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Managing Company Culture Anthropologically

Culture Anthropologically

BUSINESSES are really bad at establishing an engaging culture. Despite its perceived importance, for the most part, companies have a miserable track record when it comes to managing their people.

On the one hand, most CEOs agree with with the statement attributed to Peter Drucker: culture eats strategy for breakfast. Yet, on the other hand, the data shows that following through on this conviction can be elusive.

The Culture Dilemma

Employee engagement in American companies has hovered around 30 percent for 60 years. Seventy percent of corporate “change programs” fail to achieve their stated goals. Large firms spend around $2,200 per employee per year on culture, yet only 30 percent of those efforts have a positive ROI.

Further, only 69 percent of employees believe in the cultural aspirations of their leaders, and a full 90 percent of employees don’t behave in ways that align with those aspirations.

Companies consistently get culture wrong because they go about assessing it, and attempting to manage it from the top-down, not the bottom-up. But what does this mean?

Typically, a large organization will administer a culture survey — a large inventory of questions that results in placing the “company culture” into one of several “culture types” or “culture orientations.” The survey reveals the culture that a company has now and gives it an idea of what “type” of culture it can have in the future.

This approach plays right into the hands of eager consultants because getting from the current culture to the desired future culture becomes a gap-closing program. Consultants love a gap-closing program almost as much as they love a SWOT analysis.

Ticking the boxes of a culture survey is satisfying for an HR manager because she collects “data at scale,” which is generally referenced in numbers, pie-charts, and graphs of various shapes. However, the gap-closing process falls apart quickly when the company compels employees to change their behavior in order for the company to arrive at its future desired culture. Data clearly indicates that this does not work.

The Anthropological Alternative

Anthropology as a discipline has been studying cultures around the world for more than 150 years. Anthropologists set out to understand culture through the qualitative research method of ethnography — the process of spending time with research subjects in the actual contexts where they live, work, shop, play, and celebrate.

Ethnography is premised on empathy, and the goal is to understand a given culture from the “natives’” point of view — through their eyes, in their words. Ethnography allows a researcher to focus on the lived experiences of people and how those experiences reflect and shape culture in that environment.

The Employee Experience (EX) Imperative

No survey architect, as brilliant as they may be, can really know anything about the specific experiences of employees in a particular company. Their culture types are a mere shorthand in the quest for hard data.

Companies that focus anthropologically on employee experiences can shape cultures in ways consistent with the aspirations and goals of their employees.

Typically defined as the “values, beliefs, and behaviors” that people in organizations share, corporate culture too often remains an unattainable abstraction. A shift to the everyday experiences of employees shifts the focus of what culture is in an organization.

An EX approach to culture focuses on the tangible, daily experiences of employees and what those mean to employees (again, in their words). Among others, five tangible aspects of work in particular, shape experience, and culture.

1. Why: Purpose and meaning - Humans are a storytelling species, and we value being a part of a meaningful story. Culture starts with a compelling story. Does the company story resonate?

2. What: Learning and growth - People are natural learners and experimenters. How much of their full cognitive and intellectual muscles are being used?

3. How: Autonomy and flexibility - Humans self-organize and accomplish things most effectively without too much management. How does the organization enable teamwork?

4. Who: Leadership trust - Does leadership trust its employees to take risks without fear of being punished? Do they allow people to be themselves at work?

5. Where: Community - Does the company campus, or digital infrastructure, successfully balance employees’ need for community and autonomy?

An EX approach to understanding a company’s culture starts with questions like these, in which employees are encouraged to elaborate, in ethnographic interviews, on how they (and not a survey writer) feel about the questions.

Work-Life Shift at Fujitsu

Fujitsu, the Japanese digital transformation conglomerate, exemplifies the power of an EX approach to managing its people. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Fujitsu introduced a radically employee-centric new approach to managing its people.

Focusing on people first, they introduced several changes from which any company can learn.

• Digital-first: They shifted to a digital-first working model, allowing employees to work from home if they chose to. The goal was to help employees put their family needs first.

• Coworking-like offices: They closed their large downtown offices in Tokyo and shifted to small, satellite coworking-like spaces in the suburbs so that employees who did want to work at an office didn’t have to commute very far. Also, start-up companies in the Fujitsu technology accelerator program work in the satellite locations as well, creating a company-startup mashup.

• Autonomy: They are working to devolve critical decision-making to the individual and team level to cultivate an atmosphere of autonomy and self-directed work.

• Passion projects: They now allow employees to take outside employment or to start their own businesses on top of their commitments to Fujitsu. This is a recognition that employees have passions they aren’t fulfilling at the company and that they value that for their employees.

Every industry is different, and every company is unique, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for addressing the culture dilemma. However, starting with a thoughtful and empathetic consideration of employee experience and taking that seriously is a fruitful way to start. Fujitsu’s Work-Life Shift program clearly demonstrates that.

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Leading Forum
Drew Jones, PhD, is an anthropologist, former business school professor, and practicing management consultant. He is a founding partner of Experient, a workplace culture and strategy consultancy. Over the past 20 years, he has worked on culture, leadership, and workplace design projects with clients throughout the US, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. He is published widely in academic management journals and magazines, and has published three previous books on design thinking and innovation, coworking, and activity based working (ABW). His new book is Open Culture Handbook: Five Questions to Drive Engagement and Innovation (Amplify Publishing, Oct. 3, 2023). Learn more at DrewJones.co.

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