Culture is an integral part of our experiences and identities and is a common thread across shared history and realities. In recent times, I have become more aware of the roles that culture plays in personal, organizational and societal spheres and now understand that people’s actions and inactions are driven, at least on a subliminal level by culture. From an macroeconomic standpoint, culture influences decision making and behavioral patterns in organizations and communities that lead to their social and economic outcomes.
Corporate culture had always sounded to me like a fancy business term that organizations used to claim that they adhere to certain values and to portray themselves as a great place to work. In fact, culture is one of the major factors that defines work experiences but on a corporate level, goes deeper than that. It took working at one of the biggest international professional services firms for me to realize the full import of corporate culture and its role in driving sustainable development. My role as a corporate governance consultant further allowed me to examine this phenomenon across organizations and industries.
Organizational culture comprises assumptions, beliefs, values and routines etc. perpetuated by an organization that result in the social, behavioral and psychological patterns exhibited by members of the organization. It can be expressed through manner of speech, dressing, how work is performed and even in attitude towards work and opinions regarding one’s experience in the organization.
My interest in this subject stems from observing and interacting with members of Nigerian-owned organizations (especially SMEs) and examining their perspectives and experiences. With unhealthy cultural practices dominating feedback, I believe that indigenous startups and corporate organizations could do better with improving their culture and harnessing it to drive sustainable development. IN many local firms, it is neither considered as a pillar of governance nor an issue that requires a systematic approach in handling. Consequently, such systems reek of poor job satisfaction, poor internal controls, micromanagement, unethical behaviors and poor work-life balance etc. In most of these cases, personal biases and interests of those in authority supersede best practice and even regulatory requirements aimed at strengthening the corporate environment.
Additionally, individuals who work for multinationals with rich cultural practices may encounter disorienting cultural shocks in local firms that might discourage further interaction with them. Hence, this is one of the major reasons that local firms are unable to attract, retain and even develop the best talent in their fields when compared to international counterparts.
I have drawn from my experience working at an international firm with a great culture and as a professional who advised corporate clients on corporate culture as a pillar of governance to come up with simple guidelines on how indigenous firms can establish, develop and sustain desired cultural practices and in extension, productivity, staff retention and reputational capital.
Crisp and Concise Articulation of Values, Assumptions and Philosophies
It is quite obvious that clarity should precede execution in any endeavor. It would be difficult to propagate a cultural practice without first defining the “what, why and how”. I recommend that firms should articulate their values and philosophies as plainly and concisely as possible. During my time in KPMG Nigeria, “cutting through complexities” was the clear tagline for the firm. More so, it was articulated so often in print and verbal dialogue – as the firm’s driving philosophy – that it became impressed in the minds of the employees.
When faced with a frightening deadline or a seemingly impossible task to deliver on, the instinct was to think “cutting through complexities”. Even when it was echoed in jest by staff, everyone was aware of the underlying strength that the phrase had in defining the firm and its people.
A simple, well thought out and articulated value/philosophy/routine is the ground block for building a strong awareness with stakeholders about what principles hold meaning to the leadership of an organization. One’s aim should be to eliminate any uncertainty and ambiguity regarding what the organization and its people hold as vital and relevant to their mission.
Brand Integration and Stakeholder Awareness
It is one thing to have clearly articulated values, philosophies and courses of action. It is even smarter to have witty slogans coined from them but all of those would be of little use without being translated to the consciousness and practices of the firm’s people.
Firstly, I believe that the first group of stakeholders who should be custodians of an organization’s culture is its staff. Once, they’ve imbibed it, they become vehicles through which these ideas and practices can be translated to other stakeholders like customers, peer organizations etc.
One very potent way to do this is through brand integration. Internal and public relations should be infused with both explicit and subtle cues to elements of the organization’s desired culture. This should be worked into product, correspondence, service and workspace design and implementation.
There are certain organizations with robust corporate brands that one cannot walk into without noticing the innovative ways that their workspaces are designed to communicate their values.
In KPMG Nigeria, for instance, attention to detail and clear communication were such important values that they were expressed in the work flow established for production of reports. In the same vein, the use of analytics, infographics, custom fonts and other innovative visuals in report writing were important. Therefore, most consultants were skilled in visual representation of data and report writing and produced reports that were pleasantly unique and thorough.
Repetition and Engagement Across Functions and Processes
This step is where the muscle of culture is exercised and its roots deepened. An organization could never realize a robust, healthy culture without a penchant for systems and structure which are deliberately deployed to facilitate desired practices alongside core and support functions.
This phase requires a top-bottom approach to managing people and resources that echoes all that has been brandished by way of communication and branding. Organizations through their daily affairs, have the chance to exhibit in practice their values and philosophies in a manner that is objective and consistent. Thus, over time, employees, customers and other stakeholders are conditioned to align their values and interests in order to meet both personal and shared objectives while working with the organization.
“Respect for the Individual” was one value that I imbibed in the corporate environment. It was so important at one of the firms where I worked that deliberate efforts were made to reflect it in every way possible. The manner of response to emails, tone of speech, approach towards making demands even a junior colleague, the evaluation process and feedback mechanism etc. all emphasized that disrespect was not condoned. In the event that an employee felt disrespected and escalated the case, it would be thoroughly investigated and addressed. By the time I had been in that environment for a year, my value for respecting individuals had transcended my professional interactions into my personal life and become more instinctive.
The engenderment of culture requires that it is practiced consistently and in this case, in a multidimensional manner such that it becomes more experiential than instructional.
Establishment of Immersion and Re-immersion Programs
Culture takes its significance from the interactions of people with themselves, other people and systems around them. Hence, in hiring and retaining people, organizations must make deliberate, strategic efforts to immerse these individuals – who possess distinct philosophies, biases, values and habits – into the cultural environment that the firm seeks to sustain. More so, because human behavior is reinforced by consistent exposure to certain factors, re-immersion programs that seek to re-orientate its people must be run by the organization.
Immersion programs are vital for conditioning new hires as they get into the system right before they begin to adapt their functions to preinstalled values and patterns. These programs could be in form of formal induction and training, experiential learning programs, themed social events etc. It is important for the people to be exposed to situations beyond the regular course of work that reaffirm the culture to them. It would be a great bonus if these events are designed to be fun, unconventional and stress-free such that it induces a state in which people are susceptible to learn.
Establishment of Reward and Penalty Systems
One of the most potent approaches to maintaining any practice is to build a reward and penalty system around it that. These serve as an incentive to encourage the practice or culture and inhibit its violation respectively. This can be achieved through a plethora of ways from social events aimed at recognizing people and groups who exhibit desired cultural practices or team building activities that create increased awareness about them. In the same vein, practices that defy the organizations values and philosophies and lead to adverse outcomes should be addressed with penalties that discourage reccurrence.
While there are a myriad of technicalities to the establishment of corporate culture and change management especially with the evolving business and economic systems that exist today, the aforementioned are basic guidelines that can inform an organization’s approach to establishing a robust, healthy corporate culture.