Before we go into how we can change organisational culture it’s important to understand what culture is and its key facets. Organisational culture according to Edgar Schein (2004) is “the pattern of shared basic assumptions — invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration – that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems” (Schein 2004, p17). According to Hofstede (1991), “culture is the collective programming of the human mind which distinguishes the members of one organisation from another” (p180). It is evident from these definitions that Culture is built through shared learning and mutual experience. This shared learning and experience is at the heart of any culture change programme.
Organisational culture is poorly understood leading to culture initiatives that fail and waste money. Others have mixed employee engagement with culture again creating unnecessary wasteful confusion. Organisational culture and employee engagement are what environmental climate is to weather. An organisational culture like climate is more stable and very difficult to change. Employee engagement is like the weather; it can change from minute to minute, hour to hour. It is important to note that employee engagement is heavily influenced by the organisation culture. If you want desired lasting change focus on organisational culture instead of employee engagement as the end game. It is however important to periodically gauge your employee engagement. If you discover persistent areas that are negative you may want to dig deeper into the organisation’s culture.
As part of the change programme, you need to understand what type of culture you have. The best approaches to understanding culture incorporate both quantitative methods and qualitative methods. A word of caution though is that when using quantitative approaches use validated instruments. Using instruments that are not validated is a waste of your money and time and it leads to nothing tangible. Should you choose to use the qualitative approach use tried and tested methodologies that have been validated. Both approaches always measure the current culture and desired culture.
Before you start the culture change you must be clear on what business problem is being negatively impacted by the culture. There is no point in going through a culture change programme designed as a “joy ride” without targeting a business problem. Once the business problem is identified and commonly understood by the leadership the whole process of assessing your current and desired culture can start. This should enable you to establish the gap between the current and desired culture. In your assessment, you may discover that in the same organisation various subcultures are supporting different business and personal agendas. The level of change planning and initiatives will depend on the size of the gap between the current and desired culture, and the number of subcultures operating within the organisation.
When starting the culture change programme remember no culture change programme will happen as long as it does not have a shared learning and mutual experience component. Any culture change programme that does not incorporate this important element is unlikely to succeed. The biggest hurdle though to changing culture lies in first having a clear understanding of your current culture to enable you to initiate changes that will take you to your desired culture. After understanding your current culture and where you want to go the next step is to come up with a solid change programme that takes into consideration the shared learning and mutual experience.
Piecemeal changes to the system without a shared learning experience will not work. Team building and other peripheral activities such as training based on lecturing people on culture lead to failures in culture change programmes. The culture change programme should largely be made of a change programme that incorporates experiential learning led by the executive team. Do not stick religiously to a culture change programme when new dynamics emerge. Remember culture change involves very fluid dynamics in human interactions. New relationships and partnerships are forged as you are going through the change programme. Redirect these to support your bigger business agenda as per your change plan. You must also remember that every business system or policy must be reviewed and checked for alignment with the desired culture. This includes everything; how things are done, how people are managed, how financial resources are managed and accounted for. Realign your leadership team and check if their management styles are in line with the desired culture.
Once you have implemented these initiatives do your review after 12 months. However, remember culture change can be very painful and it takes time. Do not expect immediate change but if you are doing it well the positive signs show early.
Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker and managing consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and human resources consulting firm. — firstname.lastname@example.org or websites https://www.thehumancapitalhub.com/ and www.ipcconsultants.com.