Zero One: Why Can’t Companies Get Culture Right?
By now, we’ve seen “corporate culture” derail many promising digital transformation plans. A CapGemini study cites culture as the top inhibitor to innovation. Pitney Bowes salespeople apparently undermined Internet of Thing efforts in order to protect future commissions. Now artificial intelligence threatens to displace human workers, foreshadowing a culture war between man and machine.
We’ve listened to companies claiming to have customer-centric cultures, yet witnessed their business interests make a mockery of these claims. Wells Fargo put its quotas ahead of customers. The United Airlines debacle turned its famous slogan – “fly the friendly skies” – into a punch line. And Uber’s reckless, toxic culture led #DeleteUber to trend on social media and, ultimately, to the ousting of CEO Travis Kalanick.
So why can’t companies get culture right? Because culture is as messy, complex and amorphous as the human personality.
At the very least, there must be real commitment from the top to demand, say, a maniacal focus on the customer. We’re not talking about a mission statement. Rather, the cultural mandate must trickle down into success metrics for departments and annual employee performance reviews.
But that’s just the beginning. The bigger problem lies in the areas of culture that are hard to measure – that is, how people feel about going to work every day. To this end, company culture is really a collection of micro cultures that may or may not align to the macro culture.
“Every organization has subcultures or local cultures, which have their own influence on organizations,” writes James daSilva, editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter, in a blog post. “It’s at these levels, for many possible reasons, that people adopt or diverge from the expectations of corporate.”
These “many possible reasons” affecting local cultures combine to make corporate culture difficult to manage. Local cultures often boil down to colleagues, and so an addition or subtraction of a single employee can disrupt a local culture. Or maybe there’s a slight change in product strategy that causes resentment among some employees in a local culture. Point is, it doesn’t take much to cause chaos.
Strong communication and collaboration play important roles in managing local cultures, but they can also spark problems.
Given recent calls for cross-departmental collaboration, suddenly local cultures in vastly different professions – say, marketing and tech – have to find common ground and work together. Departments might be in different geographies, even different countries where cultural differences take on an entirely new meaning.
All of this will no doubt cause disruption to local cultures, heighten the risk for miscommunication, and may lead to the dreaded “us vs. them” mentality.
The bigger the company, of course, the more local cultures to manage. Worse, local cultures often trump corporate culture. That is, people care most about the colleagues they work side-by-side with, how they feel about their daily jobs, and what they know their real work expectations are as opposed to sweeping corporate goals.
It’s no wonder companies struggle with culture.
Based in Silicon Valley, Tom Kaneshige writes the Zero One blog covering digital transformation, AI, marketing tech and the Internet of Things for line-of-business executives. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.