There is tremendous power in the underlying, nuanced language of culture analytics –not just for measuring and understanding culture, how people really experience a workplace, but in the actionable insights that come out of the data and create real results. It is time to rip those meaningless core values off the wall and dig into the real stuff.
BY MADDIE GRANT
The concept of culture is more important to organizations than ever before. Yet, as much as we hear about culture in business press, and the annual lists of top workplace trends, the focus always seems to be on emulating organizations that have successfully cultivated their own cultures—the popular “Best Places to Work”—rather than on how to define and measure what makes a company’s own cultural DNA their unique genetic code, that identifies “what it’s truly like to work there.” It is nice that Zappos is experimenting with a manager-less holocracy and that Netflix’s slideshow on its culture has been viewed more than 15 million times. But such examples do not explain why culture is important to YOUR organization, how it drives YOUR business success, or even what role HR should play in measuring, understanding and activating culture in your workplace.
One thing that can be learnt from the culture research at WorkXO- If you ask 15 employees of one company what their culture is like, you will likely get 15 different responses. Many contain the same clichés you might see in a corporate brochure- “We work hard, we play hard,” “We’re like a family,” “We take time to celebrate the little things and have fun.” While those are nice sentiments, what insights do they really provide?
So we decided to set out to create a better language and vocabulary to describe culture. Based on our research, and within a context of a spectrum of traditional 20th century management to contemporary practices to futurist workplaces, we describe at a nuanced, layered and complex level, the culture of the organizations we work with. We define culture analytics by measuring eight key culture markers and the relationship between them- agility, collaboration, growth, inclusion, innovation, technologies, transparency, and solutions.
Here is an example of how this kind of vocabulary matters. Typical engagement surveys will ask a single question about how well employees collaborate between departments; and will provide a score about how “good” the survey-taker’s response is. But, this score is in fact meaningless, because it is in the abstract, and it never defined as to what “collaboration” means. Instead, in order to understand how collaboration works in a particular company, we measure things like- How territorial is the organization? Do people internally know what it means to be a good facilitator? Does pride tend to trump collaboration? What are the patterns around information sharing across departments? And so on…
One can talk about the specifics of the eight culture markers all day (a subject for another day!), but the real point is that culture analytics is the science of using workplace culture data to generate meaningful actions that improve organizational results. Companies need culture analytics not only to better understand and describe their culture, but to actually do something with that information. It is not enough to generate data, we need to take action on the insights that come out of the data.
And here is the rub – what you choose to measure has a huge impact on the range of actions that will result. Wonder why so many employee engagement surveys fail to create any kind of actionable results? Once you measure (in excruciating detail) the ways in which your people are happy or not happy with a bunch of different aspects of your operation, then you are obligated to generate responses to those data. You are forced, essentially, to drop everything and try to increase the happiness scores. While this is laudable to some extent (nothing wrong with people being happy, generally speaking), it is unlikely to be what your organization needs. You may be addressing the symptoms, not the underlying cause of the fever.
A way of solving problems
Culture analytics should be used to solve pressing business problems. For example, a lot of companies struggle with innovation. They know that “what got you here won’t get you there,” but, as much as everyone agrees on the need to develop new solutions or new approaches, the inertia of delivering on what you already know works keeps you roughly in the same place year after year. How do you fix that? In one of the organization we worked with, we noticed an interesting pattern in the way the “building blocks” for Innovation related to each other. Often, several of the more conceptual blocks (Creativity, Future Focus, Inspiration) tend to be more present in a culture than those focused on action (Testing New Ideas, Experimentation, Permission to Hack). In other words, we talk the talk on innovation, but we do not walk the walk as frequently. Another company realized that in their culture, innovation was supported mostly at the level of individuals—employees were empowered to work on something new—but there was less support for innovation that required internal collaboration or organizational support (like running an experiment or beta testing). With these insights around their capacity for innovation, both companies were able to start making some targeted internal changes, but in different ways best suited to their specific challenges, like providing “containers” for experimentation and tracking how many ideas were tried, not merely reporting on the results of successful ideas.
Workplace culture is a hot topic these days, but it is too easy to keep culture at a surface level of understanding, with shiny examples of cool cultures, beer fridges and foosball tables. There is tremendous power in the underlying, nuanced language of culture analytics –not just for measuring and understanding culture, how people really experience a workplace, but in the actionable insights that come out of the data and create real results. It is time to rip those meaningless core values off the wall and dig into the real stuff.
Maddie Grant is the Founding Partner at Worksop, a culture management firm helping leaders analyze and activate their workplace cultures, based on a deeper understanding of their organizational genetic code via the Workplace Genome™ Project and the author of When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business, and Humanize: How People Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.