Pockets of culture change

I was sitting in a meeting yesterday where we were discussing the impending office move. One of the effects of the move could be – if we drove it in that direction – a significant shift in the organization's culture. The amount of space people are moving to is much less than they currently have, and the layout is completely different: open plan, little in the way of cubicle divider height, and much less storage space.

The instruction has gone out that people will get no more that two crates to put all their items in and they are not to bring certain things – personal plug in electrical appliances, etc. The plan is that over the next two years people will practice hoteling, teleworking, free addressing and other ways of working that do not include having a designated personal desk space of their own.

This is a strategy to encourage among other things, lower carbon emissions, more efficient space use, and better collaboration between work teams. Now that the move is imminent there is a certain amount of pushback. People want to take their own desk top fans, personal coffee makers, arrays of potted plants and similar stuff.

At the moment the leadership team is holding its ground, believing that they have cultural 'ownership' and this move is part of their efforts to change the culture. However, all employees are contributors to an organization's culture.

Trade-off decisions are part and parcel of organisational life as people focus on achieving what is most important to them. These myriad decisions affect an organisation's culture in a similar way that decisions on, say, voting and community involvement, affect local and national culture.

The level of involvement and participation that organisations want from their staff influences the degree of impact employees have on the culture. At one level they may want tractable people who turn up, do their job without fuss and go home. At another they may want highly involved creative people who will take the organisation into new markets in an innovative way. Thus they parcel the work into jobs in a way that makes sense at a particular point in time. But the way work is divided has a big impact on the culture.

People make trade off decisions in relation to the jobs that they do and the cultural norms they share. If their job is on an assembly line and they are paid on a piece work basis they will have a different view of the culture of the organisation than a marketer working on branding strategy. Changing the way work is done changes the trade-off decisions that people can or do make in relation to it and thus changes the level of cultural ownership people take (for better or worse depending on the job change). Here's an example relating to a 'culture of corruption'.

NEPAL'S anti-corruption authority has come up with a novel solution to rampant bribe-taking at the country's only international airport – the pocketless trouser.
The authority said it was issuing the new, bribe-proof garment to all airport officials after uncovering widespread corruption at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport.

"We sent a team to observe the growing complaints about the behaviour of airport authorities and workers towards travellers and we discovered that the reports were true," said Ishwori Prasad Paudyal, spokesman for the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA).

"So we decided that airport officials should be given trousers with no pockets. We have directed the ministry of civil aviation to implement our order as soon as possible," he told AFP.

Commenting on this report , a blogger at the World Bank remarks that business ethics professor Chris MacDonald states that, in fact, there are two types of solutions to problems like corruption: what he calls "people" solutions and "technological" solutions. The solution like the one proposed by Nepal's government falls into the technological category.

There then follows an interesting exchange on whether this type of fix is short term or the first step in forcing a discussion about behaviors that will ultimately lead away from a culture of corruption towards a culture of probity.

Stopping people from bringing certain items to the new office space, the case that I am working on, is part of a technological solution to culture change. However, as it is unfolding it is also challenging existing norms of behavior and modes of thinking that influence the culture. As long as the technological solution is supported by other people solutions (communications, leadership example, rewards and recognition) I think it will be an important part of cultural change. If the leadership team backs down on this technological solution it will have lost an important battle in the drive to change the culture.