Cultural Integration and Transformation:
A FirstMatter Service Offering

oracleYears of direct experience have led the FirstMatter team to an irrevocable conclusion – all business problems are rooted in cultural problems. Of course there are any number of issues from margin pressure, to regulation, to human resources questions, to competitive pressures which are essentially business-centric, but a company's culture really dictates how well – or even if – those issues will be addressed. Great companies like Federal Express and Nike have great corporate cultures and enjoy great business success. Broken companies like Kmart and Arthur Anderson have dysfunctional, twisted cultures and businesses that are in shambles. In today's business environment, characterized by a high level of consolidation and merger and acquisition activity, cultural problems become amplified. Almost inevitably, mergers result in the creation of two (or more) cultural "camps" whose partisans wage passive-aggressive corporate cultural wars until they eventually leave the company. The aggregate damage that this process of unconscious passive cultural creation causes is measured in billions of dollars.

Cultural problems occur even in the absence of overt cultural warfare. The simple truth is culture is what happens when groups of people interact for any measurable amount of time. It can be shaped consciously, as in the case of Wal-Mart, or it can evolve without direction, as evidenced by Daimler-Chrysler. The results of both approaches speak for themselves. So, how do you go about deliberately – both in the sense of approaching a problem consciously and in a fully considered manner – establishing a corporate culture or, breaking down several existing corporate cultures and fashioning a new one? The answer begins by looking at some of the fundamental building blocks of all cultures including language, vision, beliefs, customs, standards and taboos.

At FirstMatter we have developed a battery of tools for addressing each of these cultural components. However, since each corporate culture is unique, we believe each client engagement needs to be customized in order to create maximum benefit. We simply don't believe in one-size fits all consulting solutions.

At Gateway, for example, we helped develop a phone center training program where associates were taught not to automatically ask for an order but rather to think more like a consumer advocate than a salesperson. The Gateway work was an extension of helping Gateway determine that its mission was to be, "a wagon master across the Silicon Prairie". Wagon masters don't take the fastest route across a frontier; they take the fastest safe route. Investing in new technology when your existing technology still meets your needs isn't a conservative strategy. In the case of Gateway the cultural alignment was implemented across every department. The R&D Department, for example, was eliminated since wagon masters don't invent anything; they commercialize the inventions of others.

For Georgia-Pacific we created a team-building scenario planning exercise which forced members of the then newly acquired Wisconsin Tissue organization to work with GPers in order to create a shared vision of the future of the enterprise. We also worked on a 25 year plan for Planned Parenthood that involved getting over 8,000, highly political volunteers to agree on a common statement of vision and belief, expressed in a commonly agreed upon language. Each of these engagements, and dozens of others, has been uniquely crafted to address unique client needs.

There are several keys to building culture. The first is to understand that it's critical not to find "a" culture to emulate, but to create an authentically original culture of you own. Next it's important to remember that unless a culture is spread across each and every department, it's unlikely to catch hold. It's necessary to develop a solution that doesn't just work for Human Resources; or Manufacturing; Engineering and Design; or Marketing; or Research & Development; or Strategy and Transformation – but solutions that work across the entire enterprise. The real work isn't over once those solutions are in place. Many companies could benefit from having a "cultural police force" in place to make sure the old culture doesn't creep back in.

Cultural alignment programs are all about the ability to develop a new corporate mythos. This can be only be accomplished when a company is able to identify what we call points of cultural resonance, resonances that form the basis of corporate storytelling, which in turn becomes the vehicle for spreading the culture. Cultural alignment can take a variety of forms, each with its own distinct components and price point.

In general however, it may be helpful to think of FirstMatter's offering in three distinct steps.

Step One: Cultural Alignment Assessment

A one-day introductory session that involves the presentation of a template designed to clarify the issues involved in developing cultural understanding, alignment and the development of a cultural transformation plan. FirstMatter would present how other companies have addressed these issues (from identifying cultural problems to policing cultural solutions) and tools we have developed to facilitate the process. The client would be expected to provide context and identify specific areas of concern.

Step Two: Development of a Full Plan

Five days onsite (plus an appropriate amount of offsite research and reflection) devoted to the development and creation of a full-blown individualized cultural transformation and alignment plan. Deliverables would include mapping the path and identifying issues associated with the development of a corporate promise; goal setting; issues of the old culture that need to be eradicated; development of a statement of corporate/cultural beliefs; a fully customized cultural audit; a fully developed cultural transformation plan and timetable; a description of how such a plan would impact all departments; development of an ongoing cultural audit team; and an assessment of internal resources necessary to complete the project.

Step Three: Execution

In several cases FirstMatter has been retained on a near to long-term basis to actually implement the plan. This involves direct on-site development for a pre-arranged period of time. In this stage the specifics identified in Step Two would actually be implemented, that is, a promise statement would be written; old cultural discontinuities would be identified and eliminated and new cultural models would be executed.