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Corporate Culture - A Field Study in Organizational Anthropology For IT

Consider your cafeteria a veritable field study for exploring human behavior. Who sits with who? Are most people in groups or sitting alone? What do people talk about? Do they speak in hushed whispers, or are they comfortable talking candidly and laughing out loud?

The answers to these questions are rooted in your corporate culture — a dimension of reality that extends beyond the confines of your lunch hour and into your organization’s inner fiber. An organization’s corporate culture defines accepted standards, directs attentions, fuels behaviors and ultimately dictates what types of people will and will not be successful within it.

Observing Your Organization’s Culture at Work

If we expand our lunchroom field study to the rest of your organization, we will observe the tangible expressions of corporate culture: clothing worn by employees, office decorations and the mysterious language of corporate jargon. The tangible aspects of your corporate culture are mere extensions of the beliefs and values directing them. Intangible aspects are much harder to identify. However, hiring managers should consider these intangible parts of culture because they highly influence the success or failure of an employee, particularly within IT organizations. When these employees not only understand the technology, but also can bring your business needs to life, they are more likely to be productive members of your team and organization.

An organization’s corporate culture defines accepted standards, directs attentions, fuels behaviors and ultimately dictates what types of people will and will not be successful within it.

As you survey your building, note the embossed mission statements or inspirational collateral that adorn the walls. Ask yourself:

  • What are my organization’s corporate values — not just the ones they aspire to live by, but those that actually influence behaviors?
  • What specific behaviors allow some to succeed and which ones cause some to fail?
  • How does work get done? Are we structured as partners or as interdependent groups serving one another?
  • How are new ideas received? Where do they come from?
  • What’s rewarded? What’s compensated? What goes unnoticed?
  • What makes someone powerful or influential? What prevents others from being the same?
  • What keeps people coming to work here each day? What causes others to leave?
  • What specifically makes people fit or not fit into my organization?

Answering these questions will shed light on the intangible factors that define your organization’s corporate culture. In turn, the answers can also help you determine what attributes to look for when hiring a new employee.

Anthropological Note: IT as a Sub-Culture

Similar to high schools where cafeteria tables often segregate the student body (the jocks, the brains, the artists) most organizations have sub-cultures within their larger corporate culture. Your IT workers offer a prime example. After conducting interviews with 15 CIOs and a survey of 41 IT decision-makers, Forrester reports that nearly 85 percent of total respondents felt the culture of the IT department can differ from an organization’s overall corporate culture.1 How so?

Members of the IT sub-culture are instantly recognizable through their ability to speak different languages, “code.” You may also note that members like to brag to their peers about their use of the newest gadgets on the market and to argue about said gadgets’ pros and cons.

Another defining aspect of this sub-group is their desire for a significant technical challenge. During particularly difficult projects, the IT team tends to stay in tact; however, once the project is finished and the challenge complete, it is not uncommon for half of the team to move on to new adventures.

Given the stronger demand for IT talent compared to supply, many IT professionals are aware of their sought-after skill set. Should they leave, it is not very difficult for an IT worker to take a new position at a higher pay rate. Consequently, organizations that wish to attract and retain the best IT professionals not only need to offer competitive rates, but also, they should consider the “intangible” factors that would make an IT professional stay loyal to their team and organization.

Bridging The Cultural Divide

For IT hiring managers seeking to ensure they are positioned to make the right match between a talented candidate and their corporate culture, I recommend the following three-step approach.

Step One: Know Thyself

Understanding what defines your organization’s culture is essential to building and maintaining a successful team. Creating success profiles is one approach organizations use to better understand their corporate culture. These tools define the attributes that will most certainly affect an employee’s ability to rise successfully within the organization, given the employee’s job role. To create success profiles for each job function, managers can simply talk to existing employees at various levels to document attributes required for successful job performance. Specific attention should be focused on understanding what makes the rock stars rock and the strugglers struggle.

Step Two: The Initiation

Many cultures perform a challenging initiation process before an individual is considered part of the group. In modern organizations, this initiation process is known as screening. Upon executing step one and identifying the specific personality traits, qualities, and behaviors considered highly valuable by job function, an organization must adjust its screening process to uncover these subjective indicators of potential excellence within candidates. Success profiles can be used as a basis for basic and situational interview questions. They can also help facilitate honest discussions with candidates regarding attributes an organization deems critical for employee success.

In addition to aligning screening questions to reflect cultural criteria, the initiation process should gain multiple perspectives on a candidate’s cultural fit. I recommend including several people in the interview process and/or allowing the candidate to shadow an employee currently in a position similar to the prospective employee’s role. Both approaches offer the candidate more insight to the organization. They also provide the organization with greater opportunity to make the right hiring decision.

Lastly, to increase the chances of finding a good cultural match, organizations must acknowledge all elements of the corporate culture, positive and negative. Though it may be tempting to only communicate the positive aspects of your corporate culture to prospective employees, the negative elements will inevitably play a role post-hire. In the end, being honest and forthright with candidates will set realistic expectations and ease the on-boarding process. Understanding what defines your organization’s culture is essential to building and maintaining a successful team.

Step 3: Acceptance Building

Successful cultures, like families, make great efforts to take care of their own. After hiring a new employee, it is critical that an organization continually educate and immerse him or her into the corporate culture. New hires will need to build relationships to feel committed to the organization and to add real value. To foster these relationships, organizations should not entirely rely on formal mentorship programs, which can often feel forced; instead, organizations should integrate mentoring into day-to-day operations until it is an ingrained part of work behavior. One way to do this is to observe, recognize and reward individuals who take initiative in becoming natural mentors of new employees.

Organizations need to invest the time to understand their corporate cultures and establish mechanisms that ingrain the culture into daily operations.

Field Conclusions

Anthropologists commonly cite Rome, one of the most powerful and influential empires in history, as a prime example of cultural prosperity. As Rome required many years to build and much effort to defend, a high-performance corporate culture will require a great investment. Organizations need to invest the time to understand their corporate cultures and establish mechanisms that ingrain the culture into daily operations. By taking the steps outlined above, your organization will be better positioned to cultivate and defend a great and sustainable business enterprise.

About TEKsystems®

People are at the heart of every successful business initiative. At TEKsystems, we understand people. Every year we deploy over 80,000 IT professionals at 6,000 client sites across North America, Europe and Asia. Our deep insights into IT human capital management enable us to help our clients achieve their business goals – while optimizing their IT workforce strategies. We provide IT staffing solutions, IT talent management expertise and IT services to help our clients plan, build and run their critical business initiatives. Through our range of quality-focused delivery models, we meet our clients where they are, and take them where they want to go, the way they want to get there.

TEKsystems. Our people make IT possible.

1“Does Your IT Culture Need an Overhaul?”, Forrester Research, Inc., July 17, 2009