As corporate anthropologists who love to go exploring, we have been reflecting on our recent safari in Tanzania and thinking about the changes facing the Maasai, one of the many indigenous tribes in this lovely East African country. They powerfully illustrate the challenges facing any society — or company, for that matter — and how perhaps a little anthropology might help business leaders and their organizations survive these fast-changing times. We'd like to share with you here some of the ways we thought "across cultures" on our vacation.
I always enjoy my workshops with CEOs. They teach me a lot about the trends happening in the world of business growth across the U.S. and Canada. This week as we move into 2017, I am working with a group of company leaders representing a wide range of industries, all of whom had a record year (or pretty close) last year in revenues and profits. In one of our sessions, they were all applauding each other and celebrating their accomplishments.
For a moment I thought perhaps I had the wrong group since I speak on change and these executives and I were going to spend the next three hours searching for new market space, re-inventing their strategies and focusing their attention on unmet needs, non-users and how to add value in innovative ways. Next, I was going to ask them to take a look at the big trends that are taking place in the U.S. and globally right now, and determine if they and their organizations are ready to capitalize on them. So what was up?
The human brain resists change, which in evolutionary terms, is a good thing. Resisting change is a reasonable survival tactic for individuals: repeating tasks we’re familiar with takes less brain energy and has known outcomes, while making changes to one's routine creates a higher short-term risk of mistakes. But for a business, resistance to change can easily mean extinction.
I had a client not long ago (a sink manufacturer) that had ethnographic research conducted to better understand how people choose to buy sinks. The company really wanted to fully comprehend the meaning of different sinks to different people along the buyer’s journey. What the research exposed was the changing buying process as consumers, designers and even manufacturers' representatives turned to the Internet to find and buy their sinks. What happened to the power of the showroom?
Similarly, at SAMC we conducted ethnographic research for a healthcare client of ours to better understand the meaning of urgent care centers which the client and others were building everywhere. What we learned was that this fast-growing care delivery channel was siphoning patients away from emergency rooms, as expected, but also away from primary care physicians. Indeed, consumers were just as happy seeing a doc-in-the-box as they were having a relationship with a physician.
Why? What has happened in the world of business innovation that has made it far more important to observe, listen and share the experiences of people searching for, selecting and using a company's products and services than just to survey them or conduct traditional focus groups? Why is ethnography becoming the “go-to” solution to really dig deep into understanding the changes taking place in how people solve their problems today? No longer is it enough to just project onto consumers what you think. The point now is, what do they think and how can that influence what you do with your business and how you do it?
At a recent workshop I conducted with Human Resource Directors, they were all moaning about how challenging it was to change a culture, having been asked by their leadership teams (often the CEO) to take on the role of culture change agents. They were now tasked with shifting the core values, beliefs and behaviors that were the company's hallmarks yesterday but that weren't going to work tomorrow.
As they all shared, when HR directors are asked to change their organization’s culture, they tend to zero in on the things that are most familiar to them. Common mistakes include: focusing on salaries and promotional rewards, discussing hiring practices and shifting onboarding methods. Yet, they know culture change is more complex than just managing the reward and recognition system.
Significantly, what bubbled up during the workshop were three major concerns facing culture change that need to be re-thought:
Last December, the Wall Street Journal officially declared 2015 the “Biggest M&A Year Ever.” USA Today reported that $4.85 trillion in “corporate wedding vows” were exchanged. The Atlantic’s review of what it calls the “Merger Bonanza” points out that we may very well be in the middle of the 7th biggest wave of rapid merger activity over the last century (other notable periods being the consolidation of steel and oil in the early 1900s, the diversification surge of the 1960s and the changes from deregulation and globalization in the 1990s).
Those gigantic numbers (trillions?!!) mean that large groups of people are coming together to work in new teams, navigating new corporate cultures and establishing new roles and responsibilities. (Interestingly, when a company's culture starts changing, all of a sudden employees seem love the old one that before, they barely even noticed.)
In almost every situation, mergers and acquisitions mean corporate culture shifts, which then of course means friction, fear of change and new expectations. Long-term, shifts in workplace culture threaten any company that is absorbing another, being absorbed, or joining another large, successful company on a global scale.
What can be done to make the chances of success and long-term profitability better?
Could a little Corporate Anthropology make M&As really hum?
CEOs and executives typically spend much of their leadership time at the head of a successful ship. But when it becomes necessary to adapt to change, they have a hard time steering that ship when the market winds shift and they need to change course. Do they need to add some innovation into their business? Is it the business model or the core processes that have to change? And do they also need to change their culture?
How do you know your culture needs to change? Has your business stalled?
Let me share a story.
I was speaking with someone recently who works for a ski resort that wanted to find a Blue Ocean Strategy®. Skiing and snowboarding are not growing, and mountain resorts—whether they are destinations or weekend retreats—need to find more nonusers to enjoy an experience.
Unfortunately, the ski resort's change strategy had not taken them very far so they abandoned it. A new business model was not in the works for them, either. While disappointing, this was not unfamiliar.
In contrast, one of our clients has robustly embraced the challenge of change and aligned their business around the undeniable fact that the next generation will not be doing things as they have been done before. While this company is in the telephone call center industry, it realized that "demography was their destiny."
It recognized that younger people don't use the phone to find solutions to their problems. They use the Internet, social media, blogs and all sorts of other means to figure out a solution. Those old 800#'s? For their parents. This company could see what was happening but also saw that their own clients weren't paying attention. So, they determined they could lead the industry by opening up a new market space embracing all types of customer care into their business model.
What do you need in order to adapt your business to changing times?
At a recent workshop, I spoke to a roomful of Human Resources directors about Blue Ocean Strategy® and how it was relevant to their roles in organizations that are changing. Their biggest challenge, they said, was less about adapting their strategies or enabling their organization to execute on new strategies. Rather, each of them had been given the job of changing the corporate culture. That was their strategy if the organization was to capture new customers and sustain the ones they had.
Assuming that meant there was a connection between business strategies and corporate culture, they were doing important work. Their challenge was the articulated disconnect between the changes taking place in the organization and the demands upon them to manage the culture.
Why, I asked, is changing corporate culture in the hands of human resource directors alone? And what does it mean to really change an organization's culture?
"Culture" was named Word of the year: 2014 by Merriam-Webster Dictionary because it was looked up more than any other word. Two years later, it’s still on the tip of every C-suite tongue in America.
But why? What is it about “culture” that keeps everyone talking?
Josh Bersin says it so well in his Forbes.com article: "Culture is a big and somewhat vague term. Some define it as “what happens when nobody is looking.” For an organization,
“Culture is the set of behaviors, values, artifacts, reward systems, and rituals that make up your organization. You can 'feel' culture when you visit a company, because it is often evident in people’s behavior, enthusiasm, and the space itself.” Read more here.
You can indeed “feel” culture when you visit a company — whether that culture is good, growing or toxic is another story. The big, thorny question facing so many organizations right now is how to build a stronger, better culture that is right for the changing market environment and today's new generation of employees.
Is that what everyone is searching for in the dictionary...the meaning of the word "culture"? How to better understand the culture of their organization and how to love it or change it — and change it to what?