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Subculture Strife Hinders Productivity

December 1, 1992
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Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Featured Article
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Management gurus of the 1980s did their best to convince corporate America that corporate culture is a uniform force, a single rudder that guides organizations. They had executives believing that they could change corporate culture simply by assessing the current spirit of their organizations, deciding how that spirit should change and then communicating those changes to their employees.

Enter the pragmatic 1990s. The same consultants now realize that corporate culture isn't a single engine driving the boat; it more closely resembles a collection of oars paddled by employees who have conflicting ideas about the daily course of business. Employees in the finance department, for example—who are concerned about cost containment—spar with researchers who place a high value on costly innovation. Salespeople make promises that the traffic department finds impossible to honor, and managers view their organizations through very different lenses than line workers do.

To be successful at cultural change, business leaders have to acknowledge the values and motivations of all of these distinct employee groups. Executives only just now are beginning to recognize these groups as organizational subcultures.

According to Lisa Gundry, assistant professor of management at DePaul University in Chicago, the most common subcultures are those that are based on function or managerial level. Members of these groups share similar values and expectations, as well as a common work orientation. Subcultures are a valuable part of every business, she says. After all, who doesn't want the accounting department to be cost-conscious, or researchers to be innovative?

Furthermore, subcultures provide a sense of identity to their members, demonstrating to employees that they can succeed as a group. Problems can arise, however, when the values of these subcultures become so divergent that they clash with the company's overall mission.

Take the case of UOP, Inc., based in Des Plaines, Illinois, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of Allied-Signal Inc. until 1987, when an agreement with Union Carbide doubled the company's work force overnight from 1,800 to 3,500 employees. According to Leo Schultz, senior accountant at UOP, the former Union Carbide employees were accustomed to a highly structured operating style that relied heavily on policy and procedure.

By contrast, Allied-Signal promoted an informal style that was strong on innovation and weak on structure. Differences between the two groups surfaced immediately, Schultz explains. "Frequently you'd hear, 'At Union Carbide, we do it this way,' or 'We never do that at Allied-Signal,'" he says. "There was nothing unifying UOP as a company." Conflicts between functional groups compounded the problem.

To unite its employees and forge a company identity that was independent of its corporate owners, UOP launched a TQM training program, in which mixed groups of employees came together to discuss quality improvement. In the process, UOP found that successful unification of subcultures relies on adequate communication.

"We discovered that the main problem had been a lack of communication between employees," Schultz says. "No one had any idea what other groups were up to, so they all assumed that their way was the best way."

To rectify this, the company prepared a document describing UOP's mission and identifying the responsibilities of each employee group. In addition, UOP now actively encourages employees to organize among themselves to solve workplace disputes. By bringing employees together, the company is breaking down the us-versus-them mentality that's typical of corporate subcultures.

Cultural change must grow from the bottom up.
UOP's experience highlights a crucial fact about cultural change: It must take root and grow from the bottom up. Organizations have to acknowledge subcultures—with all their idiosyncrasies—and involve them in the process. So how do you determine whether the subcultures in your organization are in line with the overall corporate mission or the worker groups are just too busy doing their own thing to notice or care what others are up to? According to Gundry, the first step is to uncover the core values and beliefs of each of the subcultures. "What you're looking for is how the work gets done," she says. Are workers collaborative or competitive? How do they regard the responsibilities of other departments? Do they direct work toward achieving the overall objectives of the company?

One-on-one interviews with key staff members—or natives—from each subculture can help you assess the group's motivations. There also are several quantitative cultural surveys on the market, including:

  • Kilman-Saxton Culture Gap Survey, by Organization Design Consultants in Pittsburgh
  • Cultural Audit, by Professor Alan Wilkens at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah
  • Organizational Culture Inventory, by Human Synergistics in Plymouth, Michigan.

Instead of asking the workers, "What's your subculture?" these surveys ask questions to uncover common values and beliefs among groups of employees.

For a more qualitative assessment of each subculture, attend departmental meetings. "Meetings are rituals in corporate America and as such can provide meaningful clues to the values, issues and hidden agendas of certain worker groups," says Gundry. As an example, she cites a situation that occurred during a high-level meeting at a midwestern manufacturing company. "A latecomer entered the room and sat down in the first empty chair he saw, which happened to be a chair next to the speaker at the head of the table," she says. "The presenter stopped talking and indicated that the chair was reserved for a particular vice president. Although the vice president wasn't even expected to attend, this person had to crawl over everybody else to get to another empty chair. The clear message from the speaker was, 'All chairs aren't created equal at this company, nor are all managers.' Not surprisingly, this company had a 100% turnover rate every five years," Gundry adds.

Once you have identified the subcultures in your organization, validate their differences and acknowledge the unique contributions made by each group. "Although some values should be organizationwide, there are some that are unique to the tasks being performed," explains Patrick Vann, assistant professor of management and organizational behavior at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "You shouldn't have to give up one set of values to acquire another." He suggests that organizations establish mechanisms to support distinct groups of employees, such as personal- or professional-development courses.

