Driving cultural change

If we’re honest, most attempts at culture change fail. We like to pretend that we’ve made small steps forward, but in reality we witness the prevailing culture continue.

The reason? Most approaches aren’t systemic, instead they focus on only some of the levers available and shy away from others. And without shifting the entire system, the almost inevitable result is that change is temporary and unsustained.

To make this point, we can look to the structure of other systems.

The first stage of learning to drive in the UK is the theory test. It teaches us all “the rules” of the system. What we should do in response to certain signals, how we should behave, what the expectations of ourselves and others should be.

Then we go and sit in a car, with a friend, family or paid instructor. In the model, we learn to apply the theoretical knowledge in to a practical environment. The reality is that in this application we start to learn how things are really done but maintain a level of congruence because of the artificial experience of “passing the test”.

And assuming that we manage to retain enough of the “right way” to get past the test and into our own wheels, we then go out in to the world and experience first hand and for real how the behaviours are applied in the system.

Do people stop at red lights?
Do they follow the speed limits?
Do people speak on phones?
How many people keep to the stopping distances?

On top of this we have the structural implementation, the speed cameras, the police, the insurance companies. What do they reward, what do they punish? What is accepted and tolerated, what is looked down upon and reprimanded.

In reality, this isn’t far from the approach of most organisations – with some form of classroom based intervention. However, when we look at the application of this back within the department and then the organisation as a whole; when we look at the structures that we put in place in terms of recruitment, promotion, reward and development – that’s where we start to see the gaps.

No system is perfect and there will always be a certain level of incongruence and imperfection – that’s because we’re human. If you drive, you’ve probably jumped a red light, broken a speed limit, looked at a text once or more. But we have an expectation that people who constantly break the rules will be dealt with and that if we generally abide by the agreed norms, then we will be ok.

The problem in most organisational change programmes is that the interventions take place outside the system – like the theory test – and expect a transference back in. But individual behaviour tends to norm to the group and group behaviours tend to be driven by the structure of the system, which we tend to neglect.

Put simply, organisations are systems. And if you want to change the culture of organisations, you need to consider the whole system. Anything short of this will almost certainly involve a lot of time, a lot of effort and resource, but ultimately end in inevitable failure.

Technology is HR’s biggest asset

Last week was a bit of a tech week. Starting in Sydney at the incredible HR Tech Fest and ending in Berlin at a digital “bootcamp” (including a visit to the games developer Wooga) looking at the latest consumer digital developments. Having finally got back to some semblance of normality, there are a number of things buzzing around my mind, causing me to reflect and think about the future of our profession.

1. Our employees are consumers, and as such are increasingly immersed in technology. If my expectation of the world is one where I can do pretty much anything at the tap of a screen, then why would my expectations be any different at work?

2. HR technology has changed and is changing. The future of technology is not the big, sole vendor, enterprise systems (although they are still dominant) that restrain you to one platform and one solution. The future is individual, integrated multiple vendor solutions that are best fit for your organisation.

3. We have the opportunity to excite and engage employees through the use of technology, rather than report on and process them. In the same way we willingly spend our time (and money) on consumer technology, the right solutions will lead the right behaviours and engagement within our organisations.

4. Cloud based and SaaS (software as a solution) technologies improve our ability to implement technology more quickly and at lower cost. Gone is the need for long project plans and implementation projects, we can trial, measure and develop a lot more easily. But successful implementation still comes down to good training and communication, nothing has changed there.

5. The opportunity to take our HR technology out of the work environment and in to the home, the commute, the coffee shop or the pub is going to become crucial. Being fully mobile, fully portable, whilst remaining secure is going to be a challenge, but our expectations as consumers is to access the content and services we need, when we need them, wherever we need them.

6. Good technology means good data. And intelligent use of data, as we know, is critical to understanding and leading our organisations to be better.

But the big tech-away (did you see what I did there?) for me, is that as an HR leader, you need to understand and embrace the opportunities offered by the new generation of technology solutions. It isn’t good enough to say, “I’m not a technology person” in the same way it isn’t acceptable to say, “I don’t do numbers”. The HR leader of the future is going to be immersed in technology and see it as their greatest asset.

If that isn’t you, then its time to brush up. Otherwise, you’d better start looking over your shoulder.