Talent Management: Role of Culture? Some Personal Musings


Today’s post builds on a recent National Post article (“People, ideas will determine success”; 8 February, 2011; page FP12) on an interview with James Quigley (global CEO of Deloitte Tohmatsu).

Those of us in OD consider culture to a main lever/impediment for performance and change. Quigley provides some interesting observations reflect this OD perspective:

  • “I believe culture is more significant in terms of driving how a professional thinks and acts than structure”
  • “Culture represents the social mores of the enterprise.”
  • “It is the definition of what’s important and how we get things done.”
  • “If you want to obtain (effective) behaviour from your organization you need to be able to create a sense of belonging, a shared identity.”
  • “I want their hearts and minds.”

A significant value to me is how this article poked me to reconsider some basic assumptions I hold around the subject of culture in organizations.

Is culture more important than structure?

I am not sure I can fully say yes. Why?

My general concept of culture parallel’s the one Quigley suggests in point 3 above. What does the phrase “how we get things done.” entail? Certainly at least the following:

  1. It propels us to see some things and not others (all sensory perception is an act of aping attention to some stimuli and not others). So culture is a FOR defining coat.
  2. It provides critical insight on what we see (hear, etc.) means – it provides a theoretical explanation regarding cause and effect, why it is occurring.
  3. It provides us guidance in how to interpret its significance (Now that we have seen it do we need to do anything about it?).
  4. I provides us with a range of suitable/acceptable responses.

Structure is involved with all of the above points.

  1. What we see: structure always is built around information that is deemed necessary – ergo, it acts as a dashboard that prompts us to observe some things to the exclusion of others
  2. Structure provides processes for explanation and understanding, it organizations information into interpretative packets.
  3. Structure helps with interpretation about significance. Structure sequences information processing and decision making
  4. Structure also embodies what an organization will do in response.

So I see structure as a form that culture takes. This suggest that culture is a priori to structure. But we know this to not be true. Put people in a structured environment and over time they will develop a social culture.

Example: take any multi-person game and people will quickly adopt survival/winning patterns of behaviour. I learned this example in a very curious circumstance. Many years ago I was introduced to Monopoly and I quickly developed into a very bad player. My best friends stopped wanting to be around me when we played the game. The structure accentuated certain behavioural traits in me (not pleasant ones obviously). So we know we can pursue culture through structure.

Structure and culture are to me a chicken and egg issue. Tinker with culture and you will run right into structural issues. Tinker with structure and you will run right into cultural issues. As I reflect, I regard culture as a result of patterns, some of which structure shapes.

My conclusion is it doesn’t seem particularly helpful to claim either structure or culture as ascendant. They both need attention in the pursuit of changing organizational performance.

Talent performance is a function of culture. In at least two ways.

  1. Culture influences what is focused upon by talent. If this focus is on useful things performance will be viewed as high. An example is around what “I am expected to pay attention to. There have been many cases reported where environmental events (threats/opportunities) are ignored because those observing them do not see themselves being in a position to do anything about it. I find the bemoaning of leaders that people should be more active in taking initiative intriguing as they are the ones who have established the “boundaries” of expectations through many formal and informal boundaries (the culmination of which is culture). Organizations are by definition boundary setting social systems. Don’t bemoan  (about others) what you have established.
  2. Culture also sets expectations around how much. An example from my mis-spent youth was in roofing where there was a clitoral norm around how many squares should be installed by roofers on a construction site. Regardless of weather. I experienced this when I was diamond drilling where we had a “number of feet” drilled value monist the various drilling rig teams. All social systems have explicit and/or implicit norms around “enough is enough”. There are some basic needs in design (organizations, mechanical systems, etc.) to have performance limits. Without these, no system can last without collapse.

The issue is more about how do we recognize and appropriately adaptively respond to circumstances that are changing. Organizations are built around expectations (again explicit and implicit) on its operating environment. One of the advantages of many social systems is they are somewhat loose in that they can tolerate significant fluctuations and shifts in their operating environment. As a general rule: any system that is highly specialized and “tuned for performance operates in a “tight” environment. this means that even slight changes in the environment can potentially have devastating results.

This paradox of high performing systems is easily observed in nature. Highly adapted species are most easily threatened when modest environmental changes take place. These species are so adapted to their environments that they have minimal residual capacity to change.

So cultures that promote empowered initiative will by this logic be less adapted systems and even by some comparisons not as high performing. Why?

Adaptability means that there is some “surplus” capacity that can be reallocated to changing circumstances. In organizations this means:

  • Not everyone is working “flat out”. People have some capacity (especially time) to look around and ask basic assumption questions. I believe that the all too common practice to have “just enough people” available to get the job done is a decision to knee cap your internal capacity to have people become empowered and show initiative outside of their assignments. To have the capacity to do only what you are doing means you have no capacity for internally generated change or adaptive response. For those of us who are consultants, the rule of thumb is you need to allocated 20% of your potential billable time to non billable work if you plan on staying current in your field.
  • Not every dollar/other input resource is locked into a operating use. Some resources are seaside for impromptu use as curious and interesting things appear. This also has implications around how and if people need to seek permission to draw upon these resources when they spot something interesting. Remember, almost by definition, initiative means doing what is not budgeted for or previously authorized.
  • The culture permits (actually needs to expect) that people will engage in ostensively non-productive activities. I must admit I am only aware of one organization that has an explicit cultural norm on this aspect. Guesses?

The business strategy of the organization should have a consensus on how much tolerance the organization has for dealing with environmental fluctuations and even shifts. This has implications on what it means to have an “optimum operating”  system and how tight are the constraints on non-committed resources. Also the business strategy should outline the likely sources of environmental disruption AND, what an unexpected disruption might look like (in terms of attributes) and have this information available to those who are in the best capacity to observe it/them early. This leads to the whole discussion around leading indicators.

I have very little quarrel with Quigley’s thoughts, I just take them in differing ways. To blame a culture (and the people within it) for not doing what it was never designed to do isn’t helpful. cultural is a organizational structural outcome it does and supports what it was set up to achieve. I believe that talent traits such as empowered behaviour, initiative and the like need to be “rationally anchored into what the organization needs to achieve. It is a fundamental strategy core design decision.


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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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