Culture is defined as the impact of the surrounding environment; both tangible (physical environmental factors like the weather) and intangible (cultural norms) on the way people live. The environment people are exposed to influences how they acquire certain behaviours and this applies to the culture of organisations. Training and development aims at improving workplace performance. Can it overcome organisational culture barriers such as a lack of a sense of purpose in a role?
Organisational Cultural Change
Culture dictates the behaviour of people and influences the way individuals behave in different environments. As training managers, those responsible for organisational development need to take into account the fact that, by nature, people will do what most of the surrounding members of the organisation will do. This is clearly evident in daily activities and becomes even more apparent in times of exceptional company performance (an enhancement of the cultural spirit) or at times of less organisational prosperity (a reduction in cultural spirit and belonging).
As an employee’s role is defined, their willingness to learn and participate in organisational development increases, as does their contribution to the knowledge process. Training staff whose roles are clear, documented and are evident on the organisational chart is arguably more effective than training employees with unclear, less-defined roles or roles that seem lacking in purpose due to organisational barriers.
The less clear an employee’s role, the less they will associate with the culture of the organisation and the less willing they are to learn.
Figure 1 illustrates this concept where the individual belongs to 3 levels of cultural “membership”. The first is a broad social culture (society and its norms), the second is an organisational culture (the workplace and its norms) and the third is a personal/family culture. Membership of the personal culture is at its strongest when the employee has a less defined role in the organisation. The clearer their role, the stronger their membership of the organisational culture of the business.
Figure 1. The 3 levels of cultural “membership”
The broader social culture impacts the way a person conducts themselves in both the personal structure and the organisational structure. This is the most powerful of cultural influences.
A connection exists between the personal culture and organisational culture as they both impact and are affected by each other. For example, the demands of work (which are part of organisational culture) may impact personal life and conversely family commitments may impact the position an individual assumes in the organisational culture. The broad social culture may also impact organisational culture indirectly if a certain society places emphasis on personal, financial or career success.
All these are factors that training managers need to take into account when viewing organisational culture and is of special relevance to multinational companies doing business in several regions around the world applying varied training programmes.
The Individual and the Group in Corporate Life
The sense of belonging to a particular company, especially one that is successful can be quite strong and grows with the level of achievement of that company. An example of this is a motorcycle company that has become synonymous with legendary engineering and a spirit of freedom. Similarly companies that employ people for extended periods of time become more of a cultural entity than anything else. This is where the two levels of culture (personal and work) become one. An example is a Japanese electronics company the majority of whose employees have been with the firm for over half of their working life.
In this case, the cultural feeling is so strong that a blending of personal and organisational culture occurs in such a way that even the broader societal cultural implications have less of an impact on the team’s belief in this entity (the employee believes more in the workplace than they do in their society). Figure 2 illustrates this.
The effect of the new, unified culture is profound. It impacts not only the personal and working lives of the individuals who subscribe to it, but also their perception of the broad social culture. This takes considerable time and conviction to occur and may be seen in groups of people working together in a niche industry with odds against their success, but where they are able to sustain the business and eventually succeed. Examples are the organisation of certain sporting events, the athletes of whom belong to a similar social group and aid work conducted by a particular religious group.
Uncertainty and Learning in the Enterprise
We live in a world of economic uncertainty. As uncertainty increases, membership of the organisational culture drops and employees gravitate towards personal culture (family).
Some managers (not training managers) attempt to impose certain cultures on the organisation during times of uncertainty, naming it the organisational culture. An example might be an organisation whose CEO and/or board are from a legal background. The cultural “comfort zone” for most of these senior managers and executives would be one of a legal entity with major restrictions and strongly formalised guidelines. This leads to an otherwise highly entrepreneurial enterprise being placed in a culture of strict super-imposed conservatism. This situation can lead some members of the organisation to challenge decisions, as they are not the melting pot of the entity’s expected culture. Figure 3 shows that a super-imposed culture and one that does not take into account the origins of the organisation, its strategic direction, the composition of its workforce and the wider community it functions in will lead to misguided business decisions.
The question I pose is: Can training and development overcome organisational culture barriers and “train” employees to become more faithful members of that culture?