How often should company culture be reviewed and can it be changed?

UCT GSB PRESS OFFICE - 28 September 2020

Business in South Africa is arguably very conservative. There’s a difference between instilling a long-term corporate culture versus the culture of responding to an immediate crisis such as COVID-19. The former is embedded in organisations over time. How often do you think company culture should be reviewed and is it possible to change a culture that has been instilled over an extended period of time?

Prof Rasoava Rijamampianina, International Visiting Faculty, UCT GSB Executive Development Faculty

The renowned management consultant, Peter Drucker, is a former professor of mine, and coined the phrase, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch, and everything else for dinner!” Everything we do in that culture is going to affect how we execute our strategies. Our leadership proficiency and our business proficiency will be affected by our corporate culture. However, corporate culture is something that is created, which means it is subject to change. If it’s subject to change, it’s a choice. Culture is highly linked to the environment and context. We create our culture because of our environment or context, and we do this to win. But if the environment has changed and we don’t realign our culture accordingly, this is how we lose relevance. Look at how technology has changed our culture. It’s not just the pandemic that caused the shift - technology was already shifting our culture and interaction. And we can see how technology has affected our ‘humanness’. 

Culture comes from habits, and habits come from disciplines. It’s your discipline that created the habit, and in turn, the habits that created the culture. If you change your disciplines and your habits, you can change your culture. 

As leading strategist and MIT lecturer, Peter Senge, said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.” When change happens, you need to dance with the change. Your culture should be able to do that.

Azvir Rampursad, Manager - Corporate Partnerships, UCT GSB

It is by now well accepted that the behaviours linked to cultures associated with the ‘workforce of the future’ are collaboration, empowerment and experimentation. With experimentation comes the need for psychological safety to enable innovation and ideation without the risk of reprimand or failure. This is easier said than done given the context of doing business in volatile markets and uncertain economic climates. Leadership in this context will have a renewed appreciation for adaptive culture strategy - one that will cultivate  empowerment, collaboration and experimentation to enable workforce resilience and the ability to withstand uncertainty.

While, adaptive Corporate Cultures will certainly outwit and outlast the barrage of environmental stressors that businesses today are faced with,  organisational survival will depend on innovation and adaptation. Evolution is inevitable, species have adapted to survive or risked extinction. Adaptive Corporate Cultures, by nature, enable an organisation to move swiftly and effectively to the internal and external pressures for change. Corporate cultures that can consistently cultivate a positive psychological environment will inevitably generate workforce resilience without losing productivity, relevance or strategic advantage.

The architecture of adaptive corporate culture is underpinned by an organisation's purpose, values-based leadership and corporate citizenship where every member of the workforce: its employees, management and leadership, collectively feel invested, adopting an ‘owner's mindset ’ to the business, its product and services that are vital to future success.

Bradley Nitsckie, MPhil candidate, Head of Supply Chain & Logistics, Woolworths Supply Chain & Logistics

I think national culture always has an impact on organisational culture, and if one reflects on the South African national response to COVID-19, there has been a large scale community mobilisation in national solidarity behind the lockdown and COVID-19 measures such as observing lockdown regulations, wearing masks, observing social distancing and ensuring good hand hygiene. Although there is much diversity in South Africa, there is a characteristic national solidarity which enables this large-scale mobilisation. Within organisations in South Africa, the relatively short lead times between government announcements and mobilising actions, to me, has depicted a great agility and responsiveness in very quickly enabling work from home, in implementing and complying with COVID-19 protocols in the workplace, and in adjusting business operational processes to cope with changes in trading rules and dynamics. Similarly, when you look at South Africa’s emergence from Apartheid, the drought response in the Western Cape, and the countless socio-economic difficulties many South Africans face, it’s clear there is a strong national resilience. South Africa has a long history of strong business, educational, medical and other sector organisations and I believe that this national culture of resilience and the ability to adapt to change has played a role.

With regards to setting out a long-term corporate culture, although it takes time to embed and is not easy to adjust frequently, the enablement of an identity, a set of norms, behaviours and values in which the organisation frames itself, is important as a framework by which individuals inside the organisation can moderate their own norms, behaviours and values. 

There are of course many other variables at play when we talk about organisational culture. Individual identity, traits and national culture all play a role, but research has shown that organisational culture is a strong moderator for individual behaviour.

Organisations today need to evaluate whether they have sufficient agility in their cultural framework and how to improve that while continuing to be strategic. As there is still no clarity on when the world will return to normal, that agility will prove more valuable than being strategic at this point. Strategic plans during this pandemic should be reviewed frequently (at least every six months) and while cultural frameworks are hard to shift frequently, distinct leadership messages emphasising and highlighting specific values and behaviours will be more useful right now in mobilising actions needed, than reviewing entire organisational cultural frameworks. 

Managing people | Organizational culture | HR management

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