This is the third part in a series of six blog posts on Business Culture. Cultures are rarely designed, but emerge from sustained human relationships. This part explores the evolution of culture as a product of collaboration with flexible roles and shared goals. VDML (value Delivery Modeling Language) under development at OMG, provides for modeling the formal context and informal collaborations of an enterprise, but does not include culture that drives participation and supports agility.
When people come together to collaborate, they have a shared purpose, but they do not have a shared culture that is aligned with that shared purpose. They have personal interests, beliefs, capabilities and experiences along with personal relationships from other cultures and activities in their lives. The personal interests of participants must be compatible with respect to the goals, objectives and methods of the collaboration, and they will be more comfortable with other participants who have similar interests outside those that are pertinent to the collaboration.
Note that under my definition of collaboration, I include citizens of a country, professional associations and members of a religion as well as corporations, departments, committees, task forces and personal relationships. Any collaboration can develop a culture.
If given the opportunity, individuals that join a collaboration with a compatible culture will look for ways they can contribute to the shared purpose in a way that is consistent with their personal interests and beliefs, and where they can best use their capabilities, experiences and personal relationships. They will evolve their individual roles by working with others and developing consensus on how they and others communicate and contribute. Their roles will be influenced by successes of the group, reinforcement they receive for their individual contributions, and satisfaction of their personal interests.
Patterns of activities and interactions—business practices—will emerge to address recurring undertakings. These will become accepted practices of the culture. Successes will shape the related patterns of work and individual contributions, but these patterns are not cast in stone—they may not be documented. The roles defined by these practices tend to reflect the individual characteristics of the members who were part of the original collaboration. Thus when membership changes, the roles and associated practices may need to be adapted, or else the new members may not fit in, and the contributions of departing members may be lost. The participant interests, beliefs, experiences, capabilities and relationships are less likely to change than the roles and practices.
As collaboration continues, the group will encounter different situations and adapt to improve their effectiveness. This will drive adaptations of roles, activities and contributions, but it will also influence interests, beliefs and individual commitment. Some members may increase their commitment and loyalty while others may lose interest and become less committed or leave. The departure of less committed individuals strengthens the culture. The resulting synergy is the real strength of culture.
Culture supports and adopts certain business practices but it provides a complementary source of resilience and flexibility that transcends any given practice. A business practice can be formalized as a business process, but the rigidity of a business process may undermine the ability of the group to respond to exceptions or changes of participants. A formal business process may also limit the roles and expectations of participants to the lowest common denominator—failing to utilize the unique talents and interests of individuals.
For example, a production line engages a number of individuals in well-defined roles. Their behavior and relationships are tightly prescribed. Culture has little effect on what work is done and how it is done. However, the culture of the production worker community may affect absenteeism, grievances, responses to changes in production rates, effort to reduce defects or support for operational improvements. The production workers have shared interests and expectations and probably have practices for dealing with these issues. Culture clearly can be a blessing or a curse.
As another example, information systems development requires much more judgment, individual initiative and collaboration. An application development team may be assembled for a particular project with little common experience. The team will go through a period of adjustment for getting to know each other and their respective roles and capabilities. A team that works together harmoniously for an extended period of time will evolve its own culture that will enable its members to organize a response to a problem or new situation with minimal discussion. Each of them knows what to expect from the others—including their strengths and weaknesses. They can be highly efficient and fulfilled by their work. The experienced team may be highly effective in dealing with a variety of circumstances and adapting to new challenges. They will develop business practices that are more like Lego blocks, to be assembled in different patterns to address particular circumstances.
If directed to use a prescribed methodology, an established team could become less effective than a newly formed one. They will be disoriented by a methodology if it appears to conflict with their cultural roles, their relationships with others, their personal interests, their successful past experiences or their “Lego blocks.”On the surface, culture for a particular collaboration may be evidenced by accepted business practices, or “the way we do things,” but culture is much more than a collection of practices. Culture includes “who we are, what we do, and why we do it,” both individually and collectively.