Thursday, 4 April 2013

How To Change Your Company Culture

Barclay’s recent job cuts announcement includes a vow to ‘change the corporate culture’ of the organisation.  How realistic is that as an aim?
Change Company Culture
Organisational Change
New CEO Anthony Jenkins is wise to say that it will take ‘five to 10 years’ to embed genuine change. Culture is the very essence of an organisation.  There is a debate about whether culture is something an organisation “has” – a characteristic which can be changed in the same way as new equipment can be bought or processes introduced, or whether it is something an organisation “is” – so fundamental to the DNA of the organisation that it permeates all elements of organisational life.

Cultural models reflect this complexity. The well-known cultural web developed by Johnson and Scholes provides one illustration. The web is made up of a number of elements:
  • The events and stories that people talk about
  • The rituals and routines that show what is important and what‘sanctioned’ behaviour is
  • The symbols, from the organisation’s brand and buildings to the language that people use
  • Who has real power – to keep the status quo or make improvements
  • What controls are in place – both measurement and reward systems
  • The formal organisational structure – showing both who and what is important
At the centre of these six elements is what Johnson and Scholes call the ‘paradigm’: those deep unstated assumptions about the organisation that are so taken for granted, people don’t even know they have them.
To make it worse, few organisations have a single culture.   Subcultures proliferate – forming for reasons as varied as the requirement for an R&D division to work in a particular way to make its contribution, to the different basic assumptions that contribute to the world view of people from varying national cultures in a multi-national organisation.

So is change possible?  Yes, but it is important to recognise the limitations and risks.  As well as multifaceted, culture is multi-layered.  Ed Schein, father of organisational cultural theory, paints a picture of the levels of culture: Artifacts– things that can be seen, heard and touched as soon as you walk through an organisation’s doors.  Espoused values and beliefs - what people say is important. And finally – the basic, underlying assumptions that form the beating heart of the organisation. These assumptions build up over an organisation’s lifetime as a result of people finding a way of being that ‘works’ and works repeatedly when tackling challenges. That level of ‘taken for grantedness’ is tough to permeate – which helps explain the anxiety and resistance that can scupper the most well-meaning change efforts.  Though it also means that there are times where it is obvious that ‘the world is shifting’ when cultural change is the most likely – as it becomes increasingly clear that the old ways of being simply just won’t cut it for the future.

Changing culture means being in it for the long haul, taking a holistic approach – and recognising that intended changes often end up having unexpected consequences. No blog post could do justice to the complexity of what is required. A few pointers, in particular from a communication perspective include:
  • Clarity. Populate the cultural web to understand where your culture is now, and where you need it to be
  • Help people to ‘unlearn’:  use communication to help show why the current way of being just won’t work for the future. Better still, find ways people can find this out for themselves (e.g.: ask groups to conduct their own market research) 
  • Support leaders in being tangible and explicit about what is changing (and what isn’t).  Highlight role models to help people ‘reframe’ their thinking.   Engage – providing structured opportunities for people to make their own informed decisions about solutions.
  • Provide a safe environment.  Fear of failure or looking stupid is a big stumbling block.  Listen to understand concerns, then communicate the support that is being put in place.
  • Recognise the power of the peer group – especially in the digital age.  Nurture and support ‘informal’ leaders
  • Publicise and reinforce successes – and encourage people to do the same through internal social media platforms.
Liz Cochrane
Course Director, Masters in Internal Communication Management

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