Designing for Business vs Education

Ever heard the adage, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast?” It basically means what it says on the tin: culture leads strategy, and without taking company culture into consideration when making business decisions for your company, your strategy will fall short — and may even give rise to additional problems. Company culture will ultimately overrule any attempt to enforce a strategy or plan with which it is incompatible.

Consideration of not only cultural, but also industry and sector specific needs, should inform and influence all the details of what goes down on paper — from goals, methodologies and key decisions, to the mindset, approach and past experience of the team involved.

This all sounds obvious in theory, right? But how does the adage play out in practice? The report “Board Leadership in Corporate Culture” conducted in 2017 showed that culture is a top 3 priority for company boards. However, studies also show that very few businesses actually act on this, or incorporate their acknowledgement of the role of company culture into their decisions.

The whole “culture eats strategy” theory was spontaneously illustrated to us recently, through a situation with a client who reached out expressing interest in our services. We arranged a meeting to discuss how we could work together. This particular client, from the education sector, was looking for technical support and further assistance with a certain system, and we soon learned that they had been working with another vendor, though relations and practicalities had not been running according to plan. The client seemed a bit frustrated as he tried to explain around this, and then as if in a lightbulb moment, he half defeatedly threw up his hands and concluded, ‘They’re just used to designing for business, not education.” A unanimous yes and nods followed all around the room — this was where our team could meet with him on common grounds, suddenly everything seemed to fall into place, the crux of the matter had been revealed. The chosen vendor’s practice didn’t align with the industry culture. The resulting proposed strategy had been gobbled.

As the client realised, education and corporate business each have different cultures and present different working environments, because the goals, priorities and motivating factors of each are different. Assign a consultant, vendor or agency who is used to working with the latter, to create and enforce a strategy for the former (whether that be digital, creative, in marketing or for growth), and there are going to be problems.

The example of this client’s frustration made me realise the importance of our agency’s role and specific project/industry experience, and why we choose to do what we do. Projects will always have needs which stretch beyond technical capabilities, scope of work or deliverables. This is the approach we like to take going into pitches also — we focus on showing we understand the client’s company culture and niche, to assure them we can tailor our strategy to that. What better way to launch a good client relationship other than establishing trust and confidence?

  1. Culture and strategy are interdependent.

“Firms developing strategies to move in new directions need to make sure that any changes made are in concert with company culture. Because culture trumps strategy, and it is culture, not strategy, that informs the design process,” writes Fran Ferrone, Director of the Center for Workplace Innovation, in an article for Entrepreneur. Culture and strategy are mutually reinforcing, they interact, and even if company culture overrides and dictates the success of any internal decisions, at the end of the day it will be the company culture which suffers the most from the failure of that plan.

Let’s think of an organisation within a specific industry as a system, the elements of which produce more as a whole, working together, than individually. The good health and long term success of an organization or initiative comes from an alignment of each subsystem. Company and industry culture can’t be underestimated as a deciding factory, because, to quote Tony Hsieh, “Your culture is your brand.” People, customers, clients, participants, members, are all loyal to culture, not strategy.

2. Education vs Business: different culture, different needs.

What differentiates one industry and organisation from another? Not just logistics, structure, and practicalities, but values, beliefs, behaviours and underlying mindsets. How are they different for education than in corporate business? In general, the goal in business is profit and maintaining consumer/customer/client satisfaction. “Time is money.” In education, ROI isn’t measured in the same way. Rather than focusing on immediate benefits for a whole company, education is based on individual growth and learning. Business trains, while education teaches.

Of course, many would argue that education is a business in itself, and that it has links to and support from state funding and federal grants, but their practices vary from those of for profit businesses. Education is non-commercial, while “corporate culture is a hard thing to get right. It’s a moving target that means something different to everyone. It grows and evolves over time and is the result of action and reaction. It is the lingering effect of every interaction.”

Each will just have different needs and requirements from partners who are familiar with their culture and environment. That’s all.

3. The value of customization is growing.

The top consulting firms, McKinsey included, are providing services tailored to particular companies and industries, which take into consideration company culture and sector specific needs and requirements. Agencies, vendors and partners need to be able to identify both what the client requires (ie. the goals of the project) and how to achieve them (ie. knowing what the client needs, understanding trends and behaviours related to their industry and culture, etc.).

The value of customized solutions is also recognised by business school programs. Duke Corporate Education grew and separated from Duke University’s Business school, with the aim of creating a program which caters specifically to the areas within which they provide services. Specialized programs, as opposed to a general curriculum of enrollment programs, support the observation that there is increasing demand from corporations and organizations in the workforce for employees whose skills “are closely aligned with company strategy, while addressing specific business challenges.” It is clear, then, that context matters in leadership, and businesses need to be ready to provide the answers in the form of personalized solutions.

4. Chose a vendor who fits your niche culture.

So when it comes to choosing a vendor, consultant, agency or firm to devise and execute a strategy, consideration your company culture and your industry, and who will work best with you as a partner. Experience in your area, as well as enthusiasm and understanding, translates to a support system which can see around corners, offer foresight, predict challenges before they arise, and know how to deal with the inevitable ones. It’s also important that they know how to customize from within the niche, because no matter what the culture and sector, or the technical and practical skills required, each case and client will be different and unique, and there needs to be room for creative flair too. Ask yourself, what does a partner need to know about us in order not only to get the job done, but to do the right job? They say madness is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. You could also say: skillful and strategic design, when aligned with culture, results from working within niche environments again and again, allowing for stronger services and client support.

Back to our education client friend, who was having a not-so-great experience with the company he had already engaged. This case is an example of mistaken linear thinking, in which purpose, intentions and goals informed the strategy. They hired into this model based on capability, but the culture remained steadfast.

Moral of the story: considering your company culture, industry, and sector is a strategic imperative. We also always need to keep in mind that clients are looking at the big issue and project challenges from their own unique perspective. They need to make sure their chosen partner is too.