Is Poor Organizational Culture a Symptom of Flawed Systems?

We can say organizations will change as Boomers leave and new technology and new generations enter but what really happens is the “next” marches in and picks up where the “last” left off. The technologies of change, like social tools, become manipulated by the current system to support the system not change it. Additionally, I chuckle about all the Millennial articles/posts on how they want things different, purpose over profit, tech savvy, blah, blah, blah. I’ve worked with plenty of folks in their 20’s and 30’s and like any generation, they enter the organization looking not to disrupt it but to serve it and collect a paycheck – quickly conforming to the system that is. Period.

I’m thinking all this talk of culture change (and I’ve done my share!) is really pointless until there is system change. The systems in play are the problem and shape the behaviors that drive the culture. Systems from recognition and rewards to HR being as a compliance machine, to L&D pumping out course after course. Each are all well entrenched and will remain there because they are the predominant systems of work.

These systems aren’t in play in small companies… yet. Start-ups begin with a passionate all hands on deck collective mentality. The founder eats lunch with her co-workers and loves to share stories of her upbringing until… until something clicks and the unconscious focus on humanity gives way to rigid systems of hierarchy, restrictive policy and a culture of conformity. This is inherited learned-helplessness of leadership. It’s the belief that they need these systems and their unconscious employment is unquestioned. It’s almost as if it’s in the business DNA like a time bomb, preset to detonate as the organization scales. HR is established primarily to protect the firm over finding the right talent. L&D is born because leaders, due to their own years of formal education, see all learning as formal; classrooms, courses, etc. even though people learned in and from their work and relationships. Marketing carves out and begins to chase what works vs. what’s right and customer conversations give way to click counts. It all better fits the system, it’s unquestioned.

We know that social activity forms around an object; a party, a hobby, an idea. Organizational culture is inherently social and similarly forms around an object; a system like hierarchy, processes and structures. Organizational culture is learned maybe much like we humans first learn to speak – through observation and reinforced/rewarded mimicry. However if the mouth isn’t structured correctly or the brain wired right for speech then speech will not happen or will be imperfect. So then if the systems in an organization are flawed, flawed behaviors develop and a flawed culture emerges?

To change our culture then systems must be changed not just behaviors within, as the system will always correct behaviors that deviate and bring them back to the norm (dominant culture). The one big thing that separates human beings from all other animals has been our ability to transcend our instincts, our internal systems. To better ourselves and our culture we regularly question ourselves, we challenge our suppositions, our processes, our internal structures and frankly organizations need to do this more if they are really desiring culture change.

Change the Default (Mind)Settings

I wondered aloud on Twitter last week about the supposed 80% fail rate of ESNs that many publications have reported in recent years. This thought was further spurred on by this CMS Wire article The Smoke and Mirrors of Enterprise Social Networking Metrics. Of course the word “fail” has a connotation that 1. NOBODY is using the platform and/or 2. an expectation (usually of the purse string holding executive) wasn’t met. I tend to think it’s the latter as the tech and maybe even your culture is just fine… your measurement may be wrong.

All enterprise social platforms come with a dashboard of metrics of their own definition. Engagement is typically the golden calf as adoption, measured in things like “likes”, “shares”, “posts”, etc all add up to success of the tool. But is it tool success that drove the desire to have a tool in the first place?? Add in whiz-bang features like badges (eh-hem, stickers) and maybe “sentiment” metrics (which something tells me can’t identify sarcasm) and VIOLA! you have even more to measure. They make it simple. But as we know simple isn’t easy and in this case it isn’t right either. Used in isolation and these metrics are the equivalent of what traditional training measures – butts in seats or “if you attended you must have learned.” A fallacy of course as all it means is one was present and the default metrics for ESN platform are similarly a false prophet.

Frankly, the only measure you can gain from the tool is about the tool. The measures that matter can’t be seen in an ESN dashboard and there are way too many other variables contributing to the outcomes that really matter in the workplace. Social interaction is a key piece however and if a platform is used by some to make them feel a part of something bigger, if it helps a handful of people find innovative solutions, and if it actually helps a team to get work done faster, easier and in the open – well that’s far from a failure.

A few thoughts to help you shift away from the lure of the default settings:

First, an ESN platform certainly helps extend and expand social interaction, but it should never be the measure of “social success”! Second, social is bigger than your business, and it carves it’s own path. If you attempt to channel conversations in the direction of business only, you are in essence sucking the soul out because all conversations in business are the conversations of business. Accept that social is important but it’s not going to be all shop talk and if it were forced to be, the relationships (so critical to organizational health) would disappear… looking much like an ESN failure.

The real failure we hear of is certainly not the technology, it’s also not that your culture isn’t collaborative either. Rather, it’s a failure in expectation and in effectively communicating what social is really about. It’s a failure in not having (or not having the ability to have) the necessary, deeper conversation with leaders that (sorry) aren’t as black and white, and easy as all those default dashboard metrics tout.

Simple Doesn’t Mean Easy

Over that last few months a local workshop for non-profits has been gathering weekly. Around 80 people from various organizations are involved. The hosts invited everyone early on to join Slack to apparently be leveraged between live sessions and carry on the dialog (I say apparently as this was not actually articulated).

