America makes pop culture. What do you make? Coffee filters, appliances, cleaning products, shopping experiences? That’s what you sell, not what you make. Chances are you don’t make most of the things you sell anyway. Chances are changing the perception of the things you sell, can be as simple (an expensive) as a new branding campaign.
HOW you make the things you sell can tell us a little bit about your company culture, but not a lot about it. I don’t know anything about General Electric’s corporate culture by looking at a wind turbine, dish washer, or MRI machine. – or even their latest sustainability report. I learn more by deconstructing their ad campaigns – a version of pop culture – than looking directly at their business model.
I believe if we move to readings and comparisons of deeper corporate “texts” we will understand the corporate core better, since text reveals context, and context reveals culture.
I argue that the real artifacts (texts) worth exploring and understanding (if we indeed want to) are the things corporations produce in order to produce the things they sell. Here’s a list to get started:
Policies and Procedures – written and implied. These reveal the real taxonomy of the behaviors and reward systems valued by the company (we reward for this, we punish for that). They also reveal gaps between “what we say” and “what we do” that can result in cultural frictions slowing down or even halting progress towards states goals. Far from supporting corporate norms or mores, they tend to contradict them in meaningful ways.
Reports – memos to sustainability reports. These reveal day-to-day operational communication norms when contrasted with public statements when it comes to sustainability, social issues, governance priorities, and so on. Often, there is a norm-gap between the two types of communication.
Signage – shop floor to executive bathroom. Visual queues and pedestrian “corporate way-finding” (how you are expected to the corporation) signage (motivational posters, gender assignments, contrasting high-viz color as signals for Managers vs. Workers, break room reading, etc.) reoccur with great frequency, and point employees in sometimes-unintended directions when it comes time to understanding corporate objectives or beliefs.
Communications – internal and external. Comparing the internal and external messaging reveals authenticity gaps that can be narrowed or avoided as needed. This is strategic communications alignment. What is the affect on employees bombarded with mixed messages?
Customers – healthy, happy, medicated. How does the company affect humans, specifically your customers? Does it make them less healthy? Does it empower them? This, after all is the grand effect of everything you do – product design, engineering, marketing, branding = customer. You are what you eat, our parents reminded us, and your consumers are eating you.
Suppliers – reliable, healthy, compliant, partners. Your behavior, posture, policies and people influence your relationships with your supply chain. Are your procurement teams and sustainability teams sending the same signals with the same intensity at the same frequency? Does your supplier share your values?
Employees – happy, rich, competitive, healthy. Your employees are your greatest bi-product. How are they? At work? At home? How do they describe their job to their children at the dinner table? What obligation do you have to their children? Employee satisfaction surveys barely scratch the surface of reading employee’s true cultural connection with their employers.
What an incredible power and responsibility we have when we look at our businesses as an ecosystem of influence on the planet and its people! And when we learn to read each of these influences (the things we rely on to produce the things we sell), what an opportunity to improve our business we have when we make sure everything is in alignment.
In sum, what our companies actually produce is vastly more interest ing than what they sell. The artifacts that tell us about the company – through critical readings akin to these fun and maybe silly essays – are much more telling and interesting. Each artifact adds up to reveal a culture, and opportunities to strengthen that culture.
If you are interested in a critical reading of your corporate culture, followed by a strategic plan to remove friction to increase positive impacts (environmental, social, economic) email me.
I love my job.