Organisational Culture – Why is it important?

IMPACT and Investec Asset Management, soon to be Ninety One, teamed up again to take on the subject of company culture, led by Duncan Coombe. This was a great talk for multiple reasons; one being it was an open event for our male colleagues as the discussion of culture goes beyond gender.

The talk began with the opening statement ‘Organisational culture, why is it important?’ This opened the floor for individuals to discuss with each other what their firm’s culture is and allowed us to see the similarities and differences between them. We reflected on our own feelings and had opportunity to discuss throughout the morning. When Duncan brought the group back together we had great questions from multiple participants looking at the concept of culture from all angles. Questions included “can we measure culture?” and “are we able to change culture”, and “are we okay with the areas we cannot change?.

We began looking at the research surrounding culture, deciding if it is even worth a conversation. The answer being a definite YES! He further explained how culture can really influence a company’s performance, and that it’s one of the top 5 things he teaches Investment Analysts to look at when choosing which companies to invest in. This research lead into an interesting sociological and anthropological conversation of what actually defines “culture”? There are three main schools of thought on culture. We focused on the organisational development viewpoint; which defines culture as neither bad nor good but just as it is. We learned that if you look at the 20 top performers in a company and analyse the positive and the negative traits from their personality then you invariably have ‘your company culture’.  This means each firm should recognise that the culture is more than their slogans on the website.

Once it had been decided we would focus on organisational development we were shown the well-known ‘Iceberg’ of culture. It’s an easy visual for understanding how what we see on the surface isn’t the full picture when it comes to culture. The element above the water on show to the world is the company’s behavior. It’s measurable and is what the company is trying to reflect to the world. Under the water’s surface is the unmeasurable aspects of culture which include the company’s underlying beliefs, and the “why” to “why do we come to work in the morning?”

We now had a clear idea of the complexity of culture and moved into a discussion about signaling change in culture from the top levels. Duncan brought out some fantastic examples of bringing teams together. The most brilliant being the red ties at UniCredit and how an insignificant fashion choice could bring a firm once seen as a series of small country banks into a collaborative unit, which was even reported on by investment consultant reports.  This reflects how impactful a culture shift can be.

Most of us know it is not an easy mission to accomplish a substantial change in any firm’s culture. Traditionally this type of change can only come from the leaders. Duncan brought in the analogy of a river being a company’s culture. A firm’s culture is a river as it has history, momentum and a natural force. When a person tries to swim against this current the person will struggle and become incredibly frustrated. This is why we must ask ourselves “are we wanting to swim with the current of this business?” Meaning do we feel confident and happy culturally in our current business.

The discussion moved forward and developed into concluding statements, the most important being that there is no single point of engagement when it comes to culture. This was something that was mistakenly assumed during the 2008 crisis when many firms took on a new culture to try to stay afloat. Now our Regulatory bodies are beginning to understand this and can see that they should look at culture from how it has developed, is there sincerity surrounding the mandates and are they taking accountability.

In conclusion this discussion not only taught us to look at culture beyond just that gut feeling we have when we think of our company but has us now asking the questions “what are their stated strategic priorities?” and “what artifacts would you expect to hear and see to evidence this alignment between these strategies and the culture?”. Further through these answers it should allow us to know if we are content or need to take on a cultural shift.


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