What About Culture?

I have the irritating habit of looking past current development programs to issues that should be shaping talent management. When people ask my opinion regarding the latest program of the month, I can’t comment, because all activity from programs to rewards should be a reflection of the organization’s unique needs and problems, not what someone else is doing.

That is not a brilliant idea. Seminal thinkers in motivation and management psychology are being supplanted by researchers claiming to have found the secret. Among them are Tom Peters and Jim Collins, both of whom suggest that what worked for famous companies should be copied.

Unfortunately, a review of those holistic remedies often shows that the exemplars of yesterday have fallen away today.

Most of these companies found a set of factors that worked for them and never wavered. In effect, they designed their management system based on the vision they had of the market and the culture they wanted. This second point is the closest thing to ultimate truth we have: They stumbled or fell because they failed to realize that the market’s culture had changed.

When benchmarking became popular in the 1990s, some companies said they were unique; therefore, the benchmarks did not apply to them. They may have been onto something. These companies recognized that the benchmarked firms were likely very different. Even those firms in the same industry could be — and often were — weak comparisons.

What is it that makes example companies so successful for longer than the average organization? Vision and culture — not programs. Today, the issue of market culture is paramount. Who would argue in the world of big data and changing values that culture is just an esoteric platitude?

We talk constantly about millennials, globalization and big data as today’s driving forces. We’re right. But there is something more. These phenomena are looked at as discrete events, trends and conditions. I submit they are, en masse, the collective definitions of the new market culture.

Great events change culture. Consider World War I and the Jazz Age, events that replaced the American way of life with new values.

Additionally, following World War II, the G.I. Bill and the Federal Housing Administration made possible higher education and widespread home ownership. The impact of those events today is hard to understand, but they laid the foundation for arguably the greatest wealth-building period in history.

Likewise, the 20th century ended with a dot-com revolution. Today, we look on it as a failed experiment, but the era foretold the arrival of new organizational forms. The dot-com bubble failed largely because the IT at the time wasn’t mature enough. Today it is.

Most executives would argue that the culture of their company is greatly different from that of their competitors. But beyond their internal artifacts and values, do they take the time to dig into the new culture of the market?

Rapidly evolving communication capability is underpinning young-worker values just as greater mobility and freedom of expression did in the 1920s. The market culture of 2015 is likely going to be incredibly different from 2005 — and its difference is growing at an exponential rate.

If this thesis is only half right, what does it mean for organizations and talent development? What does it mean in terms of workplace culture? More important, what does it demand of an organization that desires to grow faster and more profitably than its neighbors? Anyone who can foretell tomorrow would be incredibly wealthy.

Lacking that, can you look at the culture issue within your organization? Does it mean that customer service must move ahead of the old model of organizational efficiency? Or does it mean that worker mobility needs a new model? What about organizational power and management control — is that changing?

Culture is the bedrock of an organization. In the same vein, the marketplace culture is both the limiting and growth opportunity for organizations. In the end, talent development must be shaped by both.

Jac Fitz-enz is founder and CEO of the Human Capital Source and The Predictive Initiative. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.