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Organisational culture in technology

“The culture at a startup is typically what attracts people to join and what keeps the startup going.”

“Delays in hiring those executives or the recruitment of the wrong people can lead to strategic drift, spiraling costs, and a dysfunctional culture.”

Harvard Business Review

In a business environment plagued by uncertainty and an industry characterised by constant change, organisational culture offers a means of organising your tech company in a manner that creates both meaning and value.

From hybrid working, to the great resignation, and global macroeconomic challenges, organisations are faced with unprecedented challenges. Those who manage to navigate them successfully, will come out stronger, will others will perish.

Furthermore, while recovering from the devastating global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are realising that yesterday’s business rules aren’t that applicable in a post-pandemic world.

On this podcast we are discussing all these topics with Dr Clif Lewis, a business psychologist and partner of the Tesseract Academy.


About Dr Clif Lewis

clif lewis

Dr Clif Lewis is the Principal Psychologist at boutique consulting firm LBVC. He teaches on issues of leadership, diversity, wellness and people analytics internationally, and serves on several startup advisory boards.

He leads projects designed to give startups and SMEs access to People Science, which is otherwise restricted to companies that can afford large HR Departments and expensive consultants. He typically focuses on developing organisational infrastructure, which may include anything from policy development and process automation, to leadership coaching and improving inclusion.

Clif holds a PhD from the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University of London, registration as I/O Psychologist in South Africa and the United Kingdom, as well as accreditation as Chartered HR Professional. He is a published author in the fields of psychology, business, and law, and collaborates with co-authors in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Transcript: Organisational culture in technology

Stelios: Let’s go. Hi everyone. Welcome to The Data Scientist Podcast. I’m very happy to have here with us today, Clif Lewis, an organizational and business psychologist from South Africa. Hi, Clif. How are you?

Clif: Hi, Stelios. I am great. Thanks for having me.

Stelios: Great. So would you like to introduce yourself and say a few things about your work?

Clif: Sure, yes. As you mentioned, I’m an industrial psychologist. IO psychologists, we are called different things in different countries, but, yeah, so, psychologists working in the organizational setting. I am from South Africa. My accent might sound a bit funny. That’s because I’ve lived in various parts of the world. I am in South Africa at the moment but I’m educated in the UK. I spent some time in the Middle East. I’ve done quite a bit of work across the, pretty much broad span of IOP and HR training and development change, leadership, diversity, and psychometrics. So I’ve got a bit of everything in my toolkit. At the moment, I work as an independent consultant. When I’m able to choose my work, I love working with startups and small businesses. My main focus at the moment is to give smaller businesses and startups access to people science that’s usually restricted to big companies with big HR departments or budgets for expensive consultants. I’m passionate about diversity and inclusion from a wealth inequality perspective and I think supporting small businesses and startups and giving them access to these people tools, these sound scientific people tools is a way to address that. And so, that’s me in a nutshell. I can tell you a whole lot more because I’ve had the privilege of having an interesting career up to this point. I’m happy to elaborate on anything if you want me to.

Stelios: Yeah, that sounds great. So, recently, the Desert Academy surveyed the importance of organizational culture in the post-COVID world, and then, you were kind enough to also provide us with your input and feedback on that. So thank you for this. One of the answers was that the majority essentially of the respondents believe that organizational culture is going to become more and more important over time, especially in this new world. This report was done a few months ago. The war had already started and they were in Ukraine. But inflation was not as bad as we realized later on.

Clif: Yeah.

Stelios: This means that we were about to exit the COVID world even if COVID is still around. But at the same time, there are some new challenges in the economy. In light of that, I was just curious to hear your opinion about what you’re seeing in this space because it’s clear that yes, the majority of professionals believe that organizational culture is becoming more important. So it would be good to hear what you’ve seen, as in, do our organizations doing anything in this space? And how could the organizational culture help navigate these challenges because it’s no longer just COVID or hybrid work or remote work?

Clif: Yeah.

Stelios: It’s their session. [laughs] It’s going to be many different things.

