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Building Organizational Culture in Developing Countries

People | Process | Technology

Building Organizational Culture in Developing Countries

One of the biggest questions that has bugged me over the last 2 years is “Can you truly build a world-class organization in a developing country?”. Before you try to answer this question, please take a few minutes to follow my thoughts. In Peter Drucker’s word, “Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast”. Simply put, it doesn’t matter how well-crafted an organization’s strategy is, it is bound to fail if the culture embedded in the organization is not aligned to the spirit of the strategy.

So, let’s look at what culture is. Organizational Culture, to be precise. Organizational culture is defined as a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave in organizations. These shared values have a strong influence on the people in the organization and dictate how they dress, act, and perform their jobs. In the article “Responding to organizational identity threats: Exploring the role of organizational culture”, Ravasi and Schultz (2006) defined organizational culture as “a set of shared assumptions that guide what happens in organizations by defining appropriate behaviour for various situations”.

My personal definition is ” Organizational Culture is the way things would normally work (or get done) in our organization“.

We may wonder why other people act the way they do at work? Well, a logical approach is to make use of the APCFB model. This model attempts to explain the cognitive process of linking external events to employee behaviour. Assumptions affect the perceptions people have. Those perceptions affect the conclusions. And those conclusions prompt feelings and ultimately, those feelings drive behaviours that we observe. By understanding this process, we may have a chance to influence positive behaviours.

So, let’s back up a bit answer the question “what forms assumptions?”. Let me bore you a bit, I remember my physics class (yeah! I had physics class…I am a chemical engineer but that’s a story for another day). Back to the thought, most calculations had phrases like “assume g to be 9.81 m/s2” or “assume the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s”. These assumptions formed the basis of the calculations; abandon the assumption and whatever answer you get will be wrong. Same applies to an organization, trying to build organizational culture while ignoring the factors that drive assumptions. It is simply an exercise in futility.

This brings me to the concept of the Local Culture. Local Culture is commonly used to characterize the experience of everyday life in specific, identifiable localities or geographical locations. It reflects ordinary people’s feelings of appropriateness, comfort, and correctness — attributes that define personal preferences and changing tastes.

To contextualise this, if majority of the people in an organization have grown up believing that nothing works – public transportation, government, electricity to mention a few, how can they grasp a “CAN-DO” culture? Or how can a person who comes to work from a slum understand the importance of “Finesse”? One of my favourite parts of checking into any hotel is the “tissue test”. To explain this, I look for not-so-obvious areas and wipe them with tissue paper to see how much dust have gathered in those areas. And I must say that most hotels (and other public places) have failed the tissue test. The level of attention-to-detail that leads to that level of cleanliness is just not default mode for a majority of people who are cleaners in these places – many of whom live in the slums.

This simply means that if one of the cultures that an organization feels is important to its values is “attention-to-detail”, it is likely to struggle.

In order to understand how I became the tissue-tester, let me introduce Mrs. D. She is someone I had the privilege of working with some years back. Her role, as mundane as it seemed then, was a key part of building the culture of the organization. Her role was to conduct the tissue test after the cleaners were done cleaning – I would sit and watch in awe as she went around with her tissue paper checking the most awkward places for dust. And then watch the ensuing dialogue with the cleaners – many of who simply wondered why cleaning the top of a painting on the wall was remotely important. Slowly but surely, over time, I saw the cleaners evolved to become more efficient in their role. Why? Mrs. D had changed their assumption, which in essence changed their perception of cleanliness.

So back to my first question, “can you truly build a world-class organization in a developing country?”. The answer is “yes, but…”

Yes, you can. But you first you need to acknowledge that building the right culture is probably your Cost of Quality. The costs of doing a quality job, conducting quality improvements, and achieving goals must be carefully managed so that the long-term effect of quality on the organization is a desirable one. These costs must be a true measure of the quality effort, and they are best determined from an analysis of the costs of quality. Such an analysis provides a method of assessing the effectiveness of the management of quality and a means of determining problem areas, opportunities, savings, and action priorities.

“Can you truly build a world-class organization in a developing country?”. The answer is “yes, but…”

You have to be willing to invest in changing the assumptions that your local culture has created. One effective way to drive this, is investing in an Organizational Coaching programme that works with people at all levels to change their assumptions which in turn changes their perceptions, conclusions, feelings and behaviours. This change then drives the right organizational culture.

Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner so don’t leave it unattended to. Corporate culture is a hard thing to get right. It’s a moving target that means something different to everyone. It grows and evolves over time and is the result of action and reaction. It is the lingering effect of every interaction.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section.