Should workplace culture be written down?
Should workplace culture be written down?
notes from Upasna’s cross-cultural work experiences
Factual work culture: the one that we experience
On 8th August 2004 as a fresh engineering graduate in India, I started. Like a thousand others, after the Internet bubble was beginning to wear off, and Indian software companies running high on Western outsourcing were hiring young (cheaper) talent a dime a dozen. The software company that I became a part of, trained us young folk for 6 months- technical, soft-skills, classroom teaching and a huge campus with 5000+ people were a part of the deal. My best friend from college (and plenty others) were a part of this huge (100+ students) ‘class’ that had been hired in one go. Looking at the mega campus with 3 cafes, a fancy gymnasium, a music room — he declared in all seriousness — this is made for me. Indicating in all earnestness that he had found the right work environment (all this before we wrote a single line of code or handled any projects of course). I was a little more reserved in sharing this love. This was before ‘shared economy’ became a thing, and having Internet access for a measly 1 hour with no real work desk and at best a shared PC was not the best experience I could have imagined- third world country withstanding.
During this time period many big leaders from the organization visited us, trained us, presented ideas and speeches on the future of the software industry and how we were going to be a big player with campuses like the Microsofts and Googles of the world. With 0+ experience and 5 pages on the CV filled up with Engineering project details (that I de-prioritized soonly after real work began) we were all young, impressionable minds and this sounded great. The optimism was high. My less skeptic (then) mind internalized it and carried it forward. In a certain presentation competition, we were asked: where did we see ourselves as professionals. I volunteered to speak from my group being convinced that I had all the best ideas. I said, almost emotionally in a naive but honest tone that, I’d like to impact changes (in the company) and create a difference. I do not remember what the result of the competition was. But I remember a woman ‘judging’ us on our presentations, raised her eyebrows. I was perhaps saying things that one said when wanting to win the Miss India contest. This, on the other hand was regular office. I was a 1 month old trainee speaking in front of 15 years+ software industry veterans. I brushed aside this little dampner and continued further to have a crush on a boy making another such ‘ideal’ presentation. I got over my petty crush, but the raised eyebrows stayed on.
Communicated culture: the one we talk of and document
9 years later, I was in Germany, going through my semester plan and a company that I had applied to responded with a phone call. I spoke to the Head of Consumer business of Experteer, Klaus and his first question was: what would you change about the company? It took me by surprise, but luckily, I knew of their product and came up with a few points. I had plenty other interviews following that one. In person, he asked me to detail exactly what I would do to impact change and create a difference. During the interview process, I also understood that while I had applied to a real role, I was being interviewed for a potential one that would be ‘created’. At the end of my last interview, the CEO — Christian Göttsch, asked me one last question: so, what would you like to do? When I started working in the company a few months later, my job was to create that change I had talked about and define success.
A few months ago, I was making another presentation talking about my brand new babies — my professional Vantage Point (the Experteer magazines, do excuse the cheesiness). Christian had a presentation right before me on ‘culture’. I was overthinking my own upcoming presentation, and was less prepared to be fully present for a ‘company presentation’. He went ahead and changed all that instantly. At a moment’s notice, I was all there, paying attention to what was being said:
Every company has a culture: communicated culture versus factual culture. The factual culture is what you experience in your daily work. We will not write down, ‘document’ or formalize our culture…because it is dynamic and shall remain authentic. Everybody can contribute and make a difference. I encourage you to contribute yours…but that was just my take on it. Everybody has an impact on culture, and so do you (Christian Göttsch, Experteer, 2014)
My first reaction was this sounds good but doesn't sound right. It was challenging my near 6 years of consulting company experience because, we tell clients to ‘write down’ and ‘document values’. The advantage of the documentation of ‘work-culture’ is simple. For a company in multiple locations, in multiple countries, or even a small one it leads to consistency. And that, is a good thing.
What Christian was however talking about was two things: he was embracing culture as something that was not stale, but more like the ball of snow incorporating new and more as it rolled on. The inherent dynamic nature made it more real and authentic. Secondly, he was claiming documented culture did not necessarily translate into real life work experiences.
Even as I am penning down my thoughts here, I can’t help thinking about my newly learnt MBA jargon: ‘it depends’. That there’s of course a huge difference between how a big company runs versus a start-up. Although, I have to admit, on a very personal scale, I am tempted to ask why.
PS: The big picture view from the Experteer headquarters in Munich