Written by Susan Burns
One of the key takeaways from Talent Camp was the role that HR can play in enabling and leading collaborative work environments. Not only is the time appropriate for HR to take this on but it’s critical that they step up to lead the way. By enabling collaborative work environments, HR assumes a role in advancing the organization’s innovation capabilities, which can increase competitive agility and deliver enhanced value to the bottom line. Ultimately, culture determines the organization’s effectiveness, capability and future. Before narrowing in on the role of HR it’s valuable to take a look at what comprises and influences organizational culture.
Every organization has a story to tell. How things get done. How people think. How decisions are made. What conversations sound like. Who is interacting with whom. A composite of the attitudes, behaviors, experiences, values and beliefs that influence how the company operates and accomplishes its business objectives. Layer upon layer, just like an archaeological dig, each of these threads works together to tell the company’s story. Culture is shaped and influenced over time by company founders and leaders. In some instances its shaped by a deliberate, intentional vision. In others, culture is shaped organically. Either way it becomes the DNA of the organization. As a company matures, new leaders shape culture through tangible and intangible actions. Social, technical, economic, political and global events also affect culture through related events. Awareness of organizational culture has grown over time. Culture has become a common and important characteristic to companies promoting their employment brand and to job seekers considering employment options. The latter may sound surprising during the current economic situation but I think people weigh choices differently, especially when it comes to how and where they invest time to build their careers.
Culture plays such a significant role within an organization, people will work hard to protect the company’s culture – consciously or unconsciously, sometimes not even realizing what it is they’re trying to protect. During times of transformation this can be quite limiting and costly to an organization. When culture isn’t nurtured and allowed to evolve organically it can impede growth, interfere with competitive capabilities, make it more challenging to attract desired talent – and even cloud information around the type of talent that is needed, and lead to turnover of good people. Now, it may be true that an organization deliberately chooses not to allow its culture to evolve. That’s fine as long as it’s a deliberate decision and the consequences are recognized as well. Its also important to note that culture can evolve without compromising the organization. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing change. By identifying core components of the culture that continue to add organizational value along with where there is an opportunity for the culture to evolve and add greater value, the company and employees can be served more fully.
Time for Cultural Change – Collaboration
Are the organization’s needs and potential being met by the existing culture? As we head into a new year and a new decade, its valuable to reflect on how your company kept pace with the amount of change that has taken place over the past ten years. What are the social, technological, economic and global trends that have had a major impact on the way business gets done? What about the way people interact – personally and at work? Will the culture continue to support the company’s needs over the next 5 – 10 years? What about the people that make the business happen each day? Or, is the culture impeding progress and the ability to attract and retain the talent that will be needed to compete effectively. If the organization’s culture has not changed while everything around it has is that good? Will the culture help to prepare the company for a successful future? Maybe yes and maybe no. If the tough questions aren’t asked and answered objectively and honestly then where does that leave the company?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that culture should be so malleable that it’s constantly changing. On the contrary, I’m suggesting that a strong culture allows for evolution and change. One of the most important questions to ask of culture in today’s organization is how effectively it supports collaboration and if the company’s leaders embrace the idea of a collaborative environment. People have more opportunities to connect, share ideas and create content than during any other time in history. They have easy access to information and can, in most instances, quickly find the answer or gain knowledge on a variety of subjects simply by typing a question into Google or tapping their networks. This is the current and evolving state of the workforce. Social networking and online collaboration is influencing the way people interact, access information and work together to make things happen. So, what happens when they go to work? Does the culture of the organization align with what people value? Does it support access to information and connections?
The Role of HR and Collaborative Environments
Where does responsibility for culture sit within an organization? Who will recognize if and when the culture has an opportunity or need to evolve? I believe the responsibility should sit with HR and will even go as far as saying its one of the more important contributions that HR can make to their organization’s health, success and longevity. What is the HR functions role in shaping organizational culture? Does HR lead the evolution of culture? Do they have the capability to shape culture and enable organizational effectiveness? Or, does HR focus on trying to protect “something” in an effort to reduce risk and maintain the status quo? My guess is that there’s room for debate!
From my perspective, this is where the value contribution from HR can soar. Leading a culture evolution can reflect HRs capacity to bring together significant trends influencing the workforce, current and future, and the organization’s need for increased competitiveness, agility and innovation – all elements of a successful future. Establishing a collaborative environment is dependent on how people interact, how work evolves, how diverse perspectives are engaged, and how leaders are developed to bring out the best in people to guide the organization to success. Each of these is at the heart of where HR adds leadership and value to an organization’s success. As a collaborative environment is shaped and embraced, the organization will benefit from increased interaction, idea generation, broader perspectives around problem solving, and a more expansive approach to planning for market and product growth, or contraction. As HR helps to shape the organization’s culture it contributes directly to its own evolution in the company and is well positioned as a key contributor to long-term success.
If culture is allowed to evolve through nurturing or unfold organically to reflect changes in broader societal and technical trends then its time to take a deep look at how things are getting done. What story does your company want to tell?
Comment by Steve Boese
Made Wednesday, 16 of December , 2009 at 9:52 am
Susan – Excellent piece! I have a question for you around organizational culture. In mid-size and large organizations is there any validity to the idea of ‘micro-cultures’ being as important as overall culture? In so many roles, 90% of your exposure and interaction is limited to a fairly small group of colleagues and the norms, rules, and shared experiences etc. of this smaller group may have more impact that the broader organizational constructs. I am not sure that this is true, but wanted to get your take on it.
Comment by Susan
Made Wednesday, 16 of December , 2009 at 12:16 pm
Thanks for your comment Steve. There is definitely validity to the influence of “micro-cultures”. Sometimes micro-cultures are influenced by the needs or operating environment of a particular business function and in others it may have been influenced by leaders, previous or current, of the group/team. There’s a tendency to say there is only one culture – the organization. Ultimately, that doesn’t service the organization well. An example that comes to mind from my retail experience are the differences across families of business (FOBs). Typically trend apparel businesses are faster paced and more competitive than a home goods business. The demands of the business and competitive environment had a significant impact on the culture in those two work groups. Mapping talent to the culture was important in successful selection, placement and development, which ultimately strengthens the micro-culture. The same could even be said within the HR function. It would not have been effective to force all FOBs to embrace the same culture. At the same time, its important to state and ask for a broad commitment to the core aspects of an organization’s culture – that is feasible to expect across the company.
I think there are significant benefits to micro-cultures for the small groups and the organization. For the group, it can allow them to operate with higher levels of engagement and collaboration that support morale, effectiveness, competitiveness, innovation and results. If the organization is open to change and operates in a “learning mode” then micro-cultures can have a beneficial influence on how the broader organization’s culture evolves. The risk is determining which aspects of a micro-culture will add value and which may actually inhibit progress.