Looking Under the Hood of Corporate Culture

corporate culture, ethics, society, businessCorporate culture has been coming up quite a lot lately in our #KaizenBiz conversations. When you look at ideas about leadership, marketing, strategy and other business ideas, culture is usually not far from the surface. There is a lot written about what a corporate culture ought to be like and how it should include social responsibility and foster positive human dynamics. For the most part, leaders want to see their organizations live out their most cherished values. Chick-Fil-A is often cited as an example of this as they close on Sundays. Toms Shoes is famous for its “one for one” model of buying their shoes, eyewear or apparel and helping someone in need. Zappos is another example where they hire for character and pay people who don’t fit their culture to leave.

Pixar’s lesson

There is a great book excerpt on the McKinsey and Company blog by Ed Catmull about how Pixar eventually developed a positive and creative culture. Catmull explains that he and John Lasseter consciously designed a culture that was respectful of everyone in the organization. By making themselves accessible and role modeling their expectations, they thought they had created a culture that mirrored their desire. Then they found that there was this huge rift between the production and creative departments. The people in the production department felt like second-class citizens and the people in the creative department felt micromanaged. Catmull’s lesson, he writes, was that “[b]eing on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems.”  Same culture, different experiences.

Just because it’s part of your business model…

Catmull and Lasseter set up a business model in which communicating with management was encouraged (or so they thought and report rectified). In an HBR post by Jim Dougherty, it is recommended that the business model and culture be seen as connected. In the way a company externally and internally communicates and behaves with one another reflects both the business model and culture. This makes culture more of a social construct. A group of people come together and form a mini-society. It might be a highly dysfunctional mini-society with backbiting and a hostile work environment but this is a social construct. There are rules, norms and ethics. As in, this is how we do things here. It is communicated overtly and subtly from the onboarding process all along an employee’s worklife with that company.Think of messages like “we hold information back, we take time to have fun playing foosball and drink beer, ask Jane because she knows where the skeletons are, we do anything and everything to satisfy a customer,” or ” we never talk to Them.”

Different lenses affects ethics

Aiming to be the best company is an admirable and understandable goal. I don’t think anyone founds a business and consciously chooses to make it a miserable, soul-sucking place. Some founders don’t think past “let’s get the work done” and set up an environment that later becomes unworkable and unlivable. For other leaders, hiring the best candidates may support a culture of excellence but it may leave other aspects unexamined. There is also the moment when a company has grown so large that it takes far more effort to communicate and exemplify the preferred culture. People may fill in the gaps with their own ethical code or create a separate code from the prevailing culture. As an example, it may be encouraged to meet a certain type of quota by a deadline. The way the quota is met can range from complying with the overall culture or it may deviate into a utilitarian sub-code. A company’s culture is often an expression of how the people in it view one another and the whole of humanity as well as the value of wealth and success. These various lenses become drivers in organizational decision-making

This is such a brief overview of corporate culture and brings up more questions than it answers. So many of us think we know what the perfect corporate culture looks like. The question is, is it the same idea for everyone? It may be that one leader of an organization goes around acting like some kind of chieftain while another leader may act as facilitator or collaborator. One employee might view it is the totality of a social life while another employee just wants to get the work done and go home. Corporate culture could very well be dynamic as an organization grows and people come and go.

What really makes up corporate culture? Is it a mini-society with complex relationships and mores? Join us on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz on Friday, May 9, 2014 at 5pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT to add your insights and expertise to our conversation.

How relevant is the company culture to creating revenue?

How does corporate culture reflect society in general?

With so many competing agendas, how likely is it for companies to foster a common understanding of who they are internally?

What role do ethics play in the expression of corporate culture?



Could “Living” Quality Be The Route To Sustainability?

culture of quality, corporate culture, Ashwin Srinivasan and Bryan KureyA colleague and I were recently discussing whether there was truly an increase in the speed of technological change and turbulence in the business world now versus any other time in history. The twentieth century certainly saw huge leaps in technology and you could even argue the the Industrial Revolution (approximately 1760 to about 1840) was a time of change and turbulence. But one thing is true. When there is great change,  there are philosophical shifts that accompany technological changes. Corporate culture is certainly an expression of those philosophical shifts.

Philosophical shifts change how companies produce

The current workplace trends are showing how these philosophical changes are taking place. Assumptions about customers have been challenged by social media and Big Data. Leadership and the ways companies are organized are focused on ways to increase employee engagement. There is more movement to remote working, flatter organizations and fostering more ownership by everyone in the company. Still, there is tension between seeing world as potentially open and constraining.

In all of these trends is the pursuit of quality

Seeking differentiation in the marketplace in the short term and sustainability for the long term, companies are looking to define quality.  According to Ashwin Srinivasan and Bryan Kurey, consistent quality may be elusive at times because

“…the likelihood of error has risen. In many industries, cycle times are compressing. During the recovery from the Great Recession, output gains have outpaced employment growth, and employees report straining to keep up with demands.

Due to these factors, Srinivasan and Kurey say that a new approach to quality is necessary.

So what is a “true culture of quality?”

