Blaming organisational culture for serious failings is not a new phenomenon. It seems to be routine nowadays. NASA and BP both blamed the culture following well-publicised accidents – and then blamed the culture again when they each experienced another tragedy. More recently, the Francis Report cited culture as a major contributing factor to the unnecessary deaths and routine neglect at the Mid Staffordshire Hospital.
Today, we hear that a record fine has been imposed on the power company SSE for mis-selling gas and electricity. In a BBC interview, the regulator claimed that SSE allowed a culture of mis-selling to continue as opposed to a culture that we expect of the company where they put consumers first and abide by the rules.
These are the headline-grabbing incidents of large scale and deep-seated cultural problems. But I believe that they represent the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, escaping the scrutiny of the media, a bigger picture of the less dramatic but nonetheless damaging effects of poor culture can be found affecting customer care, organisational performance, safety and profit.
Organisational culture describes how things get done in an organisation – in terms of the values, behaviours and assumptions which dictate the way people approach their work and how they rub along together. Organisational culture is deeply embedded and is distinct from climate which, like the weather, can change quickly.
The problem with culture is that it can be hard to quantify. And as the maxim goes, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Actually, you can measure culture. You can measure the current culture and you can identify the preferred culture – the one which will best enable the organisation to achieve its goals.
We use the Human Synergistics Organisational Culture Inventory, which incorporates the Circumplex model, to measure organisational culture. But the culture audit is just the start. Achieving culture change requires a considerable investment in time and resources. It’s not a quick fix, it’s a corporate governance issue and it has to be led from the top.