Organizations have traditionally used a three-legged approach to creating a ‘culture’: Communications, training and compliance. None of those in isolation have the power to shape a culture. The three together are a good machine gun approach and, as such, result in lots of wasted ammunition.
Communicating about what a culture looks like, or should look like, in terms of values or behaviours, for example, is a noble and necessary task. But communication per se has a diminishing power from the start. Channels get saturated, people become more cynical and eventually, they switch off.
Communicating is necessary, but hardly sufficient. Let’s take safety, for example in an oil and gas enterprise. Communicating that safety is a key goal, perhaps stressing that it is not negotiable is a given. Reassuring that the entire leadership of the company is behind this drive is something very important, expected, and surely welcome. But it‘s hardly an engine to create a culture of safety. Look at any single oil and gas company with a safety disaster (or worse) and show me that the importance of safety had not been communicated. You won’t be able to.
So, then, we have Compliance. Rules and Regulations naturally follow, particularly in territories such as oil and gas, transportation, civil engineering, etc. Compliance systems explain what needs to happen, and what is not acceptable. But a Compliance system, as many Health and Safety systems are, is mainly a threatening one. When you learn to drive, you remember the penalties for speeding and the thresholds in different places more than why those speed limits and regulations are there in the first place. Any compliance system has a bypass mechanism in waiting, and they will be used if people can get away with that. Compliance systems in themselves have very little power to create a culture.
The third leg starts in Compliance but goes further. It’s called Training. Training systems provide you with information, knowledge and skills (plus a clear reference to the penalties of non compliance). Training, (instructional, informational, rational or emotional), does not create a culture. It creates a well-trained workforce. We can say that a culture of safety is not the same as a culture of training on safety. The organization may become very proficient at training but not necessarily at building a safety culture, other than… a culture of training.
The Perfect Culture does not need much communication or compliance, or training. We know, of course, that this is unrealistic. A culture of safety, for example, is then one where safety is a normal day-to-day conversation equivalent to football, or soccer, or whatever conversation is the usual one around a water-cooler. If safety is an add-on, something one has to think about and ‘bring in’ (artificially) to the conversation, then this is not ‘a culture of safety’.
Cultures, in fact, are not created in classrooms. Cultures require behavioural spread and scale. Behaviours don’t like classrooms, they like the playground and the courtyard. Behavioural scale up (a fancy way of saying ‘shaping a culture’) requires a peer-to-peer, bottom up system as an engine. If this exists, then training and communications top up and multiply. But the other way around, banking on communications and training only, is a waste.
A Push system (communication, compliance, training) without a Pull system (behavioural, bottom-up, grassroots), is a very weak system. You need a strong Push-Pull combination.
Entire companies become proficient in training X, without ever getting close to creating a culture of X. They become very proficient at training X. But this is unfortunately what many organizations do, because it is an easy answer to problems. It is the wrong answer.
A ‘culture of safety’ is not the same as a culture of ‘training on safety’. A ‘culture of customer-centrism’ is not the same as a culture of ‘training on customer-centrism’. Etc. Now, substitute the word ‘safety’, or ‘customer-centrism’, for anything else, and it will still hold.
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