Setting yourself apart by your organisational culture is a key to success, but what happens when that culture is at odds with businesses you work with?
Organisational culture is undoubtedly a popular topic among academics and executives alike. And although there has been a lot of research and discussions on organisational culture, there has been significantly less interest in the concept of culture clash.
A strange phenomenon, given the fact that all theory and anecdotes teach us that every organisation has its own unique culture. So, how can companies interact and do business with each other in the contemporary business world if their organisational cultures are different and quite often at odds?
A unique research opportunity
During my penultimate year as a student in the University of Strathclyde Business School I took part in a six-month research and consultancy project. This project, which was termed ‘Strathclyde Business Clinic’, matched teams of university students with Glasgow-based start-ups that were experiencing business-related issues or wanted fresh outside eyes to improve their business. Along with my team members I was assigned to This is Milk’s case.
This is Milk’s proposal was different from the rest. In a pool of start-ups looking for help with their business models, marketing campaigns, or attracting investment, they were interested in their organisational culture and that's what set them apart.
The project had three main objectives:
It was clear from the outset that getting 'culture' right was a big deal for This is Milk - they wanted their culture to reflect their values as a business to create a working environment that's forward thinking and puts people first. It made sense to me because a toxic organisational culture would be detrimental to any business.
My task within the team was to work on the culture clash aspect of the project. I had to identify potential areas of friction between This is Milk’s culture and the culture of a potential client. In addition, I had to answer the question of how they might deal with a scenario of mis-matched culture. This was critical for This is Milk - trying to set themselves apart by their culture was key, but their business model is all about servicing clients - is there an inherent risk?
Hitting the books
As a diligent student I did what any student is expected to do when faced with a task. I turned to the books and looked for an answer there. But there wasn’t one. There was plenty of literature on culture clash as a concept, many have explored culture clash brought on by different projects, and the majority of culture clash discussion revolved around mergers and acquisitions. There were some stark examples of the damage culture clash can cause if it remains ignored or unacknowledged, such as the disastrous Daimler & Chrysler merger. But there was little to nothing on This is Milk’s issue.
Our answer - 3 ways to beat culture clash
After several weeks of research and experimenting, me and my team managed to establish three possible approaches that they could use to deal with culture clash.
1. Pick the Right Market - this is about choosing to work for clients whose organisation culture is a good fit for This is Milk’s culture and avoiding those who are not. This is clearly an ideal world scenario as not many new businesses can afford to turn down clients, and what if there were no businesses that were a good fit?
2. Client is King - perhaps the most familiar approach in business today. It prescribes that This is Milk should forfeit their unique organisation culture and adapt to the culture of their client. This approach does not result in missed business opportunities but also defeats the purpose of having an organisational culture designed to make the employees happy.
3. Selling Point - this is about This is Milk using their unique organisation culture as a selling point. It is based on the fact that their culture is flexible, accommodating, and progressive, which can be used to persuade the clients of its benefits. Arguably this approach is also the hardest to employ.
These three approaches outlined possible ways of dealing with culture clash. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive as surely there are other approaches used by organisations that just aren't documented - yet.
Furthermore, in reality rarely anything is so neat and clear-cut that you can easily generalise and categorise it. In reality This is Milk's approach to culture will be a mix of all three of the above recommendations, their mandate to make customers at the heart of everything they do, defines their culture - becomes their USP and means the right market may find them.
Although we can't give a clear cut answer, and the results will be reflected in This is Milk's business performance, it is better to have thought about culture clash and be aware of its dangers than to risk failure by ignoring it!
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(Blog first published 30/06/2016)