The Past, Present and Future of Organizational Culture

When I first started working in the area of organizational culture nearly a decade ago, the debate was, “what is organizational culture?” and “can it even be measured?” Since that time, our understanding of culture has developed and grown, and I have been part of a practice that has developed a real-world approach, which works well for our clients and places more emphasis on tangible action than academic debate.

Today, organizational culture still remains a hot topic. It is on the top five lists of most CEO’s strategic initiatives as they plan for the next year. This can cause a lot of heartache among HR leaders and learning and development (L&D) communities. Where do we start, what is the process, what are the outcomes? Organizational culture is tremendously complicated and nebulous. Some will tell you that culture is simply the way we’ve learned to work together to accomplish our tasks. Others will add components of values and unspoken codes.

I have come to believe that the best way to think about an organization’s culture is to think about all the things that make up a person. We all have our own personal “rational facts”: Where did we go to school? Are we married? Do we have kids? Where do we live? Are we active or are we couch potatoes? (No judging here). Then we have our “emotional truths.” These are our strange idiosyncrasies. Are you a perfectionist? Do you need order and structure? Do you always have to order off the menu? (Again no judging). These things are deeper in our core, and we may not even be aware of them. Finally, there is “personality.” While there are things that some people find quite charming about us, the exact same things are completely off-putting for others.

As we grow and evolve in life, we are trying to find these facts, truths and personality characteristics about ourselves so we can grow and change. For instance, if I like to monitor and control my child’s relationships, I may be obstructing him from learning valuable life lessons and growing into his own person. Similarly, there are parallel lessons for organizations.

These things are not hard to find in your organization—if you know where to look. For rational facts: review existing data, websites, annual reports, onboarding materials, employee handbooks and survey data. The emotional truths are found through talking to people. We conduct one-on-one interviews with leaders and focus groups with people we refer to as “top performing culture bearers” (you know them when you see them). Lastly, we add quantitative data. We use the IBM Organizational Cultural Insight survey, but there are a variety of surveys available. But I caution you to not to rely too much on the survey data. The truly deep unspoken codes cannot be written into a survey item.

The outcomes of this work are more effective recruiting of people who fit your organizational culture, perform well and stick around. A good employment brand and employee value proposition (EVP) should also energize and engage existing employees. And when needed, the information gathered can be used to conduct some culture change management work.

I believe the future of organizational culture will be one of collaboration and analytics. Organizational culture will likely be combined with employee engagement data, performance measures, retention data, business metrics, leadership accountability, recruiting targets, employment branding, social media strategy and the data derived from each. This will provide a clear dashboard of what is happening with your most important assets—your people. Perhaps even more important, it will tell you the story of what great looks like at your company and reveal how to tell the story of your employees who exemplify that greatness—so others can understand excellence at their own organization.