Perception and Reality of Corporate Culture Change

Nita Korsten

Have you ever been in charge or involved in a corporate culture change program? Then you might recognize the optimism at the start of such a program. Often, a very smart 3,4, or 5-step approach is presented to change the company’s culture from A to B!   To avoid disappointment and increase the success rate, it is essential to design a more cohesive program based on a realistic idea of Corporate Culture Change.

Recently I met with a group of international managers from a Management Development (MD)-program. Their company, a large international retail organization, is on the eve of a merger with another large retailer.  I designed a program in which I guided the group through various frameworks, models, articles and case studies. We had in-depth discussions about the power of corporate culture in case of a merger, and about the (im)possibilities of creating a new corporate culture. The group also asked me to help them prepare for a meeting with the integration office of the two companies.  I created an exercise to help the group to think about corporate culture in a new way and this resulted in a quick scan of the proposed “corporate culture change program” and the group’s recommendations for improvement.

We started our discussion by articulating our understanding of the concept of Corporate Culture. Like most people, this group acknowledged that culture is more than: “ The way we do things around here”. Usually the culture is seen as something very complex, and more than just systems and behaviors.

I like to quote Edgar Schein who says:

“If you don’t dig down into the reasons for why we do things this way

you’ve only looked at the culture at a very superficial level and you haven’t really understood it”.

What always strikes me in these discussions is the discrepancy between the understanding of culture as:

Hard to change; not just one culture, but subcultures, and; a social system of deep held beliefs,

and the way most corporate culture change programs are set up:

Easy to change; Changing one culture into another, and; about procedures and learning new skills.

Like many of the programs I see at other companies, the 4-step implementation plan consisted of clear sequential phases including an online questionnaire on the current and the desired future culture.  I understand the eagerness to present a program in clear-cut steps, but this just doesn’t do justice to the task at hand. That does not mean that programs addressing or changing Corporate Culture are not feasible! It can be done when realistic about the approach and the time and effort it takes!

The MD group decided that the change program could be stronger when adding steps that take the complexity of corporate culture change into account. The three most important points they decided to bring up in their conversation with the implementation office were:

       Take a deep dive into the core of (sub)cultures, by in-person meetings with focus groups, with different levels and banner representatives of the organization.

       Before jumping to conclusions about the desired future culture, take more time to state the business problems of the current cultures, and clear aspirations of the new common culture.

       Build a platform of change agents, from different levels and subsidiaries in the organization.

The meeting with the implementation office went very well. They agreed that the installation of focus groups, a better understanding of the business problems of the current cultures, and the use of change agents, would benefit the success of the program.

Would you like us to lead your discussion about diagnosing and changing corporate culture? Please contact us or attend the workshop Building an International Corporate Culture