Srinivasan and Kurey wriite in their Harvard Business Review article that when employees “live” quality as a personal value rather than being told to comply, companies create an environment where there are fewer mistakes and a healthier bottom line. While it is tempting to see this through a lens of kaizen or other total quality management, it is more than this. There are four factors that support quality as an overall cultural value.

  • leadership emphasis
  • message credibility
  • peer involvement
  • employee ownership of quality issues

Moving towards sustainability

It seems that making quality a part of the corporate culture would naturally lead to sustainablity. Yet, it is clear from the research done by Srinivasan and Kurey that the corporate culture has to be part of everyday behavior, a living reality. One thing that is less clear is how quality is defined. Is it like kaizen and involves incremental steps towards making things better? Or is it more about taking pride in one’s work? But perhaps creating a culture of quality is both and more. According to Jim Dougherty, corporate culture has to be part of the business model. The emphasis on quality seems akin to the search for excellence. It takes all levels of the organization to make the four factors work on a daily basis. This is how corporate culture is expressed anyway. If this alignment is complete, it is more likely for a company to be sustainable.

This is merely the beginning of this conversation so please join us on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz on Friday, March 28, 2014 at 4pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT. We welcome your thoughts and insights about how “living” quality could be the route to sustainability.


How would you define a “culture of quality?”

Who is best suited to define what is quality? Why?

What types of obstacles might prevent a “culture of quality” from developing?

How would you hire to create a “culture of quality”?

What relationship do you see between “culture of quality” and sustainability?




Using Big Data Without Harming Your Corporate Culture

Big Data, corporate culture, Jean Ross, There is a tendency to look at certain things as if they are the Answer. Big Data has that temptation with its flood of details about customers, competition, industry and even employees. But there is that flood which makes evaluating and using the data a challenge for most organizations. In a MIT Sloan Management Review post, Michael Fitzgerald noted that “there is 2.5 exabytes of data every two days.” With so much available to actually see behaviors, trends and other information , Big Data is part of the everyday practice for many managers and employees to use. The corporate culture is expressed through how questions are asked, who uses the data and the source(s) of the data.

Jean Ross’ perspective

In an interview in MIT Sloan Management Review, Jean Ross (director and principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research), outlined 3 possible cultures that organizations adopt.

  • Culture of heroics- This is described as responding to an unhappy customer or taking on extra tasks by doing above and beyond what is expected to satisfy someone.
  • Emphasis of discipline around processes- This culture uses “template approaches to data — with common processes, reuse of components, and a single face presented to customers and the general public alike.”
  • Data smart culture- Uses evidenced-based management and decentralizes decision-making

These models seem benevolent enough.  After all, it is very satisfying to working with organizations who respond well and are predictable.

But worth a closer look and maybe some deeper reflection

The different cultures put forth by Ross are attractive on the surface. Like may tools, it’s all about application. In a post on the HBR Blog Network, Herminia Ibarra wrote about how Big Data might skew finding the best talent for employment. Much like the Moneyball statistics used in baseball for finding the right player for a team, there is a lot of “people statistics” that can be used to determine if a candidate is right for an organization. Between mining for information including who might be enrolled in online courses to how people perform while playing video games, many organizations believe they can identify the most promising high-potential employees and leaders. However, there are things that may be missed. According to Ibarra, many women and minorities do not engage with gaming or online courses and this could lead to unintended exclusion. This example brings up the question that there may be other variables or even intangibles (a human quality that is not easily measured) that Big Data simply cannot report. This creates a potential trap that the data is actually flawed and therefore potentially useless.

Even unintended exclusions can weaken a culture

There are a couple of possible missed opportunities when evaluating Big Data. The first one is that there is tendency to look only at information that fits our mindset. This is known as confirmation bias. The second is that analysts might not have the information they think they have. Ibarra’s post certainly points out how segments of the greater society may not even be represented or marginally represented in the data. And there is also the fact that there is a lot of data that needs to be analyzed, disseminated and fit into both strategic and operational plans. These missed opportunities are not necessarily borne of malevolence but they create harm by limiting how an organization’s culture can nurture people’s development or serve their customers.

Corporate cultures are created by the leaders and the people who inhabit the organization

Big Data is a useful tool and needs to be used thoughtfully, even intentionally. With Ross’ three cultural models, there are frameworks which could support an organization’s culture. Take the “heroic” one…going above and beyond could very well be reflective of how a business wants to embed a philosophy of emphasizing human relationships. Or the data smart culture with its decentralized decision-making could treat all of its people as intelligent and professional and encourage agile responses to a rapidly-changing or turbulent marketplace. But, first and foremost, the leaders must set the tone for how Big Data is used and evaluated so that it doesn’t harm the corporate culture.

Join us this Friday, December 6, 2013 at 5pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz to discuss “Using Big Data Without Harming Your Culture.”

Who is most likely to engage with Big Data?

How do organizations relate to the information gathered?

When could Big Data be misleading?

What could help users of Big Data avoid cognitive biases that might “infect” information?

How could “intangibles” about customers/employees/society be added to the information gathered in Big Data?