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Culture is real and can be measured – with an algorithm

By now, it should be clear to most management professionals that organisational culture is a vital building block of any company success story. It can help or hinder corporate mergersdigital transformationservice and brand reinvention and, in general, survival in a difficult business environment. Organisational culture is a central part of intellectual capital as well as vital driver for both acquiring and retaining top talent. Overall, it is clear that we are talking about an absolutely crucial influence on how people work together. We can feel it as we enter a new work environment, and most new recruits try to watch their step in the early weeks of their new job as they try to figure out what are the do's and don'ts. However, culture is notoriously hard to pin down exactly, or even define. But what is this thing called culture, exactly? And how does a culture work?

The Nature and Importance of Organisational Culture

Briefly put, culture is the tacit code about how people in the organisation behave, based on commonly shared expectations. It resides between peoples ears, and is arguably one of the most important aspects of intellectual capital. A few generic rules seem to apply, regardless of the field of business, or the type of an organisation:

  1. Culture is based on peoples' experience and expectations. Peoples' behaviour is based on what, in their experience, has worked in the past and what others expect right now. Some of this is obvious, but many of the expectations are very subtle, dealing with the way we communicate with one another: what kind of an event, achievement or action is a call for a smile, praise, reprimand, snark, planning, follow-up, etc. These expectations are typically unworded - but it is these vitally important unsaid rules that form the sum total of cultural norms within an organisation. These are the guidelines as to what is the proper reaction to something that happens, whether large or small.
  2. Culture is based on what is actually seen as important. Fulfilling these expectations dictate how well we do in the organisation in terms of social, monetary and intellectual rewards, and therefore it is in most peoples' best interest to try to conform to the culture. This is where culture derives its power from in guiding how and what the organisation actually does. However, this is also why culture is, by definition, a manifestation of the real values of an organisation: nothing that is deemed unimportant by most will seep itself into the organisational culture. This is why values and culture are inseparable: culture is also the expression, or a tacit codification, of values.
  3. Culture is in a constant state of flux. Culture always changes, though. It is constantly modified by minuscule moments - namely, people understanding and processing events and each others’ expectations and reactions. How people read one another influences how new expectations are formed, and if those expectations are in line with what the organisation’s culture is in general. In case they’re not, culture will shift ever so slightly - and the bigger the clout or seniority of the person causing contrarian expectations, the bigger the shift. These shifts can either hurt of benefit the organisation and its purpose. If there is a need to be more customer-centric, a new, more robust response to a customer complaint might drive new behaviour perfectly. On the other hand, even if innovation was an established cultural norm for instance, downplaying its importance will slowly erode expectations, and therefore diminish its role as a cultural norm.
  4. Everybody influences culture - whether they realise or not. Culture, therefore, is both vital in how an organisation operates, and needs to be constantly maintained. Organisational culture is formed, maintained and changed with everyday actions: communication, training and reward systems - the tried-and-true set of tools that are used in some fashion in every organisation we can think of. Using such tools is effective only if it is done systematically and with both reason and purpose. This, on the other hand, is possible only if we track how culture develops in a systematic fashion - including the reasons why that happens. Anything less means not being able to systematically detect and influence how and why your organisation operates.
  5. Culture is real, and not a question of opinion. Being essentially an informal, ever-changing collection of rules and guidelines covering small moments and even unconscious behaviour, organisational culture is an elusive thing. However, this doesn't make it anything less than real. An environment that really has employee appreciation as a value, there are a lot of cultural expectations around polite and appreciative treatment of employees and their ideas, trust and low levels of control. If culture doesn’t follow up, values don’t really exist either. Also, we can forever argue that ‘customer orientation’ should be a central element in our values, and therefore culture - but unless a actual, day-to-day expectations within the company promote customer service or innovation, it is just another good but empty idea. What the organisational culture is can, therefore be observed - and measured.

Culture can be analysed through language

Culture is all too often invisible, but has a crucial impact on everything organisations do. Measuring, analysing and visualising culture is, therefore, vital if you want to influence and guide it. Properly measuring and analysing culture is quite tricky, though. Any pre-made list of potential cultural attributes based on lofty generic theories will always be a rough guess at best, and typically misses a lot of the vital intricacies. Diving into the organisational reality through workshops and deep discussions, on the other hand, is typically prohibitively time-consuming and heavy.

However, there is an easily accessible shortcut to culture: language. Culture has a clear effect on the kind of language people use, and, since we humans are social animals, language dictates our thinking and therefore guides culture. Upon introspection, this should be obvious: we transmit and translate expectations through language, either in our thoughts or in our speech, and essentially every relevant cultural factor is mirrored therein. Reading, let alone analysing, thousands of stories of comments in a credible and non-biased way would be a daunting task, if not downright impossible. This is where technology can help us immensely.

Culture-translating algorithms

Where human capability fails, we turn to machines - or in this case, computers and algorithms. A customised set of natural language processing algorithms can be used to go through a vast amount of thousands of open comments extremely efficiently and analyse their content in a non-biased manner.

This way, we can gain a clear understanding on the most important issues mentioned in any masses of open text as well as analyse the cultural significance of the words that are being used. Further, this approach allows deeper investigation into any questions that might arise by uncovering both what interesting or alarming terms link to and what kind of a cultural context they appear in. 'Management', for instance, could be linked to either 'good' and 'friendly' or 'incompetent' and 'distant', depending on how people themselves word it; the difference is vital to understand. Whether customer problems are treated with 'speed' and 'solution' in mind, or whether they're seen as 'trouble' and 'horrible' makes a huge difference.

Effectively, an algorithm that understands language allows us to see the collective opinions of vast amounts of people at once - as a both grand map of what the organisational thinking looks like, and a highly granular network of concepts to dive into. Used properly, an algorithm tailored to understand and translate language and culture can help us humans work together more efficiently and create workplaces that are more to our liking. The key is to be able to look at enough data and to organise it in an extremely granular, unbiased way. As ironic as it may be, computers seem far better than humans at the task.

Interested? Join the discussion on LinkedIn!