When I read about how Google HR uses people analytics in its HR practices, it made me realize that Google could be one of the few companies that walk the talk when it comes to building a company around a firmly rooted culture. While there are a lot of articles and discussions on why it is important to identify and build a company around a culture, I would like to focus more on why this term is merely PR jargon for most companies, or punch line for their leaders.
The identification of a company’s culture and how a company should be built around it is most profound during the formative years of the company. It acts as a vetting tool to decide on the business areas, the clients it would like to acquire and most importantly the profile of the new employees coming into the organization. The greatest challenge lies in keeping this culture intact when companies begin to grow, especially when the growth is rapid. Most companies lose the cultural aspect in this growth period during which more and more employees are recruited to sustain business growth without due consideration to cultural fitment, the underlying belief being “Once they come in, they will just figure it out and blend in”. Sadly this is not the case; rather it results in cultural dilution.
Specifically, I would like to illustrate this point with my experience in top IT services firms in India. It is a well-known fact that Indian IT firms recruit fresh college graduates by herds if not dozens. They pride themselves in the training facilities and methods for onboarding these graduates – their secret sauce to “mold” them to make them employable (billable) in the company. The vision, mission and the “culture” of the company occupy a prominent but small portion of the presentation about the company made to them during their induction process. The most impressionable employees come in without a clue of what drives the company.
Now moving up a level to the middle management, which is usually an equal mix of people who have grown within the company and laterals (people who have joined with industry experience) – the former’s definition of company culture comes from the most influential manager they have worked under, thereby making it more an individual established culture; while the latter’s definition is in relation to their previous work experience. The discussion on company culture in this group is usually in retrospect: how it used to be and how everything has changed. The middle tier, which is a major influencer for new employees, wonders if there exists a culture.
And finally we come to the senior management who are proud about a bygone culture that they were a part of but refuse to admit its non-existence. The reality is that when it comes to the question of the topline and the bottom line in their balance sheets, the word culture vanishes from their vocabulary. In their focus on the rat race for higher and faster growth, most of the senior management is focused only on business impact.
The only place where culture is spoken about in eloquent terms is in the CXOs’ interviews and letters, intra company newsletters and banners. A reality check will be to ask their employees what the culture of their company is. Some of the responses I have heard are:
- “Fun at work” – from freshers; an HR initiative. This notion typically gives way to “work, work and more work” after a couple of years in the company
- “Customer Centricity” – my favorite response. On a single day, I came across 3 definitions for this term. The CEO in his email defined it as knowing what the customer wants before we proposed solutions. When I was discussing some issue with an Account Manager, he said, “We are Customer Centric, we will do anything to keep the customer happy”. And in a project meeting when one of the team members checked if we can get the deadline extended, the Project Lead replied in a somber tone: “Customer centricity is all about delivering projects on time and with best quality”.
Adding more confusion to this definition is the notion of regional footprint like “Bangalore culture is more open”, “We do things differently in Chennai office” etc. My intention to highlight these examples is not to sound condescending but to indicate how disparately company culture can be perceived and why it is important that everyone understands it correctly.
Some may argue that all this philosophy of well-defined company culture is good for writing articles but becomes impractical when you have to deal with a size of 1 lakh + employees that these organizations manage. My counter to that is, if you can take the time and effort to explain the company culture to every employee, they understand the company’s raison d’être and their expected contribution becomes much clearer. This could be a good starting point to improve employee productivity. It should not just stop with understanding alone; it will have to be actively discussed and openly debated within the company and repeatedly exhibited in the major decisions company makes, including letting go of people who are not contributing to the culture. If you want to know more about such companies, you can start by googling.