industrial landscape in the past decade will only intensify in the coming one: heightened M&A activity, increased consolidation (leading to businesses getting hived off), Emerging Market Multinationals continuing their global foray, Organizations transforming drastically from inside-out as they feel the heat of competition and yet more changes in the technological landscape (emergence of Cloud Computing and Social Networking as factors, to name only two). These will continue to place ever greater demands on organizations to evolve at a fast pace.
As organizations transform, one of the key challenges they grapple with is the need to align their employees to the change. Any wonder then that “Culture Alignment” is the new trending topic in corporate boardrooms? While the need for Culture Alignment has been widely felt, I have, in my experience seen organizations struggle with practically making it happen.
The rub lies in the fact that a good number of organizations seem to have a rather mechanical approach to Culture Alignment, loosely defined as Conduct Survey-Analyse Results-Identify Interventions-Implement-Measure. While there is a strong case to following a methodical approach to bringing about transformation, deeper and sustained change needs a more focused approach, visible involvement of leadership and yes, it has a place for intuition as well!
I was recently a part of a People Matters-Mercuri Urval Round Table discussion on the topic Aligning Cultures: Aspirations Capabilities and Attitudes on 27th February, 2014. The event was aimed at gathering views from HR Leaders on their experiences on Culture Alignment. More specifically, the key challenges they face and what they have seen working (and not working). It was an insightful session for all of us. This article is an attempt to capture the key learnings from the discussion and marry it with my experience of having helped organizations transform over the years.
Culture Transformation: The inside out approach (A.K.A Aligning employees to Culture Change)
A European infrastructure major had long felt the need to align its workforce- both blue and white collared- to the global way of working. The company had pride on its commitment to quality and a strong process orientation. Those same processes however, were seen as stifling innovation, creativity and speed.
Discussions on the shop-floor revealed that the disregard for procedures was far from inherent. This was also revealed in a Culture Survey which actually revealed “Process Adherence” and “Failure Avoidance” to be two of the highest scoring dimensions. What was actually missing was a sense of pride. Comments to the tune of “we suspect that these rules are only meant to keep us in check”, “the management seems to lack trust” and “we end up spending more time on documentation than in doing things” were commonly heard.
There also appeared to be some truth to the third statement: software which enabled easy documentation and record keeping elsewhere in the globe wasn’t yet installed in Indian plants which created a need for cumbersome documentation and updates. Notices on walls with what were perceived to be condescending messages around process orientation did not help matters at all.
- Listening to the line: The findings triggered an earnest “Go Gemba” initiative which aimed at understanding realities of the shop floor. The exercise generated inputs which led to re-drafting of manuals and SOPs which, while being consistent with global norms also factored for local innovations (some of which were replicated globally)
- Proof of concept: The initiative was deemed critical enough for the organization to work out an ambitious exchange program for chosen employees across levels. The program involved deputing employees to global locations to help them witness first-hand the benefits of following procedural norms. They brought the learnings back with them.
- Enablement through technology upgrade and change management: The group commissioned implementation of the global documentation software in Indian operations and drew out a systematic change management program to ensure that the implementation succeeded.
The inside out approach to transformation goes beyond merely re-jigging internal processes like performance management systems, communication, training or even transforming organizational rituals and workplace ergonomics. In our experience, the best Culture Alignment interventions create an impact at the level of every employee. Aspirations, Capability and Attitudes are the three key pillars.
Focus on the nuts and bolts: Because Culture Alignment is often driven and monitored at the highest levels (as indeed it should be-more on that later), there always exists a danger that the basics are missed out in pursuit of the big, spectacular initiative. This doesn’t de-emphasise the need for a high impact, high visibility initiative. It just pays to keep in mind that the momentum needs to be sustained by working at the very grass-roots. The big launch event needs to be backed up by a painstaking overhaul of the Performance Management System, the CEO town hall needs to be followed up with dialogue at the work-group level, the exchange program with meticulous documentation and knowledge capture.
Answer the “what’s in it for me?”: Large scale transformation initiatives are disruptive and often traumatic at the level of the individual. Fear of obsolescence, resistance and confusion go with the territory and it is a fallacy to believe that any of it can be sustainably addressed using a crude carrot-and-stick approach.
It’s all about energy: Culture Transformation programs are aimed at achieving various objectives. We believe that one which doesn’t have either “Releasing our company’s latent energy” or “Infusing new energy and vigour in our organization” as one of them is bound to fail. Indeed, our advice to industry leaders is to make one of these objectives the eventual goal of everything they do towards transforming culture of the organization
The second part of this article will talk about implementing an effective Culture Alignment program and the role of leaders in making these programs successful.