To execute a business strategy successfully, executives frequently must change the ways their managers operate: the way they think, the way they feel and the way they behave. For the past 20 years, our friends at Brookeside Group have been actively involved in helping clients come to grips with the problem of managing the “cultural” aspects of their business organizations. This 4 part blog series, written by Brookeside Group, outlines a four-step approach to measuring and managing this elusive concept:
Step 1: Recognize What It Is
Step 2: Measure Organizational Climate
Step 3: Understand Determinates of Climate
Step 4: Focus on Leadership Practices
Step 1: Recognize What It Is
The first step in managing corporate culture is to recognize what it is. It is complicated and messy, so people often throw up their hands and say, “I can’t do anything about this thing you call culture.” This is a mistake. We divide corporate culture into five components: values, beliefs, myths, traditions, and norms:
Values are the ways in which employees evaluate or assess certain traits, qualities, activities, or behaviors as good or bad, productive or wasteful. A high level of customer service, for example, is a core value of organizations such as Nordstroms or Dell Computer. This value might be reflected in such things as the company motto, measurement systems that focus on response time and reliability, the proportion and seniority of the staff who are available to respond to customer questions and complaints, or the frequency with which senior executives comment on quality service.
Beliefs, though frequently unstated, reflect people’s understanding of the way the organization works and the probable consequences of the actions they take. For example, in some organizations people champion new product ideas in the belief that innovation is the way to get ahead. In other organizations people emphasize quantitative analysis in the belief that controlling risk is the way to get ahead. These generally held beliefs are rarely based on a clear statement of values; more often, they are based on a recognition of patterns in the career paths taken by successful and unsuccessful executives over the years.
Myths are the stories or legends that persist about an organization and its leaders, reinforcing the core values or beliefs. For example, in McKinsey, the international consulting firm, myths surround “close calls” in making travel connections; they symbolize the emphasis on spending the most possible time with clients and minimizing time wasted in transit. Such stories are not pieces of trivial information – they are part of a body of clues or signals that transmit the culture to new members of the organization and reinforce that culture for existing members.
Traditions are repetitive significant events in an organization, including such rituals as welcoming luncheons, promotion celebrations, special awards, retirement parties, and twentyfifth anniversary dinners. These events inject predictability into the organizational environment and are a basic means of perpetuating cultural values, whether they honor tenure, advancement, or a special accomplishment that is held in high esteem by the organization.
Norms are the informal rules that exist in organizations regarding dress, work habits, work hours, and implicit codes of interpersonal behavior. For example, at Cisco Systems, the senior executives answer their own telephones; at IBM, secretaries screen all phone calls. Cisco is known for its open-door policy and for the openness of communications among levels of management. At The Brookeside Group, it is expected that all business travel be done either before or after business hours; this rule of conduct is not written down in any employee handbook or policy guide, but it is generally accepted as representing “the way things are done around here.”
The problem is that corporate culture is too big to be managed in the normal sense. There are too many variables, too many things to pay attention to. As one manager at the Colgate- Palmolive Company expressed it: “It’s like punching a pillow . . . You exert a lot of energy, but the results are so transitory. Nothing seems to really change, and you never know what to do next.” The behavioral consequences of corporate culture are more tangible and observable than the culture itself. As a result, executives who are trying to change the direction of an organization – and know that they need to change the behavior of managers – will be frustrated and discouraged if they focus too much attention on modifying or creating new values, beliefs, norms, and so on. What is required is a more manageable task, but one that still affects all of the important cultural variables.
Watch for Part Two of this blog series which will talk about how to measure organizational climate.