Clif: Yeah. See, that’s a difficult question to answer. I suppose, I should start by adding the qualifier that organizational culture, although it’s really important and fundamental, unfortunately, it’s not a magic wand to fix everything, although you can make a massive impact by looking at organizational culture. I think the shift and the importance and the focus on organizational culture in this post-COVID world and the future of work that we’ve been thrust into is the importance of looking at people, focusing on people, people’s needs, people’s well-being, and organizations for decades. I’ve been saying, “Oh, our people are our most valued asset,” and not really delivering on that. I think the pandemic has kind of forced organizations to bring their side and meet their responsibilities in this area. In terms of how we can address culture, there are a lot of different theories. There are a lot of different approaches. Every consulting firm will have its approach to addressing culture. What I do when I consult on the matter of culture and also, when I teach about organizational culture, I use a mix of different approaches because it isn’t one-size-fits-all.

But one thing that is core and anyone who’s worked in culture would have heard of Edgar Schein’s model of organizational culture. That forms the basis of my thinking when we talk about organizational culture because it separates this sort of fluffy concept that’s hard to pin down into 3 areas. It’s based at the bottom so he conceptualizes it as a triangle. At the bottom, the big part is our worldview and how we think the world works, and our assumptions. On top of that are our values. So, what we value, what we don’t value, what we value more than others, that’s built on that. At the very top, you’ve got organizational artifacts. These are things that people typically associate culture with; uniforms, the way of speaking, how we conduct our meetings, how we brand ourselves, all of these types of things. Where organizations often fall short is they either focus on the artifacts and they don’t consider the values and the assumptions, or they say, these are all our values and that they don’t translate that into artifacts. It’s just words and in almost all cases, the foundational issues of worldview aren’t considered.

To be honest, I understand why because it’s really difficult when you’ve got a whole organization. Imagine you want a multinational organization with thousands of employees, not all of them are going to have the same worldview. Not all of them are going to share necessarily the same values especially, and that’s not even speaking about when you consider things like national culture and how that impacts organizational culture. If you look at things like the globe, and the work done by the GLOBE study, they consider organizations in a societal context and how that social context influences organizational culture. It’s very complex. It’s very sticky. It’s not one-size-fits-all and I think what has become important and highlighted and emphasized post-pandemic is we need to look at the human component. We can’t just say these are our values, we are people-centric, we value people’s well-being, and then have that as a value but not translate that into policy and practice, and all of these things, and also to consider fundamental worldviews.

Stelios: Yeah, I see what you mean. That being said, do you see organizations taking any action around that? Because it’s clear that most of them agree that yes, that’s an important topic and it’s going to become more important over time. But, pretty much like this model you described, do you see them converting words into artifacts, or is it mostly all talk now? I don’t know whether there are any differences in terms of the size of the company.

Clif: Yeah.

Stelios: I would expect that maybe larger organizations care more about this than an early-stage venture for example.

Clif: Listen, I don’t want to put my clients on glass, but unfortunately, yes, it’s mostly talking. If you look at it, it’s almost become a kind of a joke every year during Pride Month, we talk about rainbow washing…

Stelios: Yeah. [laughs]

Clif: …whitewashing and greenwashing when we talk about sustainability where the organization is all about pride and inclusivity and we value diversity. But then after Pride Month, after we’ve slapped a rainbow logo onto everything, you know, the way we recruit, the way we evaluate performance, just literally the way we just live our organizational life doesn’t speak to those values that we lift so high during this month. You see that with not just when it’s Pride Month or Black History Month or Women’s Month or anything like that. It’s just general as well. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing enough traction. People are starting to be more critical and to say, “Okay these are your values so show me the receipts. How do you make them real?” People are definitely speaking to it and digging a bit deeper, not just taking things at face value. But I’ve yet to see, I mean, if you just look at some, I’ve worked with organizations for who I’ve been instrumental in writing wellness policies because obviously, of my background. I’ve contributed to wellness policies and it covers things like you shouldn’t be working more than x hours, you should be working at a certain time of day, you know, you shouldn’t even be online. After it’s been implemented, people just work over the number of hours that they should. They’re online when they shouldn’t be online. So there are a few steps forward, but then a few steps back as well.

