Creating culture through collaboration

In my new book Organisation Culture: Getting it Right. I say that

Managers often talk about 'creating a culture …' as in "the strategic global expansion IKEA is undertaking involves creating a global internal culture and business system that connects their brand and human resource strategies via shared democratic company values". This sort of statement is confusing in that IKEA already had a culture and what the firm was seeking to do was to change it from a domestic to a global one.

The term 'creating a culture' is more appropriately used in relation to only two situations.

1. A newly created company
2. The merger of two or more companies with the aim of creating a genuinely new organization as opposed to subsuming one into the other.

Even in these two situations it is not a greenfield site ( that is an undeveloped site but one that is earmarked for development) because organisation culture does not explode from nothing into being. Even in a start up the attributes, preferences, and experiences of the founder(s) and first employees, together with the business model and the underlying business strategy all already exist and play a part in the development of a distinctive culture. "

So I was pleased when I was sent an article by Alistair Moffat, Adrian McLean, (2010) "Merger as conversation", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 31 Iss: 6, pp.534 – 550 that discusses the formation of a new culture following the merger of two companies. Moffat and McLean point out that:

"The approach saw the merger as an opportunity to develop a culture distinctive to the new entity and not as an integration of two cultures, based on "best of both" thinking. It was a deliberate attempt to create the conditions in which something novel might emerge. The emphasis was on cultural formation not cultural integration. Culture here is seen as an unfolding, emergent accomplishment over time – a multi-voiced conversation. The task was seen as discovering, noticing and capturing the emerging clarity, understandings and agreements as they formed fresh, cultural pathways unique to the new enterprise. "

One of the key approaches in the development of the new culture was the use of IBM's Jam technology. This allows huge numbers of people to collaborate quickly and easily in an online event that is carefully orchestrated and managed. Washington Technology, for example, reports that:

IBM's internal Innovation Jam in 2006 brought together more than 150,000 people from 104 countries, including IBM employees, family members, academicians, business partners and clients from 67 companies. In two 72-hour sessions, participants posted more than 46,000 ideas, which resulted in 10 new businesses and $100 million in funding.

There are other collaborative technologies that do the same kind of thing Imaginatik is one. They all work on the premise that, as Moffat and McLean say,

"Pre-defined topics provide focus for discussion of strategic issues in a time-limited event in a way that allows for participation from tens of thousands anywhere in the world. The JAM process is supported by a team of regionally based facilitators who encourage generative contributions, track themes and coordinate the conversation globally. The processing power of the Server computers allows for real time analysis of contributions and provides a capacity to identify emerging trends and themes"

The outcome of using these types of collaborative technologies bears witness to their power. So what stops them from being put to more widespread use? First they require careful seeding and facilitation – collaboration is not just chatting. Second their use needs to be in relation to a specific issue that needs attention and framing these in a way that is useful and usable in a Jam session takes thought and time. Third they are time-bound – much like a pop up shop the Jams and their equivalents are not on-going 'talking shops' as a blog might be.

However, given that culture is about the construction of shared meaning, using a platform that encourages this development makes perfect sense. Although Moffat and McLean say that it's too early to tell whether a new culture is being created in the organization they were working in, they say they see definite signs that a new culture is "indeed emerging in response to these activities and processes. "