Is “Culture” everything? – Defining the soul of an organization

In my previous article, “The secret sauce that makes ‘Flexible work arrangement’ actually work”, I talked about the importance of the “People” element.

There was a comment accurately pointing out that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast. A company can have the best written HR policy and best idea in place. If the culture does not demonstrate or in alignment with what it says it will do, then it is better off not trying to follow the trend”.

I cannot agree more! I felt that the comment hit the nail on its head in calling out the cultural readiness of an organization and the risk of the organization chasing a trend that could backfire despite the best of all intent.

Perceptions plays a huge part in clouding our judgement when we look at an organization’s treatment of employees. More often than not, the industry uses the same yard stick in measuring the what’s good and bad. We have awards that that recognizes “Employer of choice”, and we often do not stop and ask the question, “Who’s choice?”.

More often than not, we see organizations with certain type of culture or image do better than others.

What we need to recognize is that, different organizations employ different profile of employees. We all at one point or another would have had also participated in the multi-generation-workforce debate. We generalize employees into the different age group, segmenting them into Baby Boomers”, “Gen-X”, “Gen-Y”, so on and so forth.

Since we all acknowledge that all employees are different. They come with their unique needs and wants. The collective demand of that workforce and the ability of the organization to provide defines the mood and culture of that organization.

Regardless of what that demand is, if that demand is met, that organization becomes an “Employer of choice” to its employees.

While many of us would believe that it’s the “People” in the organization that defines its culture. However, does “structure determines behavior” or does “behavior influence structure”?

I guess that’s a million-dollar question that many organizational development gurus had tried to address.

We need to look at an organization from its 3 different layer, “People”, “Process”, and “Infrastructure”.


People Layer

The “People” layer can be one of the most complex and mind numbing layer to understand and analyze. There are just too many considerations and one can only “guess’ what the employee. How many times have you ask your employee what they wanted and you get the most diplomatically correct answer?

We can look at the “People” layer via the following factors. (Do note that it’s not all encompassing and I’m sure we can all think of more factors that we can add to the list!)

  • Mindset – What’s on the mind of the employees? What do they really want and how open are they in discussing, and asking for it?
  • Sub-culture – What’s the sub-culture in the different department and teams? Are some managers more liberally and some more conservative? How different are the different sub-cultures from each other?
  • Peer Pressure – It is common for employees to compare with one and another. We also need to acknowledge that peer pressure exists within the organization.
  • Workload – How often have we seen employees not being able to utilize the benefits set out for them due to their workload?

Process Layer

Many of us would refer to this as the organizational level interventions. A couple of factors that we should look at are as follows:

  • Policies – Do we have the right policies in place? Many a times, it’s the policies that lay the foundation of what’s “allowable” and what’s “not allowed”. Thus, having the right set of policies would be a good start.
  • Ease of Administration – Is it easy to administrate? For example, if it takes multiple level of approvals, or like the story in my previous blog, going on flexible work arrangement is on an ask-per-use basis, that benefit becomes hard to utilize and administrate. Thus, having it is as good as not having it.
  • Benefits – What are the actual benefits in place? What’s the utilization rate of these benefits? It would be interesting to measure the utilization rate of the benefits, and even do a simple comparison between the “perceived value” vs. “actual value” of the benefit.
  • Other Programs – It’s not just about the benefits. A lot of us identify with our organizations via the social responsibilities programs they participate in.

Infrastructure Layer

We can look at the infrastructure via the following factors:

  • Physical – How’s the office setup? Do the employees have their own space or do you do hot desking? How’s the pantry setup? Coffee machines? While this may look like small details, but it’s the little little things that set the mood in the office.
  • Virtual and Technological – Does the organization leverage technology such as video conferencing, mobile email, instant messaging, shared calendar and other collaboration technology? As more and more technological solutions are made available for us to work virtually, we need to also understand the different employees utilizes these differently. We cannot take for granted that once we buy it, they will use it. Like the example in the previous blog, the manager makes her team stays back in office for a video conference meeting, where the technology is available for employees to take the call from home! How are we helping employees leverage and use this technology effectively?

While we all acknowledge that understanding of “Culture” is essential to any organization’s bid to creating an ideal work environment, we also need to be aware that “structure does determine behavior”. Thus, it is also critical to take a wider look at efforts at past the “People” layer.

Have a fantastic weekend!


Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

Eric Wong is APAC Head of Talent Acquisition Leader at Fitbit. His experience spans across the various human resource functions such as HR Information Systems, Business Partnering and Talent Management. Eric currently sits on the Advisory Board of the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS). Connect with him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter @ErickyWong.