Stelios: It’s very interesting because going back to Desert Academy’s organizational culture survey, nearly 90% of the respondents said that our organizational culture is a key factor in ensuring employee wellness. So this was either agree or strongly agree. Around 75% said they had left their previous company because of the culture of that company or that this was at least a key factor. This question doesn’t specify whether this was about the salary or again, wellness, other types of practices, or discrimination potentially. But it seems that employees, at least, are very aware of how this is impacting them. Maybe, they realize what’s normal or not normal in a specific industry, company, sector, etc., that essentially, some of the behaviors, some of the biases, some of the bad behaviors they might be experiencing look like employees are aware that this is the result of culture and not something which is just to be accepted. I think when this survey was out and we were still never a strong job market, which still seems to be the case, but I can’t help but wonder why the FED is trying to crash the economy and increase unemployment to achieve this magical 2% interest rate…

Clif: Right.

Stelios: …as things might become harder for some workers. Like, For today, I was reading that Meta is planning to lay off any of its employees right after Elon Musk fired half the workforce of Twitter on Friday.

Clif: Yeah.

Stelios: Whether employees will still see that organizational culture is very important. Look at Elon Musk, for example, he’s trying to impose a certain work culture on Twitter. But they might not be able to say, “Yes, I’m leaving the company because of that,” because they might not have as many options, which doesn’t seem to be a great situation to be in. What are your thoughts on this whole situation?

Clif: Well, I don’t know too much about Meta’s work environment or their culture but I can comment on the recent events with Twitter. This massive event of Elon Musk laying off a bunch of people, I’m not convinced that was just at face value. Just what happened? He just decided, “Well, I need to cut costs. I’m firing a bunch of people.” I think it was quite instrumental in some other plans. I think there’s some, without sounding like I’m going to put on my tinfoil hat now, and I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist but I think there’s a bit more going on there. What I will say is I don’t think that is representative of organizational culture. One, he’s new. Someone that just steps into an organization and makes changes, that’s not culture. Culture is something that’s embedded. Then, I wanted to comment on something else and I forgot. [laughs] I forgot my train of thought when I started talking about Elon Musk.

Stelios: Do you think that Elon Musk is trying to impose a culture? Because on every news article I’ve read, he’s like, “Oh, Elon Musk believes that you should work 80-hour work days and never work from home and all that.” So I thought that maybe he’s trying to do something like that, and say, “Look, this is the only culture I can accept in my company,” you know, like relentless working. I’m not sure if it’s going to be something that works for everyone. It depends on their aspirations and goals and life circumstances. [laughs]

Clif: See, this is the problem. He might be. You might be right. He might be trying to impose a culture. But here’s the thing. You can’t impose a culture. Culture is something, whether it’s a company culture or a national culture, it’s something that develops organically. Sure, you can shape it, you can steer it in a direction, but it’s not something that you can just come in and impose. It’s going to blow up. It’s not going to happen the way you want it to happen. This is, now, I’m reminded of what I wanted to mention when you were referring to the survey where people were saying, “I’ve left an organization,” or “I’ve joined an organization due to organizational culture.” What’s difficult there is, as I mentioned earlier, there are so many different models that you can use to address organizational culture. If someone said that they left an organization due to organizational culture, it’s a very personal choice based on a very personal experience because of what that person may have been experiencing.

Let’s say, workload because that’s typically how many hours we work, what time of day we work, do we have a work-life balance. That’s a very common cultural issue topic. One person might be very individualistic, might be very ambitious, and might not have a family or anything that requires their time. They might love an organizational culture where performance is rewarded continuously, you know, “It’s fine if I don’t have a work-life balance, but at least, I know I’ll get my commission or my promotion.” Someone like that might love a culture like that. But someone else who maybe has people that they need to take care of, or someone who maybe had previously suffered from burnout needs to be very careful about their work-life balance so that they don’t go through that negative experience again because something like burnout can be very easily triggered. For someone like that, that might be a culture that they leave. Unfortunately, it’s not black and white. Again, I sound like a broken record. It’s very tricky. It’s something that we need to admit and make peace with that it’s something that we can develop and guide and structure in terms of how we address it. But there isn’t one formula to fix all of it. It’s not the same for every company. It’s not the same for every individual. We have to make peace with the fact that sometimes we might not get it right. It’s something that develops organically. So I don’t know. [laughs] I don’t know if that makes the situation worse, [laughs] or if that’s some enlightenment, but that’s the situation.

