Not since the term first emerged in the 1980s has there been so much discussion of organizational culture. Considering that discussions of culture on investor calls have increased 12 percent in the past year, it’s not surprising that heads of HR are keen to get this challenge right. When CEB, now Gartner, brought together 20 heads of HR in Melbourne earlier this month, there was a strong consensus in the room: It’s no longer enough to talk about your organization’s culture, you need to be able to walk the walk.
(Before we go further, it might be valuable to provide a shared definition of “culture” as it relates to organizations. As CEB defines it for the purposes of our research: culture is the set of behavioral norms and unwritten rules that shape the organizational environment and how individuals interact and get work done in that environment.)
Historically, a lot of the discussion about organizational culture has been focused on finding the “perfect” culture, with one side advising a “one-size-fits-all” approach and the other proposing different cultural approaches to suit different industries. However, as one head of HR in the room pointed out, we need to turn our focus away from finding the “perfect” culture and instead look at the systems and processes at work that are stopping us from achieving sustainable culture change. Even when business leaders in the C-suite are very effective role models, internal processes often stop employees from fully embracing the culture that the business needs to drive, creating disconnect between the organization and the people tasked with moving its strategy forward. This is one of the key findings of our latest study on culture change management, which CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can read more about here.
This disconnect leads to problems, because even though 70 percent of HR leaders are confident that their organizations can define the culture they need, few are seeing true results in making this culture a reality. When HR leaders fail to create the culture the business needs, such as a culture of innovation, safety, or cost-efficiency, it means that other, less desirable attributes make up the reality of their current culture and stand in the way of the organization’s progress. During our discussion in Melbourne, one of the HR leaders in the room even said that this struggle between desired culture and results had seen progress in some business units move backwards.
Even though we know where we want to go, we seem to be at a loss when it comes to how to actually get there. What our research discovered is that the heads of HR at organizations who have gotten this balance right needed to close three key gaps: