Using cultural models for changing corporate culture

Corporate culture is a label often used to describe the “what” about “why” something cannot be done. Peter Drucker is often quoted as follows; “Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.” One could be forgiven for believing that corporate culture cannot be changed.

My experience is that it can. Changing corporate culture undoubtedly requires leadership. It is useful, however, for leaders to be able to build a picture of the change required using a model of the culture.

Models of a corporate culture tend to be of two types.

The first type depicts culture as a geometric shape such as a polygon. The length of the spokes from the centre of the polygon reflects a numerical value of a specific element or typology of “corporate culture”. The elements tend to have labels such as “Avoidance” or “Achievement” or “Reactionary”.

The second type tends to build a textual description of each corporate culture element. The model tries to describe, using plain words, the elements of the culture.

Both types may be used in analysing corporate culture. However, in my experience, the latter is more useful than the former in implementing a change in corporate culture.

My experience is the typology type requires the least thinking by the leadership team and the descriptive type the most.

The first type is very useful in getting a picture of an organisation’s culture. Also, using the tools can create a successful cultural change. Several organisations make a very good business out of marketing and selling the tools. So, on one level, they are successful.

My observation, however, is that people tend to remember the picture and or the labels given to the typology. They do not however, understand the detail behind the picture. To bring about cultural change, it is the detail that needs to be thought through and changed.

Because the picture requires interpretation, often a consultant is needed to help devise, implement and drive change based on the model. Change driven by a consultant, in my experience, peters out once the budget for the consultant is exhausted.

An example of the second type is Johnson and Scholes Cultural Web. Another example I have found to be also to be very useful is the theory of planned behaviour.

For the purpose of this illustration though, I will concentrate on the Cultural Web model.

This model describes a corporate culture consisting of six elements:

  • Power Structures
  • Organisational Structures
  • Rituals and Routines
  • Symbols
  • Control Systems
  • Myths and Stories

The six elements together form the base for the paradigm of the organisation.

article - hr kpis - cultural web

The model is particularly useful because a plan can be developed to change the constituent parts for each element or combination of elements.

The model is easy enough to understand for people in the organisation to do their own analysis, perhaps with the help of a consultant, but not with the consultant in the driving seat.

For example, in one organisation’s call centre environment, the following was observed:

  • Organisational Structure
    • Team managers do not have sufficient knowledge to effectively manage
    • Teams change frequently
    • Teamwork lacking
    • Lack of promotion from within
  • Myths & Stories
    • Disasters
    • Them versus us
    • Absence of Recognition
    • Low morale
    • Poor people management
    • Poor follow through on initiatives
    • Poor work-home life balance
    • Corporate values not role modelled by senior management
    • Cost cutting
  • Rituals and Routines
    • “Customer service”
    • “Corporate values”
    • Employee survey results
    • Staff development plans
    • Initiatives

The myths and stories in the organisation were all negative. Many of the myths and stories were perpetuated by senior managers. What should have been seen as positive elements within the organisation were seen as rituals and routines and not actually delivering an outcome.

To change what was seen as a poor paradigm, the organisation structure and make up was changed frequently, mostly from outside the organisation resulting in poor knowledge at management level. The actions perpetuated the cultural elements described under rituals and routines and encouraged similar myths and stories told in the workplace.

The culture was changed by:

  • Being crystal clear about the goal of the organisation
  • Communicating the goal of the organisation at every opportunity
  • Distilling the goal into discrete outputs for teams
  • Holding people accountable to their contribution to the goal
  • Reducing the number of initiatives to focus on completing initiatives
  • Eliminating initiatives which did not contribute strongly to the goal
  • Deliberately, formally telling and retelling stories about good outcomes that contribute to the goal
  • Owning up to mistakes and poor outcomes to change the outcomes
  • Training and promoting from within

The change seems obvious. However, until the cause and effect of process mixed with leaders behaviours creating the culture is seen clearly for what it is, change efforts tend to attack one or two elements in isolation.

The strength of the change seeming to be obvious is that it needed little interpretation. People within the organisation were able to plan, implement and measure the change in culture with minimal help from consultants.

Using something like the Cultural Web model, the desired culture can be described in the small concrete building blocks of each element. The requirement to change culture therefore becomes a large number of specific small changes.

This is significantly more effective in generating change from within than a change described as a change from one label to another. For example, describing the change from a passive-defensive culture to a constructive culture which is the case in pictorial models using labels to describe culture.

Changing organisation culture is not so much difficult as it is painstaking and requiring of leadership. Models help understand what is required. Models which perpetuate the use of labels to describe culture are, in my experience, less useful in delivering lasting change than those which describe the component parts.

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