“It’s the culture, stupid!” 3

Guest blogger:
David MayleDavid Mayle, Lecturer in Management and a member of  The Open University’s Centre for Human Resource and Change Management.

Talking of quotes, I’ve always been fond of Nick Negroponte (he of MIT Media Lab fame) and his

“The best way to guarantee a steady stream of new ideas is to make sure that each person in your organization is as different as possible from the others. Under these conditions, and only these conditions, will people maintain varied perspectives and demonstrate their knowledge in different ways.”

Trouble is, such diversity is a necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for innovation capability; that people are different is not enough – they’ve got to be allowed to think and behave differently too.

Which brings us to culture. I’m not going to dwell on definitions, at least in part because all too often we believe – erroneously – that if we can pin a label on something, it helps us to understand it. If only.[1] Culture is deep; culture is slippery; culture is unmanageable; all of the usual claims are true, partial, and largely unhelpful.

In very crude terms, culture may indeed be – at a quite deep level – the way the place ‘works’, but for the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to tweak that a little, into ‘… so what does one have to do to get on around here?’ My motives should become clear a little later.

If culture is such an elusive concept, how do cultures emerge in the first place? In the beginning, an organisation has purpose but generally few people; if the initial ideas prove successful, it usually grows. This means a balance between two processes: recruitment (= who comes on board) and retention (= who stays).

Let’s take recruitment first. I often tell my students that there are two rites of passage en route to becoming a good manager. The first is to stop recruiting in your own image[2]; most of us eventually achieve this. The second is to start recruiting people who disagree with you[3]. This is much more difficult and sadly many don’t get that far, notwithstanding its increased popularity after both Gordon Brown and Barack Obama started recycling some of Abraham Lincoln’s political philosophy. Given these two rules, it should be quite clear that recruitment, who does it and against what criteria (explicit or otherwise), is a crucial lever on culture.

Then there’s retention; if folk find the environment conducive they’ll probably stay, if not they’re more likely to leave (going back to the quote at the start, do they feel they’re allowed to be different or do they feel pressure to conform?). I will also argue that retention is intimately tied up with the reward system in place, which needs to be three things: it needs to be perceived as being fair, it needs to be congruent with the organisation’s aims[4], and it needs to at least allow (or even actively encourage) people to be different. People who are rewarded by the organisation are the role models, to be emulated by all those others who want to ‘get on’. And if only one sort of behaviour gets rewarded, bang goes your diversity.

Some of us believe passionately in the power of innovation; problem is, if culture is so vital, and recruitment and retention/reward are key, who’s got their hands on the levers?


[1]    OK, if you insist on definitions, the seminal article is probably Schein (1990) ‘Organizational Culture’, American Psychologist (February)

[2]    If you doubt it, go back to your Belbin, or maybe some Myers-Briggs, or maybe just look again at the Negroponte quote.

[3]    I cite John Cleese in a famous video where he quotes Sam Goldwyn: “I don’t want any Yes Men in this organisation, I want people to speak their mind. Even if it does cost them their job!”

[4]    The classic text is Steven Kerr (1975), ‘On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B’, Academy of Management Journal

3 comments

  1. Interesting post, David. Now I see why the OU is so keen on the competency-based interview panel as a selection procedure — it gives some assurance that we’re not just recruiting People Like Us (one hopes!) by focusing on the needs of the job. Or is that cultural too?

    Loved the Sam Goldwyn quote in your footnotes by the way!

  2. Over the years I’ve had TMAs submitted in the form of Powerpoint presentations, websites and even videos. In each case I’ve been able to award a good mark, because B882/B822 wasn’t overly prescriptive about the form of the assignment.
    Sometimes, recruitment processes do become prescriptive, to the point where the competency being demonstrated might just as well be ‘filling in application forms’. I can think of many instances where submitting a video would definitely not get you an interview, no matter how good/relevant it might have been.
    Most recruitment processes invariably start with a Job Description (see ‘Up the Organisation’ to read what Robert Townsend thinks about job descriptions), but whereas such formalisms are probably necessary to avoid prejudice, nepotism and whatever, they can all too easily turn into a mechanism for making it really difficult to identify/appoint the best person for the job.

    David
    PS Whaddya mean ‘Us’? 😉

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