Stelios: I think that’s key, that it develops organically. Thinking about this, what do you think companies can do to facilitate a shift in direction, whether they’re small companies, let’s say startups, or bigger organizations? I would expect the requirements and the do’s and don’ts are different in this case. I would expect the size and stage of a company to be a very important factor in how you deal with this topic.

Clif: Yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted to say. Make sure that you’re not just slapping some values onto your company, culture statement on your website, or anything like that, just because you think it’s the now, like diversity and inclusion. I’m a diversity and inclusion specialist, so, obviously, I appreciate a focus on diversity and inclusion. But it’s very much a fad at the moment for large organizations, especially multinationals to say, “Oh, we value diversity and inclusion.” So, I would say, as a number one, this is probably a pie-in-the-sky idea, but be realistic about what you want to achieve. If you want to make sure that your organization is compliant…So, in South Africa, because of the terrible past that we have under Apartheid, even though Apartheid hasn’t been a part of our lives formerly for like, 30 years, we are still seeing the effects of the economic marginalization. We have official mechanisms in place to ensure that organizations don’t maintain that divide. So we have to have a certain representation of racial groups, gender groups, it’s very broad. It’s not just looking at the race. It’s very broad.

If your company wants to make sure that it’s compliant, if that’s the real issue, don’t tell me that you care about diversity because, at some point, it’s going to show. People are gonna see in your artifacts that we mentioned earlier, that we don’t care about diversity. What we care is about complying with what the regulation says, in any specific space, perhaps. That’s the one thing I would say is to be open and transparent about what you want to achieve and how culture fits into that and how we can achieve those things through culture or how we can get them to harmonize. Don’t just think, “Okay, what’s the best PR?” because often, that happens. People just use culture as a PR exercise. Then, be consistent. Make sure that you build it into your infrastructure. Make sure that you have a policy. it speaks to your strategy and then through to literally how people conduct their day-to-day business from reporting to resource allocation. It all has to be in sync because you might be real, that you care about people’s well-being. You might have a well-being policy. But then, when we look at monitoring and reporting, there’s no report saying how many hours people are working overtime because that should be an indication that people aren’t sticking or managers, for example, aren’t holding their teams accountable for not overworking, or it might be an indication that our resource allocation is not in line with our culture. So transparency, being real, and alignment, are all key factors that I would have if I was consulting on a culture project for an organization that I would start with.

Stelios: Yeah, all these are great points. I think they are points worth expanding upon. If anyone is interested in talking more about this, just make sure to drop us an email on our website, desert.academy. Clif is one of our external partners and we’re hosting workshops on organizational culture. Right before we go, maybe, Clif, would you like to share some URL websites, LinkedIn, where people can learn more about you?

Clif: Sure. I’ve got 10 million projects all going on at the same time.

Stelios: [laughs]

Clif: So the best place to find my stuff is probably on Linktree. I think the way that Linktree is written is, Link, T-R, and then a dot, E-E. So, Linktree with the dot before the two E’s, and then, forward slash, Clif P Lewis, with one F. So it’s, C-L-I-F, P Lewis. I’m also on all socials, Twitter, and Instagram, I’m Clif with one F, P Lewis. On my Linktree, you’ll be able to find some of the research that I’m busy with, and some other courses that I’m also involved in. I’ve got a journal that’s positioned for leaders who want to make their diversity and inclusion improve in the organization. Yeah. So a whole bunch of stuff and I would love to hear from you. If you’ve got any more questions, culture is a very interesting and complex topic, and I would love to discuss it more with anyone interested.

Stelios: Sounds great. Thank you, Clif.

Clif: Thank you, Stelios. All the best.

Stelios: Thanks, everyone. Thanks for being here with us today. Make sure to check out thedatascientist.com for more content around technology, AI, and blockchain. Thank you.


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Categories: Podcast

Dr. Stylianos Kampakis is the owner and author of The Data Scientist.