The next step is to translate the goals of the organization into terms that each subculture can understand, thus helping employees learn how to contribute in their own way. Finally, communicate between subcultures so that each group understands the responsibilities of the others. Greater knowledge of functional tasks goes a long way toward helping workers gain a clearer perspective of the overall business.

Cross-functional communication breaks down barriers.
The central regional office of Northern Telecom in Schaumburg, Illinois, discovered the value of cross-functional communication, using a program developed in 1989 to help its 475 employees learn more about the business. The company created a series of courses on topics related to Telecom's administration, operations, sales and marketing, and offered the courses through its Central Region University. Each function and business unit in the region developed classes, with department managers serving as instructors.

Employees received work time to attend the courses, and earned credits and degrees for classes completed. A student who completed eight classes, for instance, could earn a bachelor's degree. The organization even sponsored commencement exercises for graduates at all degree levels.

Attendance was optional, except for the human resources and finance courses, which all employees were required to attend explains Karen Reichow, HR representative. "This is because workers were unlikely to attend these courses voluntarily, although these courses were probably the most important," she says. "Employees had the impression that people in HR do nothing except have a good time all day, and they felt employees in the finance department always said no to projects, because they were watching their dollars."

Since attending the class, however, employees now realize the professionals in human resources don't spend their days loafing—they know why a professional staffing takes so long, for example—and they understand how the finance department prioritizes projects. Throughout the organization, employees have a greater appreciation for the business and for the responsibilities of others. "Socially, we're a lot closer now," Reichow explains.

Gundry adds, "This kind of communication breaks down the myths about 'what they must be doing over there.'"

Work teams may eliminate subcultures.
Beyond communication, another way to reduce the potential for divergent subcultures creating problems for your organization is to eliminate them altogether. How? By getting rid of the obvious functional and hierarchical divisions within your company and organizing workers into project teams. Although employees can develop loyalty to their projects, the opportunity to develop entrenched belief systems is reduced, because projects tend to be temporary.

According to Vann, Lockheed pioneered this approach several years ago, and many companies in the electronics and defense industries have followed suit, including Martin Marietta Astronautics Group in Denver. Two years ago, the company implemented high-performance work teams in which 15 to 20 workers, from functions as diverse as design, engineering, finance and production, worked together on a project. This multidisciplinary approach avoids the pitfalls of transom engineering, in which workers from one specialty complete a phase of a job and then toss it through the transom to another group for the next phase. With high-performance work teams, every discipline involved in a project participates from the beginning, avoiding misunderstandings, wasted time and cost overruns.

The first step in making a change is to uncover the core values of each subculture.
Lisa Gundry
DePaul University

According to John Adamoli, vice president of production operations, this approach gets employees talking to each other about how to solve problems. People from diverse disciplines develop camaraderie instead of competing or blaming each other for inefficiencies.

Martin Marietta Astronautics Group's team approach already has seen impressive results. Overtime has been cut from 24% of total hours worked two years ago to just 5% today, and the time required to build a Titan missile has decreased by half to 30,000 work hours. Furthermore, the teams serve as testimony to the bottom-up process needed for organizational change.

After reviewing the construction process for Titan missiles, for example, employees rearranged the factory to increase efficiency. The number and distance of overhead crane moves decreased by more than 60%, saving millions of dollars in production time.

Advanced Micro Devices in Sunnyvale, California, also is working to knock down walls between employees at different levels. At its new $250 million Sub Micron Development Center, the company has organized the work force so that workers from diverse backgrounds must work together to solve problems and develop new products.

In the process, operators have been upgraded to technicians through company-sponsored education programs. The supervisors have been replaced by facilitators who work with, but not above the technicians. All 275 workers in the plant are involved in continuous education and are empowered to make independent on-the-job decisions—regardless of their level of responsibility. Furthermore, each employee is expected to participate in quarterly visioning sessions, during which they provide input into the direction of the organization.

Managers must consider the values and motivations of all subcultures. Otherwise, a shared vision is nearly impossible.

"Under the old system, several divergent subcultures existed. But by eliminating traditional distinctions between employees, the environment is more homogeneous than it has ever been," explains Frank Burns, director of HR operations at Advanced Micro Devices.

Another attempt to break divisions between employees is being piloted in the human resources office at US WEST in Denver. As a part of its efforts to value differences between employees—including differences in function and level of responsibility—the company designed its corporate human resources office so that all offices have the same dimensions, regardless of whether an employee is a secretary or a director. Furthermore, no offices are enclosed.

"This is our attempt to flatten the structure of the organization," explains Darlene Siedschlaw, US WEST's director of EEO and affirmative action compliance. "We're trying to look at people based on their contributions and achievements, not on what level they're on."

Because the corporate challenges of this decade mandate that employees work together effectively, managers must take the values and motivations of all employee subcultures into consideration. Without this kind of consideration, creating a shared company vision is nearly impossible.

By recognizing that employees bring different orientations to their work, companies can avoid the costly divisions that occur when subcultures take on lives of their own. As seen by the experiences of Martin Marietta, UOP and Advanced Micro Devices, you can get your employees to row in the same direction.

Personnel Journal, December 1992, Vol. 71, No. 12, pp. 60-64.

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