My friend Adrian Wood, Grand Poobah over at Shadowmatch USA, has been kind enough to allow me to post one of his offerings for your enjoyment. Wait…what? – JW

Please use the correct towels

Please use the correct towels

Read any HR journal today and you’ll nearly always find some article going on about the importance of “culture” within an organization. Either it’s the quest to understand the culture, the need to change it, or the process of finding out if employees fit it. I’m afraid though that people have become so entangled in the trying to define their culture, that they’ve completely forgotten to think about what it actually is, and whether they have really missed the whole point about exactly what they’re trying to measure!

So, what is culture? It has numerous definitions, but setting aside the definition that describes what’s growing at the back of your fridge, the best for our purposes is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”.

It turns out though that an organization, like a living organism, is made up of many component parts that all do their special job in their own special way, and require their own special environment to do it just right. As an analogy: we call ourselves “tactile” humans, but there’s a reason why I have hundreds more times as many nerve endings in my fingers than on my back, and that’s because it’s inconvenient to take off my shirt and roll around on fruit at the grocery store to see if it’s ripe enough to eat. Teams within companies are the same, they need to have specialized attributes and skills and behaviors because that’s what makes them so good at what they do in their specific role and environment. Therefore, I don’t believe you can aggregate all the different nuances up to a higher level and have it still be meaningful.

Every different team in a company has, by right and necessity, the ability and need to define it’s own sub-culture. I really don’t want my Accounts Receivables team to be as radically innovative as my strategy team. I kind-of just want them to be predictably accurate and methodical about getting people who owe us money to pay on time, and send a flare up if they suddenly decide not to pay us. Likewise, I don’t want my strategy team to be highly disciplined and organized. I need them to be kind of goofy free-radicals that exist on diets of red-bull and don’t mind upsetting the applecart in order to realize something new and exciting. For these groups to share the same culture would be terrible.  Change would be non-existent, or payments would be recorded in twenty different ways according to the corresponding meteorological patterns.

The term culture becomes even more foreboding when used in the process of company mergers. “What if they have a different culture than us?” and, “What if we lose our culture after the merger?” Talk about fatalism and self-fulfilling prophecies! Guess what; they’re going to have as many different sub-cultures as you do, so you had better get on with embracing that fact and figuring out exactly what they are because where the rubber hits the road is where the specific sub-culture of their AR team is different from your AR team, or the sub-culture of their strategy team is different from your strategy team. Now those ARE problems of difference in culture that you will have to address because these teams will not integrate easily and you’ll end up with no payments or strategy as a result.

Yes, of course you can say that a company has an overall culture of “customer satisfaction”, or “operational excellence”, but really – how each team does this is going to be unique to their role and responsibilities. It’s good in principle, but misses the importance of what the specific actions and behaviors are that the teams need to exhibit to actually accomplish them.

So if you would like to know what the culture of your company is, then I’d have to say we can’t really help you. BUT, if you really want to know the culture of some of the key teams in your organization, and how it helps them accomplish their goals, then we have your answer.

There now, that wasn’t so painful, was it? Check out Adrian and his mates, – Interested in guest blogging? I’m now on record as being unopposed to reviewing a submission should you be moved to share a post!