toddler eating a bowl of cereal
PHOTO: Hal Gatewood

The quote "culture eats strategy for breakfast" has been making the rounds for a few years now. Whether management guru Peter Drucker said it first or not, Mark Fields made it more famous while serving as president and CEO of Ford Motor Company. And given that Fields said it while presiding over a period of global expansion for Ford, we can expect he knows a thing or two about corporate culture in practice.

Who Needs Cereal When You've Got Strategy?

What does the saying really mean? The gist of it is: you can have a fantastic, well thought out and well-reasoned strategy, with a great plan to execute on it, but it will not do you any good if to goes up against an established and entrenched corporate culture, which will work — actively or passively — to block that strategy, or elements of it.

For example, let’s say there's an old well-established organization with a very hierarchical management structure. This hierarchy is supported by a corporate culture that expects strong “top down” command and control processes for new product development and sales. Due to changes in the market and lackluster performance, the senior management decides to cut out a layer of middle management to implement agile product development methodologies, and to allow some bottom up involvement in product development. 

Do we think the established culture can support the new strategy and the new ways of working? Probably not.

Sometimes an established corporate culture, an expected way of doing things, a set way of managing change or managing new technologies, can derail the strategies to deploy modern digital workplace technologies. Culturally an organization may just not be ready for the CEO to engage directly with employees in an enterprise social collaboration tool like Yammer or Connections. The HR group might not be culturally equipped to deal with a flood of employee suggestions from an ideation platform like Tembo Social. The Research and Development team that has been working in relative secrecy might not perceive, or just not understand, the benefits of “working out loud” and broadcasting to the enterprise what they are working on today.

Related Article: Social Business: It is NOT Culture. Or Technology. But Maslow Gets It

The Link Between Culture and Employee Engagement

What does this have to do with employee engagement? That is a good question my dear reader. Sometimes when we get swept up in a trend, when our senior management are pushing to execute a strategy provided by an external consultancy, when there is a push to “modernize” to retain the millennials among our employees, simply deploying a tool within our digital workplace can actually have the opposite effect and reduce employee satisfaction and therefore employee engagement.

So culture can be eating that employee engagement strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner too! 

Let us quickly acknowledge that no employee engagement strategy should be simply based on deploying some new technology. But many technologies — from social recognition platforms through to enterprise social collaboration platforms, and modern easy to use HR tools — can and do help with improving employee engagement. Why the focus on employee engagement at all when it comes to the digital workplace? Because engaged, empowered and enabled employees provide fantastic, rockstar levels of customer service.

Related Article: Are People Analytics the Answer to Your Employee Engagement Woes?

A Culture Reality Check

We need to take a multi-disciplinary approach to applying our digital workplace technologies to an organization's strategy for improving employee engagement, by communicating with, enabling and empowering the workforce. We must examine the existing corporate culture and make an honest appraisal as to whether the ideas from the latest MBA case study or vendor white paper can be applied in our own situation. 

If we decide a particular strategy won't fit with our culture, then we have two options: Change the strategy or change the culture. Most would say changing the strategy would be easier, but changing our culture might bring the greatest long-term benefits. Many modern academic papers have been written on culture change, but this article provides nine steps. Among the recommendations is the need to engage with teams, and to provide transparent two-way communications, recognition and feedback mechanisms. All of these can be enabled by tools within our digital workplace ecosystem.

Our digital workplaces should be ideally placed to support employee engagement strategies. But the moral of this story is don’t dive into technology-driven solutions without doing a reality check on how this technology-enabled and supported strategy is going to fit into your corporate culture.