Culture is not part of the game – it is the game

Lou Gerstner, pictured opposite, used to be the Chairman and CEO of IBM.  In his excellent book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance” there are many great lessons for anyone in business.  I came across recently, however, one particularly poignant quote related to the use of social collaboration in business.  We all recognise the need for the right culture to prevail in the organisation, but Mr Gerstner says:

I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game — it is the game.  In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.

This quote pulled me up a bit because it is brutally true.  In the same way as organisations don’t have feelings, or attitudes, so too is the fact that the people in the organisation ARE the company.  Thus, to be successful, an organisation needs to cultivate the kind of culture it wants.  It’s more complicated than that though.  There is a marketing culture – the brand the company wants to put forward and an internal culture which is the environment we make for each other when working there.  Too often we find the marketing and internal cultures are quite different from each other.  As a consumer we’re disappointed when we “believe” the messaging by a company only to be disappointed when contact with its staff fails to live up to the expectations their marketing culture had led you to absorb.

In any organisation, the culture of the organisation, as Mr Gerstner says, comes from the people.  I am sure most organisations look like this:

Employees' alignment to the corporate culture can be different

Which direction are your staff going in? Lack of a common culture means effort is being lost moving your organisation forward.

Marketing’s branding of your culture might well be pointing one way, but is the culture of your innovation or customer service functions pointing the same way? While it’s probably impossible to achieve, the utopian dream of culture is that we are all going in the one direction:

An aligned corporate culture - is it impossible to achieve?

An aligned corporate culture – is it impossible to achieve?

Cost cutting, productivity programs, motivational speakers and all the other techniques you see these days about aligning corporate culture often fail. In many cases its because of a number of issues:

  1. No understanding of what the current culture is.
  2. Unclear corporate direction – what do we stand for?
  3. What does the organisation value? Profits, people, products, share price?
  4. Poor communication – in both directions.

When talking to potential customers about the use of “social” as an added dimension to their organisation I am often told that they have an intranet and so therefore don’t need anything else. What an intranet does for most organisations is to give the different parts of the company, but mostly HR and Marketing, a place to announce things. They are not generally designed to engage people. The traditional intranet, therefore, often is the manifestation of the marketing culture – the propaganda the organisation would have you believe. Nowadays, in my opinion, this is a recipe for disaster.

The best employees in your organisation probably treat your intranet with disdain. It’s probably considered to be some relic of the 1990s when it was all the rage to have one. The best employees get to understand what it’s like to be in your organisation based on their interactions with other people. If you want to make those interactions better, to make them rewarding and to address people’s need for self-actualisation (according to Maslow), then you need to cut the propaganda and make it easy for employees to find each other, to work with them, and then share the results and rewards from doing so.

Using a collaborative social network to flatten the organisation structure, where senior staff routinely interact with people well away from them in the organisation chart, is one of the best ways to start dealing with the culture. Have you ever seen the reality TV programs where the boss of some big organisation goes undercover to see what it’s really like to work in their company? Introducing a social network in your organisation where this becomes possible across all the areas you operate in is a great first step.

Giving people the opportunity to work together in communities of interest, centres of excellence, whatever you want to call them, as one strategy, is an excellent way to recognise and reward their abilities. Building a culture where it’s OK to discuss sensitive topics about the company in a public (within the company) area is a very healthy approach to ensuring that people are not disillusioned.

Could your company build a culture where a senior executive who does an “all hands” call stays on the phone for a prolonged period to answer ALL questions which are put to them? The call ends when there are no more questions?

Of course, this is where the challenge to any organisation lies. Culture change almost always needs to come from the top of the organisation. If your senior management doesn’t recognise the need, or doesn’t want it to happen, two things will happen:

  1. Your marketing culture will continue to be completely different to your internal culture
  2. Your best employees will leave and probably go to your competitors.

The Collaborative Commuters

“Being Social” is not a thing. It’s not something a business would want to do. In the same way as a business doesn’t have feelings, it doesn’t need to be social. It’s there to deliver something to someone – dividends to its shareholders, services to its citizens or aid to the people it is there to help.

So why would “social” be something you would want in business? Let’s drop the word “social” for a minute and think about a new word – “collaborative”. Why would a business be collaborative?

Collaboration is working with others to do a task and to achieve shared goals [Wikipedia].

So if we’re working together to achieve shared goals then presumably Collaboration is something a business would be interested in?

So what does Collaboration look like these days? Well it’s talking to each other and helping solve each others problems by applying our own experience and knowledge. It’s working together on a document, or jointly moving something forward by each applying our own abilities.

The result for the business is that customers can be happier, projects delivered more accurately, with better quality and perhaps on time. Work gets done more efficiently and, in general, work progresses smoothly towards whatever goal it is we have for the organisation.

This is how work has always been, well, it was when we all commuted to an office and were around the same people every day. I remember hearing about a group of people who worked in different companies in London and lived in different parts of England served by the same train line. They all chose to sit in the same part of the train and over time decided that they would each bring part of breakfast with them. One would bring coffee, the other cereal, one would bring fruit, and so on. They then had a good breakfast and shared the experience while swapping information about their lives. The commute went quickly, everyone benefitted from the experience and the people found that through collaboration there was greater value to be had from the train journey than would otherwise be the case.

Its this inherently “social” nature in humans which lets this kind of behaviour happen. Imagine therefore what steps could be taken in your organisation to make the most of this collaborative approach?

You might think you already do collaborate at work. You’ve got document management, intranets, emails, corporate bulletins, jogging clubs and social events. What more do people need? You’re right – maybe they don’t need anything more for them to turn up and work for you each day.

But like the people on the train, they turned up each day to travel to their destination. They could have simply read their newspaper or listened to their iPod. Instead they decided to talk to each other, find out more, and find a common ground – breakfast in this case – that they could work on. They each brought their “expertise” to the shared goal.

What opportunity do you offer your staff to share a goal and bring their expertise? What about the many different locations your organisation runs in? What connections could be formed by people who don’t work next to each other but actually could collaborate to produce something great in your organisation?

Permit me a small metaphor: Some organisations think that collaboration is provided using an intranet. To our commuters, this is the equivalent of the train itself. They’re all on it, but they’re all doing their own thing. Other organisations think that collaboration can be provided by giving people email. Our commuters would see this as the background conversations they hear in the train as they move to their destination. Occasionally something important (like an announcement from the driver) might be heard, but mostly its unimportant chit-chat they have to try to block out.

Instead, if you give people a common purpose, like connecting Project Managers across your organisation, or involve discussion and feedback in business processes, you unlock the social nature of your staff in a way which is shared instantly with the rest of the company. Who knows who might in the future make use of a snippet of knowledge or experience which a collaborative network in your company would capture?

So, being social isn’t really a thing. Being collaborative is, and if you think you’re doing it well in your organisation, consider our commuters and how they had their breakfast.

Social Connections VII in Stockholm

The worlds finest social collaboration conference comes to Stockholm on 13-14 November

It’s time for Stockholm, Sweden to be the centre of the social collaboration universe with the seventh Social Connections conference being held in the “Venice of the North”.  This is a fantastic opportunity for anyone who works with, or is considering deploying social collaboration solutions from IBM to get the facts and strategies they need to be successful.

This is a community-run event where the speakers and organisers give their time free of charge.  You pay a small fee to cover the cost of the venue.  You’ll get the rub shoulders with the greatest and most inspirational speakers on the planet.

The enormous popularity of this event and its predecessors is testament to the value attendees get from these events.  Space is limited so if you can attend – book now.