2017-06-19 HRExaminer colin kingsbury clear company headshot 544x363px.jpg

Colin W. Kingsbury, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

In my work focusing mostly on companies in SMB to near-enterprise segment, which includes organizations with roughly 100 to 1000 employees, it’s rare to find a manager, executive, or HR leader who doesn’t consider culture extremely important. At the same time, when we start talking about implementing employee goals, and particularly cascading goals, people get a far-off look in their eyes and say, “well, that sounds like something good we can get to later.” And yet I’d argue that goals—and the process by which you set and cascade them—play a central and often decisive role in the shape and direction of culture.

On one level, I can understand why people want to put off the process of setting company-wide goals and cascading them through the organization: it takes deliberate work, and doesn’t everybody already know what their job is, anyway? Likewise, if goal-setting is primarily the domain of line management, “culture” is the sort of thing HR has an easier time claiming a stake in. While true, this approach not only misses an opportunity to build greater sustainable value within the organization, it also diminishes the perceived value of culture as a unique component of the organization’s success.

To understand why, I like to start with the statement that “your culture is a technology.” While we generally think of technologies as referring to specific things: a machine, or a software package, or the formula for a pharmaceutical, the concept of technology can be applied more broadly as being any deliberate process that we use to create added value. Through this lens, technology includes not only the use of software to discover a new drug, but also the use of contract law to enable many parties with disparate interests to work together productively and resolve disputes efficiently. Just as countries with excellent research universities tend to be wealthier, so do those with reliable legal systems.

To understand why culture should be thought of as a technology, imagine a customer-service employee who, when confronted with a situation to handle, would determine the preferred course of action by entering data into an app on a company-provided phone, and then following the steps the app suggested. That app, especially if it was developed based on the company’s unique strategy, would be seen as a piece of (potentially) valuable technology that creates a sustained competitive advantage.

But in many cases—and perhaps most of the really thorny ones—the “app” that guides employee decisions, isn’t a piece of software or an operating manual, but the company’s culture. This is equally true whether the issue at hand is whether to make a particular candidate an offer, how to deal with an employee whose performance is dropping, what to do with a paying customer that refuses to leave his seat after being told that he’s been bumped. Culture, then, is valuable to the extent that it helps employees to make decisions in a way that is most aligned with the company’s goals in the absence of other resources or guidance.

It’s not a coincidence that this approach also illuminates the difference between the cultural façade many companies present, which often include paeans to world-class customer experience or being a “____ of choice,” and the real culture as actually experienced by partners, employees, and customers alike. This isn’t necessarily a criticism: in the real world, the customer isn’t always right, not every employee is a valuable contributor, and just because a decision is aligned with the company’s values doesn’t mean it’s a good one. This is why it’s essential for every employee to not only understand the values you want to guide their decisions, but also the goals underneath it all, that actually drive the business. And while many leaders think that people across the company generally know what the company wants them to do, the reality often resembles the parable of the blind men describing an elephant. Common culture begins not just with a shared sense of values, but also a shared view of objectives.