5: Let Culture Lead the Way

The author compares the culture of an internet company (Zappos) to that of an established firm (General Motors), and finds the contrast is startling. Older, more established companies tend to emphasize tradition and encourage employees to accept and obey the existing corporate culture; newer ones are more oriented toward risk-taking and encourage employees to be creative. As a result, the younger companies have much greater success, in a far shorter amount of time, in launching new ventures - there is not the same resistance to change and emphasis on obedience.

(EN: personal experience of working for a medium-sized firm that grew rapidly during the early days of the Internet leads me to the sense that it is not so much the age of a company, but its size. The larger an organization, the more compartmentalized it becomes, and the more employees are discouraged from thinking outside the box - specifically, their box on the organization chart. Any new idea suggested is reassigned to the department that "owns" a given area, where it is quickly smothered.)

An open culture must be supported and fostered. If focus is entirely on the day-to-day, routine functions of operating the business, culture follows: it becomes focused on following and preserving the defined routines. The culture, and the organization, stagnates.

Trust and empowerment are two keys to success as an organization. The culture of tradition stands in stark contrast to these principles: employees are required to follow procedure, lack the authority to make decisions or think independently, and are not trusted with the welfare of the organization. This is not only demoralizing, but counterproductive, and squelches innovation.

A few more details are given, largely incidental, leading to the conclusion that, "If you get the culture right, then most of the other stuff follows."

Creating Culture

In a competitive environment, companies must be well-connected to understand the market, and nimble enough to change in reaction. That is to say that the body of employees, who constitute a company, must be socially connected (to one another and those outside the firm) and empowered to react quickly.

The culture of a company sets a level of expectations of everyone who proposes to deal with the firm - both insiders and outsiders - and their actions will be based on these expectations as communicated by the firm's culture. (EN: An important consideration is that it's more than mere communications - plenty of firms project a very positive image that doesn't' reflect the reality of their culture, and ultimately their actions "communicate" more than their words.)

Creating a culture is difficult. It requires determining what your culture should become (and not one culture is right for every organization), then having a frank evaluation of the organization's present culture, and identifying the changes that must be made to achieve the desired state. (EN: This is self-evident, but the problems many companies face is not being honest about their present state, not knowing what to do, and not realizing that creating a new culture means overcoming the reluctance of individuals who are comfortable with the status quo.)

It's also noted that culture can be spread from the top of an organization (executives communicate culture and employees follow), but the culture itself is determined at the bottom (employees must be interested and willing in adopting a given culture - it cannto be forced upon them).

The Outside World Sees Culture, Too

Because the world is increasingly interconnected, companies are transparent. People who interact with a firm (customers, employees, vendors, etc.) all share information with one another at an unprecedented level. Anyone who knows where to look, and cares to pay attention, can discover a great deal about your organization. Sometimes, a person doesn't need to actively seek information, it merely comes to them.

The culture of the organization sets expectations, and individuals will determine whether they wish to connect with your firm (purchase products, apply for a job, offer their services to you) based on their perception of your culture. And generally, individuals seek companies with open cultures: a firm that is open to working interactively, to enable others to get what they want with a minimum of hassle, is more attractive than a firm that is going to provide a minimum of value at the greatest possible cost and difficulty.

(EN: In some instances, this can outweigh features of the product, or is at least taken into account. Consider traditional business such as restaurants - the entire QSR industry was born of consumers desire to satisfy a need, for food in this instance, without the high cost and time required to have one of a "traditional" restaurant. However, this does not mean traditional is necessarily bad, and there are many who will accept the time and expense for a better quality product. This will always remain true, by varying degrees.)

It's also worth considering that business continuity is not a sequence of unrelated and anonymous transactions. That is, a company counts on selling to the same customer repeatedly, buying from the same suppliers repeatedly, having the same employees consistently. Repeated interactions with the same individual, over time, constitute a relationship. And increasingly, customers are aware of this as well, and seek not just the best "deal" for their immediate needs, but the best relationship to serve their needs over time.

And as with personal relationships, business relationships rely upon communication: understanding the expectations of the other party, receiving feedback that either reinforces your practices or identifies areas for improvement, and providing information about your own expectations and experiences in return. In effect, it requires being perpetually socially connected.

Creating Your Own Social Culture

The chapter concludes with an array of tips and techniques for creating a social culture.

One way to communicate culture is in developing a list of "core values" that provide guidance for decisions and actions. Some of the key principles the author suggests include: focus on achieving goals rather than following procedures, seek to serve the needs of others, find the easiest way to do things, have fun, relinquish control, share the rewards, and work cooperatively with others.

(EN: This is actually more complex an issue than the author realizes, in that it begins to blur the line between "culture" and "ethics," the latter of which is a far more complex subject. Specific to the present notion, there are strengths and weaknesses to values-based ethics, which bear further consideration, to a degree that is not feasible in the current context.)

A critical element of a truly social culture is that those who are in positions of power and control listen more than they speak, and ask more than they tell. To succeed at being social, you must be concerned and attentive to the needs of the people with whom you are connected, rather than seeing them as the means to the ends you are attempting to achieve for yourself.

Being social means recognizing that people are people, and not machines that perform specific functions. This means that social interaction must engage the whole person, not merely the functions in which you have an immediate financial interest. "Strictly business" is not merely impersonal, it's anti-social.

The author refers to the four "e"s of social technology: Engage (in active dialog), Encourage (people to pursue their own interests and passions), Enable (others to get what they want), and Etiquette (the rules of conduct for interactions).

In the social environment, "leadership" is not about command and control. Such individuals are perceived as being pushy and manipulative, and fail in social situations. A social leader facilitates and observes. There is still a need to direct interaction to encourage it to a productive direction, but it is much less authoritative.

Social cultures value diversity. A group of people who have the same ideas, who all think alike, will come to the same conclusion without consideration of alternatives that may be preferable. A diverse group - diversity in through, perspective, problem-solving skills, etc. - more thoroughly explores options and finds better solutions.

The author notes a trend among companies to break out of the traditional notions of office space, which have been guided by the "traditional" approach to work - tasks are done by individuals in private (and often very small) workspaces, leaders oversee but do not interact with the rank-and-file, etc. It's recognized that work is now more collaborative, leaders are more involved and interactive, and the office space is changing to reflect that.. Rows of desks are being replaced by less rigid and more comfortable environs. This is not to be confused with the wacky perks of the dot-com boom (free food, pets roaming about, and ping-pong tables): it is functional rather than recreational - to encourage employees to come out of their cells and interact with one another in a relaxed and unstructured environment.