Rethinking Culture and Strategy

A new HR technology solution from Deloitte aims to help organizations better align employers' attitudes and behaviors to the business strategy.

By Steve Boese

People who know me know there is one famous business and human-capital-management maxim, that even though it falls into the "generally accepted and never really questioned" category, makes me insane with rage each time I hear it or see it re-tweeted, usually by well-meaning folks. It's something that has been repeated so often by so many people that I finally decided it was either 100 percent correct, or it had just become easier to repeat it rather than question it. What am I talking about?

It is the familiar quote from the legendary business and leadership thinker Peter Drucker: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

The reason I have come to dislike the quote so much is not because I don't believe in the importance and impact of organizational culture on business results, and employee happiness and engagement. Rather, I think that, over time, the people who make up the "culture" brigades that LOVE this quote above all others have created a perception that culture is really the only thing that drives organizational success and have diminished the importance of actual business strategy. Perhaps more crucially, they have lessened the importance of talented people to making all of it work.

The "Culture is King" folks sometimes would make us think that a "fun" or "flexible" or "inclusive" culture (or whatever other adjective you prefer that connotes some kind of healthy or desirable culture) is all, or at least nearly all, any organization needs for success.

This point of view conveniently ignores the idea that, no matter how much free food, foosball tables and flexible-work arrangements an organization has, if they don't have a compelling product or service that meets a true market need, and have recruited and retained the "right" set of talented people to execute on the strategic plans, then all the great organizational culture in the world will still result in failure.

Plus, it ignores the fact that, for just about every successful organization, the business strategy was formulated first, and then the culture developed around that strategy and through the organization's people.

So what I am really saying is that culture can't  -- and doesn't -- exist in some kind of vacuum. It has to co-exist and be in alignment with the organization's strategy and resonate with the actual people who inform the culture and execute the strategy.

My belief that we can't consider culture alone when thinking about what makes an organization successful is probably why I am really impressed with a new technology solution I have recently become familiar with: CulturePath, from the consultancy and advisory firm Deloitte. This solution represents an interesting and important evolution in how we think about culture, strategy and people in the organization.

The CulturePath solution surveys employees in the organization and then analyzes the aggregated data to measure the organization's cultural attributes across a spectrum of core indices such as collective focus, external orientation, and change and innovation, as well as differentiating indices such as courage, commitment and shared beliefs. The goal is to assess how well the attitudes and behaviors of employees align with, and support, the desired business strategy.

Deloitte feels these newer measures (courage, commitment, etc.) provide an even more revealing and important window into the motivations behind employee actions than traditional measures of engagement and effort. Dashboards of organizational and departmental results are provided. HR and business leaders can then drill down to view details on the individual statements that feed into these indices, and how employees have responded. With this information, leaders can quickly assess how the organization's attitudes and actions align with the needed indicators to successfully execute their strategy.

I think the CulturePath solution is particularly innovative in this space, in that -- as opposed to the traditional tools that tend to view concepts such as culture and engagement in isolation -- it helps organizations assess the culture's alignment with, and ability to support, their business strategies. To me, that makes a ton of sense -- a culture that scores high on "risk taking" and "low tolerance to rigid processes" will not fit with an organization in which the strategy calls for disciplined execution against a set of defined processes and workflows. Similarly, an organization that has chosen a strategy of aggressive growth will not be compatible with a culture of playing it safe, and having a low tolerance for ambiguity. Deloitte, unlike many smaller HR tech companies that have entered the "engagement" and "culture" space, can draw on decades of experience and research on business strategy, organization and execution to augment and support a client's culture assessment and analysis.

According to Deloitte (and, for what it's worth, me too), it is important for leaders to get started today on the detailed work of understanding their current organizational culture and aligning it with the business strategy. This new thinking around culture can serve as a wake-up call for executives who have given culture a "bye" when it comes to major initiatives. While most executives are used to monitoring and adjusting a variety of sales, operational and financial indicators, now they can leverage technology to also establish and manage a kind of "cultural dashboard" that puts them firmly in the driver's seat when it comes to aligning the culture with a strategy -- and executing on it.

Using a technology such as CulturePath, HR and business leaders can confidently assess their entire organization, continuously monitoring, developing and supporting the culture they need to align with strategy, and, in turn, improve their business results. I like this approach because it doesn't try to pretend "culture" is all you need to succeed. You need culture, aligned with strategy, and powered by talented people to make it all come together. I like the fact that Deloitte and CulturePath are making positive steps to use technology to make this happen.

You can learn more about CulturePath on its site here, and also listen to a podcast I did with my co-host Trish McFarlance about culture and CulturePath with Deloitte's Anthony Abbatiello here.

Steve Boese is a co-chair of HRE's HR Technology® Conference and a technology editor for LRP Publications. He also writes an HR blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at


Feb 12, 2016
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