After several weeks, 10 people have posted once… each. Three of the 10 were the hosts. It’s a ghost town. Go figure.

This isn’t really about Slack though…but it is. You see, Slack is often chosen because it’s free and it’s supposed to be simple and fun. It’s the gold standard for chat today. Every start-up is running to it – the “email killer”. But that doesn’t make it right for everyone or every situation and simple and fun doesn’t equate to adoption, that my friends is a people issue. But an even bigger problem than this group failing to connect with Slack is that many will walk away blaming the tool.

The reaction by this group is inevitably one of Slack is stupid. And for many that’s it, the social soup is spoiled. Wrong tool, wrong reason (if any reason), poor planning, poor implementation, and poor support. Bolting it on and flicking the switch works for very little with the exception of an electric light. Many will leave this half-baked effort viewing all enterprise social tools and efforts as pointless voids and frustrating time wastes. So next time the opportunity arises, it will likely be met with a “oh yeah, we tried social media. It didn’t work” response, making sincere efforts all the more difficult due to the often impenetrable wall of first impressions.

This is ultimately a failure of expectation, or a failure because there was an expectation that connection, conversation and collaboration are easy because you’ve employed simple technology.  Thanks to all who leap before they look…

Just because the tools are getting simpler to use, more natural, and common place and even with a lot of fun buzz and hype – it doesn’t mean it’s going to “work” out of the box. It is still and always will be people and purpose, trust and not technology that drives the social engine.

The “Too Many Social Tools” Problem

In a recent morning buzz session I led at the DevLearn Conference titled “Social at the Center“, a few attendees presented a common problem happening in their organization – having too many social tools available and in use. They were frustrated that people were entrenched in small, separated, collaborative pockets with a variety of social tools in use to get their work done. It’s actually a good problem to have, as I have shared in a previous post, Big Social Isn’t Always Best, however their desire was to reap the rewards of a largely connected company. For them, the conversations are happening just as silo’d as before social tools were adopted. Their initial reaction to this was the antithesis of social and sadly the common action of the status quo – shutting down unsanctioned/ unsupported tools.

That is the easy answer.  However it’s not the correct answer.

For starters, give credit to social technology for doing what it does best, making the invisible visible. Social technology can teach you more about your culture than can actually transform it. In this case just the availability of social tools may be revealing that there is no strong desire for these employees to share beyond their immediate team needs. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this organization having individual sales goal awards, a single winners of some golden customer service trophy, and a hierarchical system where advancement is made by those who were savvy enough to out maneuver their peers. These are all strong indicators of an organization that values competition over collaboration and cooperation.

It’s rare that organizations significantly recognized those that help one another or  reward the process just as much as the product. Yet this is the correct answer if they want to realize the benefits of a social business. It’s simple, but simple doesn’t mean easy – social tools do not make an organization more social, more transparent, open or connected, people do.

Changing Words. Changing Practices. Changing Culture. Part II

Several months ago I wrote the first post of this title. In it I shared how through continual conversation and examples I was able to help some key stakeholders stop calling everything training when it came to a performance solution. The idea being that change happens one conversation at a time and that maybe to shift a culture we need to begin by changing the words we use. Words are powerful in that they set expectation and have a connotation.  Take “Social” for example. Early on many saw “social” as a being the same as goofing around. Who wants THAT in their organization?  Today, and equally unfortunate, “social” equates to Social Media which diminishes its value around the verb it is – being human.
Another word that I suspect if we can change in organizations would begin the dominoes falling is the word “learners”.  This term is pretty exclusively an L&D word that lumps people together. And although learner isn’t earmarked as a formal learning only term, it has that connotation, for “learner” is not that far removed from “student” for most hearing it, it generates a context.  If one is a learner it puts them in a learning exclusive situation and a learner needs learning which is typically to be supplied by, you guessed it, L&D.
Most people in organizations see themselves at workers or employees, not learners. They were not hired to learn, they were hired to do.  What happens then if L&D joins everyone else in the organization? What if they drop the name “learner” from their vocabulary and uses words like worker and employee?  I suspect (hope?) the process of changing of words, changes the practices, changes the culture begins.
The L&D practice would become more about helping workers do their jobs. It becomes a bigger focus on the employees needs and their context not L&D’s traditional delivery approach and systems. Workflow solutions, performance support, informal learning opportunities and coaching and mentoring rise, while classrooms, training and courses fall.
What then?
Culture shift.  L&D decompartmentalizes; they become more free agent-like, moving into the workflow as a partner in performance. Work and learning truly begin to merge and employees, with change agents amongst them see a greater personal, professional and organizational value in sharing their work, sharing resources, and collaborating. The inside moves out and a more empowered, autonomous workforce becomes the face of the organization. Improving morale builds greater loyalty and loyalty leads to greater trust across levels. The organization builds a reputation as an employer of choice and the best and brightest gravitate towards it.
Idealistic? Simple? Maybe. But L&D has a lot of potential energy for change, it just needs to get out of its own way. Words are one place to start.