Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Cultural friction - Please play together nicely, boys and girls...

A recent post on this blog looked at how lessons analysis can help organisations identify some of the high-impact issues affecting their performance.  Yesterday we examined ‘supply chain management’ and discussed some of the problems that a blanket approach in this area can cause.

We now turn to the delicate issue of cultural friction.
What is the problem? 

Nations have cultures, as do organisations, departments and the teams within them.  Defining a ‘culture’ as the collective expression of people’s thoughts, feelings, prejudices and priorities, no-one should be surprised that where cultures rub up against one another, things happen – for good or bad. 
The smaller and simpler an organisation, the less scope there is for cultural differences to appear; however, as companies grow, specialisms develop, teams are formed, departments are created…and white space appears between them on the organisation chart[1] within which misunderstandings can grow.   

The problem for any organisation - which is an artificial creation, engineered for a specific purpose (e.g. lending money, playing football, curing disease etc.) – with competing cultures is how to manage these clashes for positive ends and not let them harm the purpose towards which they should all be working.  Some of the bonds that sustain teams can prevent effective cooperation with ‘outsiders’ and lead to inefficiency.
How does it manifest itself?

Companies that have become multinational through merger and acquisition may discover tensions between people used to doing things a certain way; some cultures encourage long lunch breaks and embrace a so-called ‘work/life balance’ whilst others consider ‘lunch is for wimps’.
Some organisations have developed hierarchies by function as opposed to rank, whereby information is judged not on merit but on the role of its originator (in the military, the ‘combat arms’ (i.e. infantry etc.) have a sense of their own importance compared to those in combat service support (i.e. logistics and administration); in banking, such delineation occurs between the revenue-generators (i.e. sales and trading) and those that measure, manage and consume said revenue (i.e. operations staff in the ‘back office’) – in either case, this is prejudice at work.

Other organisations have tensions between project and operations teams, with the former enjoying the variety and ‘expeditionary mind-set’ inherent in large-scale projects whilst the latter seek the relative stability and repetition of day-to-day operations.  Tensions occur when the competing priorities become obvious through working in close proximity (i.e. project people need systems to be shut down to enable enhancements to take place whilst operations staff need minimal interruption, if any, to day-to-day processes).
What is its impact?

Cultural frictions can lead to inefficient ways of working and poor knowledge transfer between teams and departments, as healthy rivalry descends into tribalism, back-biting and the protection of knowledge for internal political purposes; morale suffers and each party blames the other(s); retention becomes a problem, with experienced staff leaving (taking most, if not all, of their knowledge with them) and new-joiners are overloaded and indoctrinated into the internecine warfare as early as possible.

What recommendations are made to address it?
Organisations that, through lessons capture sessions, have identified cultural frictions as a problem have reviewed career structures with a view to promoting those that have broad experience across several functions, to encourage transfer between departments and discourage the ‘stove-pipe’ mentality that comes with over-specialisation.

Others have provided mentoring and coaching to leaders to help them ‘walk the walk’ of cooperation instead of relying on merely ‘talking the talk’ of ‘One Team’ etc.
To address the problem of knowledge loss upon the departure of experienced personnel, some organisations have introduced knowledge retention interviews, personal wikis and communities of practice (CoP). For information about these services and for news of our learning cultural audit, please visit the Knoco website.

[1] Geary A. Rummler and Alan P. Brache Improving Performance – How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart; San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995

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