The Holy Grail Of HR

The Holy Grail Of HR

Organization culture is a word much bandied about in HR circles. Unfortunately, discussions go round and round, since the very understanding of “org culture” is obtuse and uncommon. Nevertheless, this is supposed to be a very germane concept when you try to understand different organizations, especially, why some are successful, and, why the others fall by the wayside in today’s competitive world. Thus, organization culture has acquired the status of The Holy Grail, which every HR professional seeks to conquer.


On 26th July 2005, the entire Mumbai Metropolitan region experienced unprecedented flooding. And, thereafter, every training program in the Western region used this example - If you were the Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai and entrusted with awarding a contract for desilting Mumbai drains so that flooding does not reoccur,  whom will you give the contract to? The Bombay Municipal Corporation and its regular subcontractors? Or, to a Tata or a Godrej firm? The answer was obvious. And, that would spark a discussion on organizational culture – how and why is a Tata company head over shoulders, compared to a BMC or a private contractor? Obviously, the very name of Tatas inspires trust. It is one of the most respected corporate houses in India for the past decades. The name itself stands for Integrity, Excellence and Responsibility.  Everything the Tatas do shouts out their ethical approach and admirable culture.


Org Culture: Here to stay


Is Org Culture merely the new flavor of the month which will flash for now, and then disappear? Org Culture, as a concept, is here to stay. As companies look for newer and better ways to improve the overall experience at work for their employees and other constituents, org culture has an increasingly important role to play. Employees have high expectations from the company they work for. And, to ensure the highest possible productivity and engagement, companies are also increasingly working on seamlessly integrating work into employees’ lives. Employees constantly look for opportunities to connect with others, who will help them achieve their goals, and, in the process, find greater satisfaction. By defining and working on their culture, companies are committing to improve support work itself, improve operations, make a more valuable contribution, and, gain greater personal satisfaction.


In my professional career spanning 34 years, I had the opportunity to work in very diverse corporate cultures. My first job was with HCL. In the late 70s, it was a small organization of technocrats and innovators, and, the culture was totally entrepreneurial and focused at problem-solving. No issue or challenge was too big; people reveled in doing things themselves, and, taking charge end to end!


A bad culture experience


My next job was with Siemens in their Corporate HR. Imagine my shock and disbelief when I found that all HR policies and talent management directions were set by the parent company in Germany, for whom Siemens India was only one among the hundreds of “local companies.” Formats of Appraisals, as well as Potential Assessments, were all standardized, as were all the Interview Evaluations sheets. Everything was form driven and people talked of Form 17 or Form 38, not even referring to the subject line of the standardized format! Innovation was frowned upon as “there is a think tank in Germany and let them do their job!” We were implementors, and, all that mattered was our execution capability! The culture was stifling and only wanted doers of the “Theirs not to reason why…Theirs but to do and die” variety. I was naturally suffocated and ran across to the Factory since Industrial Relations did not lend themselves to standard solutions to fixed questions. Factory HR had relative freedom! A different culture from that of the Head Office!


Nevertheless, I escaped the “golden cage” of rule-bound Siemens as soon as I could, and, joined a family owned organization which manufactured Dyes and Chemicals. Here, only the MD and Owner decided what was right for the organization, and, he was helped in the task by the Chairman father, and, his cousin brother, who was the Joint MD. Hierarchical decision making was largely prevalent, and, it mattered more as to whom you knew than what you knew. A lot of groups think, and “don’t rock the boat” culture ensured delayed decision-making. Flexibility and nimbleness were conspicuous by their absence. There was a burning desire to be in the good books of family bosses, and, so we sub-optimized our potential, not wanting to call out our differences. In such a culture, individual excellence, as well as team working, became a natural victim.


Going the full distance


Among the organizations where I worked, Johnson & Johnson was possibly the best. It was meritocracy based, excellence was encouraged, and, employee involvement in the running of the business, picking up the ball and going the whole distance, with empowered teams and encouraging managers made working a challenge as well pleasure. Startups are typically like this. Open communications across departments and levels, a creative and problem-solving orientation, coupled with agility and fun typify what works for startups! The enthusiasm and energy were contagious, and, naturally, everyone increases the pace of their deliverables. Such organizations, when bound together by a strongly crafted business-focused vision will grow from strength to strength and keep employees, bosses, customers, suppliers and finally shareholders happy, E.g.- Uber or Airbnb. Googles and Facebooks do not become what they are unless the culture encourages all those involved in the value equation to becoming agile and adaptable. Failing fast and moving on to more experimentation and a hunger for results is what typifies a startup.


In today’s times, I believe the “startup culture” is a sine qua non for the survival of any business. Startups are driven by passion, people are agile and nimble, and, wield an “anything is possible” attitude. They believe they can solve any issue or problem, and, if they apply their mind to it, no problem is intractable. These leaders are authentic and have a long-term orientation in their hearts. They are ready to suffer some short‑term losses if there is a pot of gold at the end of the tunnel. They have the ability to react to changing data and shift their approach quickly to get a solution. There are open feedback systems prevalent in such successful organizations. A culture of accountability and transparency; a strong team orientation and challenging work design typifies such companies.


“Startups are driven by passion, people are agile and nimble, and, wield an “anything is possible” attitude. They believe they can solve any issue or problem, and, if they apply their mind to it, no problem is intractable”. 


Every organization would like to possess all these characteristics to be ingrained in the org culture since these success factors apply across the board – irrespective of the company being new or old, traditional or modern, brick and mortar workplace or a virtual team and so on. What has been listed above are the characteristics of every successful organization. In fact, if the old traditional companies have to stop the newer startup (or upstarts, for that matter) from eating their lunch, even the traditional organizations cannot be bogged down with bureaucracy or adhere to hidebound procedures. Due to the changing business scenario, the startup culture must be imbibed by all. The paths are now merging and any organization that aspires to be successful must create a culture where work is challenging and jobs are so designed that there is better team focus, open systems, and leadership by example. As the pace of business speeds up, quickened by advances in technology, companies are realizing that they can benefit greatly by putting emphasis on culture and values.


So, culture has indeed become the Holy Grail of HR and no HR professional today can stay away from working on org culture and values. In essence, org culture spells great times for HR today and the future! In the days of outsourcing and subcontracting of almost all functions and roles of HR, the responsibility for shaping org culture can NEVER be outsourced or done offline. Being responsible for shaping the culture of the organization will ensure an important seat at the table for the HR professional, as the criticality of culture for shaping the organizations in the future is bound to increase.


“Culture has indeed become the Holy Grail of HR and no HR professional today can stay away from working on org culture and values. In essence, org culture spells great times for HR today and the future". 

Vikas Shirodkar is Director, Basil HR Advisory Services and Professor Emeritus & Dean, MET Institute of Management. He comes with a robust experience of 34 years in the industry and has worked in organisations such as HCL, Siemens, Atul Products, Johnson & Johnson and General Motors. He is the author of the book "Foundational Skills for Budding Professionals". Vikas holds an M.A. in Organisation & Industrial Psychology and a Fellowship in PM & IR from IIM, Kolkata.


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