Catalysing organisational culture to enable transformative digital performance
Voluminous writings, conferences and Ted Talks play the culture drum but often miss its heartbeat.
What is organisational culture?
Organisational culture can be nuanced and difficult to discern. Small, agile companies can be traditionally rooted and highly conservative; large, hierarchical enterprises can display disruptive characteristics and embrace risk. An entity in a deep-rooted industry such as watchmaking may operate in a manner at odds with traditions, while an ambitious, 10x-driven tech start-up could embed conventional principles of rigour and discipline.
A distillation is that an organisational culture describes its character, blueprinted in its origins and heritage, forged or refined through an entity-wide value system, and evidenced in all aspects of operations – even in minor, everyday behaviours such as the use of customary language or display of symbols.
Renowned economics writer and business strategist Peter Drucker observed that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. His point was that corporate strategy is plotting and planning, but the speed and efficacy of implementation hinges upon what employees actually do, which is a function of the organisation’s culture. Or, as Daniel Coyle puts it in The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, “culture is a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal…it’s not something you are, it’s something you do.”
What all companies should be doing now is digitising
Digital maturity is a vital quest for any manufacturing company – in the near future, if not today. The transformation to a digital operating system, or DOS, will accelerate imminently. It relies upon strong foundations, one pillar of which is the organisational culture. Properly attuned, it should be primed for change but simultaneously geared for continuity; tracking along the path towards digital maturity but aware that the journey requires adherence to established principles and the phasing of integrative improvement; a culture which embraces the concept of digital-first but understands the ongoing relevance of Lean operations.
Culture is important for other reasons too
- Manufacturing faces a global talent and jobs crunch. International organisational consultants Korn Ferry estimate a workforce deficit of over 8 million by 2030, resulting in forfeited sector revenues exceeding $600 billion. A manufacturing company’s culture will be increasingly relevant as a lever to recruit and retain talent.
- Profits with principles is no longer simply a mantra. Companies must deliver value across multiple measures, and for a range of stakeholders including local communities located near operations. The ethics, values and identity of an enterprise thread within its culture, and should be nurtured as part of ensuring broader societal relevance.
- High performance delivery requires a high performance culture. Ultimately, whether before a transition, or smoothing it, or post-transition, a culture of high performance is the objective.
Will a culture overhaul be worth it?
The answer is most certainly ‘yes’. Culture is crucial. The COVID-19 pandemic which broke in late-2019 – and which the IMF estimates will cost the global economy $9 trillion in lost economic output during 2020-2021 – has demonstrated the reality of Black Swan shocks. Companies whose resilient culture rapidly installed coping mechanisms – control towers, nerve centres, immediate communications technology upgrades – are now posed to capitalise on opportunities beyond the crisis.
Multiple studies, over decades, link solid company culture to improved performance measures or comparatively better delivery against industry averages. But the clearest current evidence that culture is now at the forefront of corporate performance is the demand by leading finance and investor groups for more non-financial information and insights into culture as part of corporate reporting.
The right culture is difficult to define
Company culture is largely about people. This means that the gamut of human traits, attributes, drivers, flaws and emotions are tossed into the melting pot of organisational culture.
It also means that the ‘optimal’ culture is hard to define. Hundreds of pithy quotes from eminent corporate leaders, in trying to pin down their views in a few phrases, are often contradictory. In their book Why Should Anyone be Led by You? (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2006), former BBC HR Director Gareth Jones and London Business School organisational behaviour Professor Rob Goffee note that a company’s culture isn’t necessarily good or poor, but simply different.
However, it is increasingly clear that a digital-first culture also implies ‘people first’. Talent must be nurtured through broad knowledge- building and -sharing, and the cultivation of a curious culture. This underpins a wider upskilling of the workforce which will augment increased digital resources and capability.
