Why It’s So Difficult to Really Change a Company Culture

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When a company culture is dysfunctional, it can affect business success.

HR or Organizational Development (OD) may try to change it. And sometimes they do — for about a day. But most blanket attempts to change the culture of a whole company are wasted efforts.

Why is culture so difficult to change? Because we think of company culture as if there is only one for the whole company. Everyone having the same mindset, thoughts and views about how a company should work. Kind of like the “Stepford Wives” of the corporate world.

We conveniently forget the fact that no real-world company works as one uniform whole. In the 21st Century, the business world is far too complex for companies to function as a single culture.

The 3 subcultures at work in most companies

Doctors view the world differently than nurses; manufacturing engineers look at the world differently than finance people. These sub-cultures and others are very strong and the people in them look at the world through different lenses.

Ed Schein helped found the field of OD in the 1950s. This professor at MIT developed the “subculture” theory. He believes there are typically three (3) at work in most companies:

  1. Operations subculture — The people who get products and services out the door, the drivers of day-to-day process. They view people as potentially valuable team members that are capable and reliable. They know that technology generally doesn’t work unless people are around to work out the “kinks”. Operations managers appreciate the importance of finance and raising capital, but they have no gut feel for it —- nor do they feel warm and fuzzy towards engineers who see operations people as troublesome nuisances.
  2. Engineering subculture — The engineers and technical specialists that focus on the design challenge of creating an ideal world of elegant machines. The only thing they’re impatient with is other people. They are preoccupied with designing humans out of the systems rather than into them.
  3. Executive subculture — The people who focus on deals, leverage, and capital flow. Members of this culture typically include the CEO, the board, the business-unit leaders, and the finance staff. They are the only ones directly accountable for the company’s obligation to return money and value to shareholders. Because they are so “money” driven, they tend to view people as “costs” — i.e., expendable resources.

It’s not easy to move from subculture to subculture.

Failing to deal with subculture differences

Take Ron Johnson for example. He moved from the head of Marketing at Apple to be the “turnaround” CEO at J.C. Penney. Ron’s mantra at JCP was a carbon copy of Steve Jobs, his manager at Apple: “Customers don’t know what they want.

Like Jobs he wanted to go with revolutionary change. But JCP’s products are commodities — not revolutionary tech products. Apple’s business model didn’t work at JCP. After 18 months he “resigned.” You might say that he went from a predominantly engineering subculture to a predominantly operations culture.

People in any one of these three subcultures have a difficult time understanding that others have different viewpoints. They don’t understand why their counterparts in other subcultures can’t see “reality” the way they do.

The big challenge

The reality of separate subcultures can show itself in various ways. If an employee is transferred from an operations to an engineering subculture, he/she may find that it’s almost like working for a different company.

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She or he will likely find that the way things are done, the viewpoints and the business priorities in his/her old subculture is quite different from the way they are in this new subculture. This employee will need time to adjust and get acclimated as if s/he were a brand new employee.

The big challenge for today’s company is not to collapse these subcultures into one, because that’s not possible. The goal is to create a broad, overarching business strategy that doesn’t crush these subcultures but pulls all of them together and ensures they can work as a unified team.

By doing so management can then capture the best of all three and focus them on the larger vision of the company.