Monday, December 7, 2009

Cultural Change - Elephant in the Room

It is often argued that inspite of several tools/techniques there is little cultural change acros organizations. A friend, put a question on LinkedIn - What could be possible reasons for not seeing the transformation and what could be done about the same?

Has it ever occurred to us that we could be lacking in assessing a change in culture. I find it difficult to believe that we all know when culture has changed. Maybe we don't.

Unless we tackle your question at specifics it will remain an intellectual or academic discussion only. Nothing wrong with it but I don't think you were looking for that.

Cultural change is a vast body of knowledge and is much like the proverbial elephant in the room. We all have a definition for it. Some of us will believe adoption of tools (such as Lean and Six Sigma) will lead to cultural change. Many others will feel cultural change leads to adoption of such tools.

What is cultural change? I am least qualified to comment on this but will try. If fundamental behaviors of most people in the company change and as a result more is achieved (or less also) we could say culture has changes. For example, a service company could become more service oriented or customer friendly. Take CSIR as an example. Under Dr. R A Mashelkar, this organization saw a dramatic change in culture from doing research for long years to become one of world's leading research (with results) organization. He instituted several game changing practices - the most radical one being, closing down research projects which could not deliver research targets in time.

In my view organizational culture is always changing - only the scale of time is in years or decades.

The question was - What could be possible reasons for not seeing the transformation and what could be done about the same?

While most may argue that culture does not change...my argument is that it changes but we are unable to notice the change in most cases. Probably because we are looking for something that we want. And in looking for that specific change we miss the other changes. I am assuming you are referring to positive/beneficial change. Also, when we seek cultural change, what behavioural changes are we looking for. If we can find a way of measuring this then it's easier to figure out if culture changed.

I must also add that it is a bit naive to assume that an organization's deep rooted culture will change because it adopted lean, six sigma, or some other tool. Just as it is a bit naive to assume that there is a problem with culture all the time.

Whatever cultural change I have seen, and I have very limited experience, is a result of a 'fire-in-the-belly' vision, a worthwhile purpose, customer orientation, employee focus, metrics approach, process that back-up all the above, and a focus on key results. Some organic mix of the above leads to a change in culture over time.

I doubt, if gunning for a change in culture as a pre-condition is a useful thing to do. If it is an output of a series of beneficial changes over a period of time, we should consider us lucky.

So in summary, let's not point our guns at organizational culture so early. It might need to be changed. And moreover, we may not know what is changing unless we look for it with a very open mind.
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