A successful digital future is a high-performance culture
The characteristics of an optimised, digitally mature operation are the same attributes leaders should seek to inculcate within company culture. Consider these 10 focus areas to reshape a performance-geared organisational culture to support your digital factory:
|1. Mission||Just as digital re-gears capability, culture should motivate employees around a clear corporate purpose and associated values and drive increased digital capability building within the organisation.|
|2. Teamwork and trust||Digital is powerful because it connects and expands the value network. Similarly, a supportive, collaborative culture improves employee engagement, and enables problem-solving and facilitates innovation.|
|3. Communication||Consistent and transparent communication – including the willingness to listen and absorb feedback – is the crux of culture.|
|4. Autonomy||A degree of decision-making independence, allied to accountability, creates an adaptive, responsive culture.|
|5. Data-driven performance measurement||Digital systems allow real-time monitoring of rich data and end-to-end visibility. A culture of goal orientation and KPI achievement aligns people, systems and practices towards the orchestration of value.|
|6. Customer centricity||Avoid taking quick comfort from only the latest indicators from key customers. Dig deeper: assess smaller clients, look at three- or five-year trends. (Volatility is a sign of uneven servicing.)|
|7. Agility and learning||In the current climate, agility and a focus on continuous learning helps employees respond quickly and effectively to any disruption to ensure survival and growth.|
|8. End-to-end thinking||Moving from function-centred to end-to-end thinking optimises the entire value stream, creating a win-win-win for providers, suppliers and consumers.|
|9. Remote working||With the rise of remote working, employees need regular contact with their managers and colleagues to be productive, stay connected to the company’s vision, and feel their opinions matter.|
|10. Leader Standard Work||Culture starts at the top. Is leadership and senior management practising what it should be preaching? It may be illuminating to confirm the regularity of Gemba walks.|
Change management may be required
Change is stressful – for leadership keen to get it right, management concerned with operational stability, and for employees who need to balance day-to-day responsibilities with questions about their roles and concerns for their ongoing employment. Issues in leading and managing change are routinely identified as some of the most challenging and complex – no less so in a manufacturing company.
That’s the context. Changing a company’s culture – its fabric and bindings, its style and character – is extraordinarily difficult. Jones and Goffee in their book Why Should Anyone be Led by You? (Harvard Business School Publishing, 2006) describe it as fraught: “Our research suggests…[t]o describe the process as tricky does not do it justice. It is perhaps one of the most complex and risk-laden changes a manager can face.”
However, without an appropriate culture in place, transitions – including, but not limited to, digitisation – present pitfalls. The transformation’s pace may be retarded, equating to an opportunity cost of delayed improvements. Core operations may be disrupted, effecting the value chain from production through to customer satisfaction. Possible employee disaffection – a downward spiral whereby an unsuitable culture turns wholly negative – will have severe business consequences.
A sad, salutary lesson
The demise of Nokia illustrates the need for a holistically sound corporate culture. In the 15 years from 1998 to 2013, the IT and mobile telephony manufacturer and assembler went from industry leader with profits of $4 billion, to acquisition by Microsoft after the company valuation had plummeted 90%. The reasons are multiple, but academics and researchers point to an “organisational fear”: a status-orientated rigidity which stifled information-sharing and decision-making, and hampered innovation and motivation. When combined with a sense of hubris as to the company’s existing technologies and products, Nokia’s leadership made fatal decisions involving investment and technology planning priorities, failing to understand the real competitive environment and consumer landscape. It’s also noteworthy that the organisational fear existed in a direct contradiction of Nokia’s supposed core values of “Respect, Challenge, Achievement, Renewal”, affirming Peter Drucker’s point that culture is about actions and reality, not about strategies and ambitions.
Microsoft, having acquired Nokia in 2013, also learned from Nokia’s mistakes. In 2014, new CEO Satya Nadella moved quickly to change Microsoft’s culture. He prioritised employee engagement and empowerment, emphasised a learning culture, and insisted on a management philosophy of listening and eliciting feedback.
Ensure culture is primed for a journey
Consider that change – although often dramatic and rapid in appearance – is rarely an instantaneous switch, or triggered by one magical thing. Instead, inevitably, it is a gradual process. In other words, deep change needs solid foundations and requires hard work and patience. And due to the rapid pace of technological change and adoption, the culture journey becomes a continuous loop of re-evaluation and adaptation.
But transformation goes deeper than change. Change can be managed; transformation must be led. Digital is a discovery, not a destination. It adopts the idea of a brave new paradigm, of possibilities beyond the current.
The coordinated capabilities of teams, processes and technology, which digitised factories and operations optimise, opens enormous scalable opportunities. But a transformation can occur only with the appropriate, attuned organisational culture.
“For individuals, character is destiny. For organisations, culture is destiny.”
Tony Hsieh, internet entrepreneur, venture capitalist and CEO of online retailer Zappos