Creating Cultures for the Age of Ideas

CultureU Fences

Many modern organizations are locked into a mindset – an organizational culture – that began with the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century Britain and was fully developed during the Second Industrial Revolution in the US. The great success of these revolutions – creating modern business and generating huge wealth – makes it easy to believe that what worked as a way of managing great corporations in the early 1900s is still the best way to run an organization in the twenty-first century. But times have changed.

Our new book, My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, sets out three core, culture-related ideas.

  1. Many organizations have a culture that is still unconsciously modelled on the managerial, ‘Steam Engine’ mindset of the industrial era; a culture which is fundamentally unsuited to the modern workplace.
  1. There are a number of core Steam Engine behaviors which actively prevent or destroy the things that modern organizations know that they most need from their employees – engagement, commitment and creativity, amongst others.
  1. Addressing and changing these core Steam Engine behaviors – little by little and piece by piece – will in time achieve a radical transformation of the organization, creating a working environment suited to the Age of Ideas and freeing up the energies of the organization’s members.

Locked in an industrial mindset
The great corporations of the early twentieth century quickly adopted Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, which argued that a new class of executives – managers and planners – were needed to reveal the ‘scientific’ approach to any particular task, which would yield the ‘one best way’ of performing that task. Taylor was unabashedly prepared to argue that most workers were, in his words, ‘too stupid’ to discern the ‘science’ of their activities. Even workers with considerable skills carrying out complex tasks were, in Taylor’s view, not the right people to deal with ‘the science’ of their work, since even if they had the capacity properly to plan the best approach to their work, this would distract them from the work itself.

What was needed was another other sort of being: the manager/planner. Out of this patronizing worldview came the persistent modern model in which every worker must have a manager, and that managers are superior to workers. Whatever Taylor may have said about ‘friendly’, ‘harmonious’, and ‘intimate’ cooperation between managers and workers, the mould was cast: workers worked; managers and planners (needed in surprisingly large numbers) managed and planned.

When ‘the one best way’ is imposed on people in this way by a rigid, status-laden hierarchy, it creates the kind of dehumanising, de-energising, stressful and unhappy working environments that are still far too common today. It is rare to come across any organization where aspects of these behaviours are not still clearly in place, with the all too visible result that people feel put upon rather than inspired, and what should be a genuine community working together to achieve the same end is turned into an unnatural environment where one class of employee is constantly assessing, appraising and judging the other class.

This is particularly damaging in the knowledge economy: when people are employed for their ideas and for their unique human skills (such as emotional intelligence), we shouldn’t be surprised if treating them like machines whose outputs are monitored and rated leads to disenchanted employees.

Ten ‘Steam Engine’ behaviors
Of the ten Steam Engine behaviors that we identify, the two most pernicious are those to do with control and measurement. Every manager wants to feel that they are ‘in control’, and measuring everything that moves helps to create an illusion of control. But it is an illusion: a moment’s reflection reveals that we can measure and control processes, but not people. Dealing with people – human beings – requires a human approach. It’s trickier, but it’s perfectly doable. The old ‘command and control’ model really is past its sell-by date.

If a new approach to control and measurement will take some adjusting to, the other dimensions that we discuss, such as innovation, communication, devolved leadership, networking, diversity and other aspects of organizational behavior, find a ready audience. ‘You’re right,’ most leaders agree: ‘we really do need to get better at those things.’

The behaviors that are most in need of change will differ (of course) from organization to organization; it is the precise mix of these various behaviors that creates each organization’s individual culture.

Some leaders may be concerned that their corporate culture is not good at enabling fluent, honest communication or at encouraging colleagues to develop vibrant networks of internal and external contacts. Others may worry that there is insufficient genuine diversity in their organization or that their organizational culture fails to encourage innovation. As Edgar Schein argues in a post on this site, to identify which behaviors are having the worst effects it is a good idea to start with a business problem, and work back to the behaviors that are driving this.

Only you can judge what is most relevant to your own situation. Our argument is that all of these kinds of outmoded, Steam Engine behaviors interact with each other and that you will find (we believe) that when you address any one of these issues and begin to change the organization’s behaviour in that one dimension, then the resultant new way of being quickly leads on to new perceptions and different ways of behaving in the other, related dimensions.

Setting out to ‘change the corporate culture’ with one almighty heave is difficult, daunting, and usually doomed to failure. Changing the organization’s behavior little by little, piece by piece, is achievable, and will slowly but surely bring about a real transformation, moving the organization from an industrial mindset to one that is suited to the modern reality of our working lives.

What about you? Do you agree that much organizational behavior dates back to the industrial era? And is that a bad thing, or do the old models still serve? Please share your thoughts below. 


This post was authored by Jonathan Gifford and Dr. Mark Powell.

Dr Mark Powell is a freelance strategy consultant and an Associate Fellow of Oxford SAID Business School, where he specializes in designing and directing senior executive leadership programs. Mark also lectures on a range of subjects including strategy development, leadership, power and influence and strategic relationship building. He is a former partner at global strategy consultancy, A.T. Kearney.

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Jonathan Gifford is a business author whose books include History Lessons: What business and management can learn from the great leaders of history; Blindsided: How business and society are shaped by our irrational and unpredictable behavior; 100 Great Leadership Ideas and 100 Great Business Leaders. His books have been translated into Chinese, Korean, Thai and Indonesian. Jonathan’s previous career was in newspapers and magazines; he was the launch publisher of BBC History Magazine.

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