Ashton Media
Marketing & Customer Experience Hub

How anthropology gives meaning to organisational culture

In April, 2014, more than 150 customer experience, data, marketing and business leaders participated in the first Customer 360 Symposium run by  Ashton Media.

This is the first of six posts based on a presentation given by  Corporate Anthropologist, Michael Henderson who shared fascinating insights into the nature of culture and why more organisations should be tapping into this to improve customer engagement.

Michael Henderson presentation

The difference between anthropology and archaeology

Good Morning. I’ve just been introduced to you as an anthropologist. I just want to explain very very quickly the difference between anthropology and archaeology.  I’m getting constantly harassed by people after I’ve spoken that they have found a bone in their backyard and did I know what it was.

I just want to make it very clear, I’m not an archaeologist. Archaeologists specialise in dead culture so if you have archaeology turn up at your place of work, it means you’re in trouble.

Anthropologists specialise in living cultures. We’re actually interested in how well you’re doing, what’s keeping you alive, how vibrant you are. The key skill that most anthropologists are trained in is a thing called participant observation. Or as my children like to call it, professional voyeurism, which basically just gives us permission to go and meet people, and sit amongst them for a period of time.

It can be anything from weeks to years in some cases, and we just observe the cultures they’ve created for themselves, how they’re operating, how they form, who leads the culture, how adaptive that culture is, and what the collaterals of the culture are in terms of the changing world around them.

Anthropology In the business world

In the business world the collaterals of the culture are in terms of how we’re interacting and meeting with customers or even competitors and whether we’re able to respond to those challenges quick enough.  It’s an area that’s become increasingly important for organisations to pay attention to.

You may have heard that Procter and Gamble’s accountants just last year came back after having looked at their positioning and the adaptability of Proctor and Gamble’s culture. They anticipated that Proctor and Gamble worldwide was in the position of probably losing about 16.3 billion dollars worth of new revenue streams over the next 36 months because their culture would not be able to adapt to those opportunities quick enough.

So what’s happened around the world?

This culture has suddenly become something that used to be considered namby pamby, new age, hug a tree and definitely left just to the HR practitioners.  Whereas now what’s happening is, it’s actually considered to be risk management and risk management in a fairly significant way.

Observations around organisational culture

What I’d like to do with you today is share some of the observations I have found around organisational culture over the 30 odd years I’ve been doing this. In particular I want to link it to the topic that obviously you’re all here to explore, talk about and play with which is the customer experience and what that might look like if the culture is working for you, and what it might look like if it’s not.

More importantly, I’d like to focus in towards the tail end of the talk where I’m going to share with you today on what leadership’s role is in terms of leading the culture that anticipates and responds well to customer experience and how it was created in the first place.

Before I get started, there are many different ways of doing this.  I’ve been asked to talk a little bit longer than had originally been asked for and I’m happy to do that, in fact, I’m delighted to do that but I just want to see the level of interest so I don’t overstay my welcome if that’s alright.

So based on what I’ve just said, can I just have a show of hands of how many of you are in organisations that believe that sort of conversation around the role of culture in terms of customer experience is one that’s important to your organisation. Fabulous, the overwhelming majority.  I’m so relieved because I had nothing else planned to talk about so that’s great. Fantastic!

What is culture and why is it important?

Alright so I’m going to start off with a fairly obvious kind of statement. One of the things I just want to talk about before we get into the detail is about why culture is important in the first place.

The reason I prefer to start all talks with this is that over the years I’ve found that most organisations have a culture obviously, they’re quite happy to talk about the culture and even use the word culture.  But, with the greatest respect, I found many of them actually have a very very shallow or even naive understanding of what culture actually is, where it comes from and how it forms.

So I just want to quickly clear up a couple of points that I think would be worthwhile exploring before we venture into more detail.

The way we do things around here

The first point is that most organisations refer to culture as “the way we do things around here”, have you heard that term? It is not a bad sort of start if you’re not familiar with culture. In reality, in anthropological terms, it’s not a very useful definition at all.  In fact, “the way we do things around here”, in organisations, typically describes your strategy, your processes or your systems more accurately.

