Need to know: Company culture

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the culture with regard to achieving the business strategy?

Everyone thinks that they know what the culture of their organisation is – surely it is articulated in the vision and beliefs of the company? But actually we need to understand both the implicit and explicit culture as it determines what people do and why.

The values, beliefs and purpose of the company will determine what the culture is and have a direct effect on things like: what is acceptable behaviour and what’s not what people get rewarded for and what they get punished for what changes are acceptable and what aren’t who fits in and who doesn’t, and so on.

But we also need to understand how both the implicit cultural norms influence people in how they work towards the business goals and whether these are at odds with the explicit ones. If, for example, one of the business goals is to be brave and innovative, then does your culture reward that behaviour or challenge it? Often it’s the case that the explicit culture states that it should be rewarded, but more informally people are criticised.

HR strategists like David Ulrich believe that a key part of HR’s role is to be a custodian of the company culture and a driver of cultural change. If you take this role, it is imperative that you know not only what the culture (explicit and implicit) is, but also where it needs to be to fit with the business strategy.

To progress their careers it is important for people in HR to become an expert in the practicalities of cultural change. We have found through our research that practical ability to make cultural change happen is one of the most difficult skills in HR. And yet that practical ability is an important capability for the future. It’s not enough to know the theory of cultural change – successful HR people need to test the theory and identify what works in practice in their organisation.

Research conducted by Orion Partners into career development in HR has identified that this is a key skill for HR people when it comes to getting the top job. 100% of senior HR people interviewed (head of HR or head of business unit or above) felt that they could trace getting the top job directly to successfully managing a change project which included an element of culture change. So understanding the culture of your organisation and managing its change could be a very good career move indeed.

Jan Hills, director, HR with Guts

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