Conducting a cultural audit: The first five steps.
Audit International now bring you the second part in this three part series – Having introduced the initial concepts of what is involved with auditing organizational culture in the first article of this three-part series, we now can begin the process of drilling down and more closely examining the first five of the top ten tips to conduct a culture audit.
Identify your cultural levers:
The first step to successfully conducting a cultural audit is to identify the daily management activities that occur throughout the organization – your cultural levers. These levers look to align the culture we desire with the day-to-day activities of everyone in the organization. If we understand what leaders focus on to deliver this alignment, then we have a starting point for identifying what to test to provide our opinion on the effectiveness of culture.
Cultural levers often vary from organization to organization, so you need to work with management to identify what is influencing behavior within your specific organization. However, there are areas that I would expect to see. Published value statements are significant and an indication of what should be happening. Leadership is also significant, not just at the top but cascading throughout the organization at all levels. In this context, the organization’s approach to people management is vital with the impact this has on encouraging the behaviors that are needed for success. However, culture goes much deeper and is present in the management of other resources, including areas such as customer engagement, complaints handling, supplier management, corporate responsibility, risk management structures and profile, and internal and external communication.
This may appear daunting, but a well-organized approach to assessing each lever can quickly identify areas that are not truly aligned with the espoused values; a clear indicator that desired culture is not operating as expected.
The next four tips examine these cultural levers more closely to illustrate what they mean and to help inform you about the questions you might want to consider testing in order to arrive at an opinion on the organization’s culture.
Employees watch what leaders and key individuals in organizations do and how they operate. They see the dissonance between what the organization is saying, both in its external and internal communication, and their lived experience of working there. Assessing whether there is alignment is a key aspect of any audit of culture. This is even more important given the increased focus over recent times on aspects of corporate and social responsibility and the push for Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) activity from investors. Acquisitions of ‘greenwashing’ in your communications can be hugely damaging. This means that it is important to pay attention to external reputation and its alignment with internal messaging and should be considered across all social media.
The third tip is all about the examination of leadership’s role in owning and managing the culture in the organization. In internal audit, we need to examine whether this is occurring both at design and operational effectiveness levels. We are there to check that the activities of leaders are aligned with the espoused values and are supporting the delivery of the business strategy. In our audit work we should be looking for a consistency of message and actual managerial behavior. Leaders play a pivotal role in managing the business such that there is consistency across activities and that they work toward delivering the required culture for success. To do this practically, we need to build audit programs that look for evidence of areas such as misalignment in leadership actions and customer-centric examples that manifest in the practical activities of front-line colleagues. Leadership should be able to clearly demonstrate actions that they have conducted that help move the organization closer to accurately living the culture and evidence-measurement activity that supports this.
In this context, during an audit, I would expect leaders to be able to articulate how they ensure the culture is embedded through their team’s day-to-day activities, including examples of how they role model the culture in their own activities and interactions. Interviews will form a significant part of assessing these. However, data analytics can also be used to examine areas such as communications from leaders over a period of time looking for references to culture.
Simply put, what you are looking to establish here is whether the fine words on a page have a living connection with reality and link through to a real impact on the delivery of the organization’s strategy.
This leads us to the next cultural lever – people management. The key here, as with all aspects of cultural audit, is alignment. Across the entire employee lifecycle the behaviors we need to exhibit for the business to be a success need to be front and center. This starts with the employment brand, which should signal to potential recruits what the organization’s values are and includes the testing of new recruits against this. Objectives need to be set not only about what is needed to be delivered in terms of financial results, for example, but also how these results will be achieved.
Performance management needs to be expertly conducted to explore the colleague’s contribution to delivering organizational success in the way we want it delivered. This should be a continual process and include ongoing dialogue, not just an annual form-filling event. Promotion decisions should clearly consider this aspect and signal to all colleagues how behaving in the right way counts for personal success.
In developing your audit program, you need to consider all aspects of the employee lifecycle: attraction, reward, management, development, and exiting colleagues. In reviewing all these aspects, you need to be cognizant as to where the controls are operated. In most organizations, while the Human Resources function is likely to have a key role in the design of many of the practices mentioned, the management of the risk and operation of the controls largely sits within the business units of the organization. That is the place you need to be testing reality, not just within the HR function.
Identify key processes and assess alignment:
Next, we move on to two heavily connected cultural levers: process and change. When reviewing your organization, a key step is to identify the processes that are critical to the management of the organization’s culture. From this, you can review whether their operation is consistent with the outlined culture. In this case, we mean the culture promoted not only to your employees but outside your organization through your brand and external image to customers and other important stakeholders.
Employees, in their scanning of the organizational environment, will spot processes that do not sit well with declared ideal behaviors and values, where potentially the organization is looking to put short-term gain before longer-term goals. If these exist, it sends a huge signal to customers and colleagues that leadership does not really mean what they say. Included in these key processes are likely to be many of the internal processes around people and supplier management, but, most significantly, processes around how you deal with customers and how you respond to their feedback and complaints.
Alongside this, consideration needs to be given to how the organization’s change programs identify how changes they are looking to enact to systems and processes promote the desired culture. Change programs are a key touch point where the organization can ensure that the culture is being reflected in operating practices. However, they can also be a point of risk. Delivering efficiencies, while at the same time undermining the desired culture, can create problems that are hugely difficult to unpack.
Next up, in the third and final installment of this article series, Audit International finish identifying and discussing the remaining top ten tips to audit culture and conclude the journey that set out to help you deliver cultural insights within your organization. We hope you’ll stick with us.
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