Friday, August 31, 2012

Business Culture: Part 1, Why Is Culture Important

This is the first in a Six-Part series of posts about business culture:
·         Part 1, Why Is Culture Important
·         Part 2, Examples of Cultural Challenges
·         Part 3, Evolution of Culture
·         Part 4, The Corporate Cultural Network
·         Part 5, Cultural Inertia
·         Part 6, An Abstract Model of Culture


I define culture as a collection of intangible, informal forces and ideas that influence how and why people collaborate for a shared purpose.  It includes the interests, beliefs, experiences and patterns of work that extend beyond any formally defined roles and responsibilities of the participants.  A culture tends to resist change, but at the same time it can continually evolve to address changes of membership and environment.  Culture can make the difference between success or failure of a collaboration, and thus can make the difference between success and failure of an enterprise.
The LinkedIn Business Architecture Community recently had a lengthy discussion under the topic “Architecture of Business Culture.”  Much of the focus was about how to align culture with corporate goals. Of particular interest is how to resolve culture conflicts such as those that may occur in business reorganizations, consolidations, alliances, mergers and acquisitions.  Differences in business practices in these cases are potential sources of culture conflict. As the Business Architecture Community discussion evolved to a focus on modeling business culture, I was inspired to explore modeling culture in more depth, leveraging some of my past work (discussed in Part 2).

Business Impact of Culture

Culture extends a formal business model with informal relationships and contributions.  The effects of culture are significant, but understanding of culture tends to be intuitive.  When describing culture, the focus is usually on the visible behaviors and artifacts rather than the underlying forces that drive the behavior of individuals and the group.
Culture has become increasingly important to business success.  The traditional business organization has been driven, top-down, with employees expected to focus on their prescribed tasks.  Over time, rote tasks have become automated and the  workforce has become a workforce of knowledge workers who can deal more effectively with non-routine challenges.  Knowledge work deals with the unpredictable, and knowledge workers must be relied upon to recognize and solve problems based on their own skills and insights rather than formally defined roles and processes.  The personal interests of knowledge workers influence their initiative and creativity in their work.  In addition, most knowledge workers rely on informal relationships and support from other knowledge workers, both inside and outside their formal group, to be most effective.  These interests and informal relationships are key elements of culture.
Not only has the nature of work changed, but reorganizations, consolidations, outsourcing, alliances, mergers and acquisitions have become frequent business events.  These require reconciliations of cultures that can ripple through an organization.  In addition to disrupting the way affected groups do things, these changes may result in conflicts between individual interests and the interests of others, as well as the goals of their organization, the incentive system or the broader corporate culture.  Compatibility of organizations is much more than the similarities of the businesses; it includes compatibility of the interests of individuals with organizational goals and the interests of co-workers as well as the willingness of individuals or their cultures to adapt to new business patterns and technologies.
Globalization of business is another factor driving concerns about culture.  In addition to obvious differences between people in different countries, people have different attitudes, interpersonal relationships and expectations regarding the way work gets done.  If done poorly, mixing people of different cultures may cause confusion and conflict along with degraded productivity and quality of work.  If done well, diversity can be an advantage.
Finally, businesses must be prepared to adapt to changes in technology and market opportunities.  An effective business culture can streamline the work of transformation if existing relationships and expectations are properly engaged.  There is less need to develop detailed plans if everybody knows what is expected of them and what they can expect from others.  However, business changes may be difficult or impossible if they challenge culture.

Purpose of this series

The purpose of this series is to explore various aspects of culture, the conceptual elements of culture and their relationships.  These discussions are intended to develop a shared understanding of business culture as a basis for a proposed reference model discussed in Part 6.  Such a model will enable us to better work with the mechanisms that develop and evolve culture and potentially shape or inspire a culture to achieve exceptional goals.  This model represents a potential extension of VDML (Value Delivery Modeling Language), a business modeling language under development at OMG (Object Management Group).  See Outside-In Business Architecture with VDML and earlier posts about VDML on this blog.

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