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Thursday, 11 July 2013 07:11

Culturing: Not just for dairy products any more

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Reading this article about organizational culture in the Harvard Business Review the other day, I was reminded of my long-standing belief that the term 'organizational culture' shouldn't just be a noun that describes a 'thing', but also a verb which describes an action - the action of creating and maintaining a culture.

The notion that organizational culture exists has been around for a long time, though the term itself wasn't yet popular - I can remember having conversations in the 1990s about whether so-and-so was a 'good fit' for this or that organziation.  We might have used terms like 'corporate environment' or even 'company vibe' to describe the way a particular organization operated, but what we really meant was 'culture'.

Then the dot-com era arrived, along with Herman Miller furniture, free snacks in the lunchroom and super-cool offices in converted downtown warehouses, and suddenly 'culture' was a big selling point for fast-growing companies who were competing for top talent.

The problem is that you can't just give people Aeron chairs and unlimited free diet Coke and assume that will create a culture.  'Culture' may be a noun, but creating and sustaining organizational culture is an ongoing activity which isn't top-down or bottom-up - it's more like a scatter graph with arrows and squiggles and dotted lines connecting everyone in the organization, and even lots of people outside the organization, to each other.

Culture isn't a static thing; it's constantly in flux.  And it's not just imposed on an organization on a Monday at 9am via a memo entitled "Our New Culture".  It's created through individual activities over an extended period of time.  That's why when I was writing my doctoral thesis, back in 2000, I coined the term 'culturing' - using a verb rather than a noun is a good way to remember that it's a process, not an event or a finite state.

Organizational culture is really all about relationships:  The relationship the organization has to its employees, the relationships those employees have to the organization and to each other, and the relationships the organization - and its individual employees - have with outside stakeholders like clients and suppliers.  Relationships are the product of a series of interactions over time:  When the interactions are positive, the relationship deepens and is lasting; when the interactions are negative, the relationship deteriorates and finally ends.

But it's more than that.  The nature of individual relationships is a product of the nature of the interactions, too:  When your interactions with person A consist mainly of weekly golf games, and your interactions with person B consist mainly of romantic dates, you naturally end up having a different relationship with person A than you do with person B.

With that in mind, 'culturing' is the term I use to describe actively creating specific interactions designed to build the organizational culture you want.  It's not enough to hand people a list of "Our Core Values" and then hope for the best.  Culturing is about helping the individuals within an organization - from the senior leadership team right down to the junior interns - to apply those values to their day-to-day activities.  It could be as simple as reminding people that since one of the organization's core values is 'responsiveness', on a day-to-day basis they should be making an effort to respond to phone calls and emails as promptly as possible, or it could be as complex as ensuring that 'responsiveness' is reflected in a commitment to a nimble supply chain functino.

And here's the thing:  When you start thinking about culturing rather than culture, you'll end up getting the culture you want, faster - and more effectively.

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Beth Banks Cohn, PhD, founder and president of ADRA Change Architects, is dedicated to helping you and your organization reach your full business potential…
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