If we understand what culture is in real terms, it’s not the way so much as the why.  Culture, literally is why people respond and behave the way they do inside your organisation.  It’s not the way they’re doing it, that’s just a surface element of it.

To truly understand what culture you’ve got and how it’s operated and formed in your organisation, you need to delve deeper into that and understand why people behave in this way. What that enables us to do is to start to get some real in-depth understanding of the culture that’s formed, rather than just a surface measurement.

What role does your engagement survey play?

Unfortunately most organisations still fail to understand the essential things, like engagement surveys for example which are still popular in the 21st century despite the fact we’ve known that culture doesn’t operate around that.

One of the fascinating things I’ve found over the years is that most tribal cultures are far more effective than most organisational cultures because tribes put a lot of emphasis on culture.  They’re dependent on it for their own future.

The interesting thing is, although those cultures work far more effectively, it’s things that organisations haven’t really paid any attention to or responded to.  For example, in the 40 odd tribes I’ve spent time with over many years in different countries, not one of them uses an engagement survey, or needs to.

And you go, “yeah”, it’s kind of obvious when we say it isn’t it? And we all laugh. But you’re saying is, “so what’s that all about?”

Well my blunt opinion is that inside organisations we’re so distracted from people and the people conversation with both our customers, believe it or not, and our employees, that we have to get external people to come in and talk to our own people to find out how they feel about being there.

Just think about that as the dynamic alone, there’s something wrong with that isn’t there? A, we don’t know, B, we’re not really interested ’cause we’re going to get someone else to do it and C, we have to use someone else’s language to understand our own tribe.

So it’s a little bit flawed and I suggest to you, the best organisations I’ve seen in terms of delivering extremely high levels of customer service, don’t use engagement surveys.  They replace it with a thing called internal conversations.

Replacing engagement surveys with internal conversations

Literally, internal conversations are just people walking around, particularly the bosses, the supervisors, the leaders, saying, “Hey guy, what’s the biggest challenge you’ve got at the moment? Is there anything else I can do to support you? Is there anything that you’ve experienced that I need to be aware of that could make your life better, easier and give you more time and attention to dedicate to the customer?”  Those conversations are usually far more effective in increasing the customer experience, than running your annual engagement survey.

I know that’s a little bit provocative and I understand you’ve got time to discuss the presenter’s information at the end. That’s definitely one thing I’d encourage you to have a think about, what role does an engagement survey play?

Because my experience says, it gives you people’s opinion of the culture, it tells you nothing of the culture itself. Culture’s happening on a day to day basis in the moment and I’ll come back to that point shortly. You as leaders in organisations, need to know what those moments are all about and what they’re doing and how they operate.

Culture is your leading competitor

This has become very powerful and you’ll see that in fact I believe culture has become, if not your leading competitor, then pretty close to it.  And you will have heard the news just last month of Toyota pulling out of Australia in 2017.

I don’t know if you saw the President’s comment when he was asked why. His primary reason for pulling Toyota out of Australia, he said, “The culture’s too hard to work with”.  And he wasn’t talking about Australian culture; he was talking about Toyota Australia’s culture.

It just becomes so disconnected from the strategy and the systems and processes that the Japanese are famous for operating with, that it’s too hard to work with, so they’re going to pull out and go elsewhere.  You also think about places like Enron.  Enron was not put out of business by its major competitors in the market place. It collapsed through its own culture.

Increasingly this stuff’s become very very powerful, it acts very very quickly and it’s got extremely high levels of stealth. If you don’t know what culture is, know how to look for it. Your culture will work on your organisation’s future before you’re even aware that it’s become a problem.

And again, an annual engagement survey is a history lesson in terms of how your culture went bad 12 months ago and now you’re broke.  So the more you can be in touch and in the moment, and this applies to customers as well, the more you’re able to adapt in the moment and respond with greater agility.  Is this all making sense?

In the next post, Michael reveals the connection between organisational culture and the prospect of service.

View the full presentation here:

Mark Abay - Content Director, Ashton Media About Mark Abay - Content Director, Ashton Media
Mark is Content Director at Ashton Media. It's his job to create interesting and engaging conference programs that stretch the thinking of our attendees. Mark works closely with our industry advisors to ensure the conference content is aligned with the needs and interests of our audiences.