There has been a lot of crap written about company culture. I have written some of it.

This week I listened to a very cogent explanation of what company culture is and also read some interesting points about HR's role in changing it. Here's what I learned...

What is company culture?

Ben Horowitz of VC firm Andreesen Horowitz recently gave a talk about company culture, attempting a definition and laying out four keys to creating a culture.

I'd advise listening to the 30-minute talk. Horowitz uses an interesting analogy, examining the Haitian Revolution of 1791 and how Toussaint Louverture created, as Wikipedia puts it, 'the first free colonial society to have explicitly rejected race as the basis of social ranking'.

Here are the important bits:

Perks are not culture. Neither are corporate values.

Neither free yoga classes nor a bunch of aspirational words written on the wall are culture. Horowitz defines culture as "the collective behaviour of everyone" and "what people do when they're left to their own devices."

He goes on to give the following examples of culture, with one of the most important being the verisimilitude of the business leaders. Does the leadership tell the truth, or does it fudge it and therefore give the rest of the business the idea that they can lie, too?

do you get back to people? are you open to new ideas? is data or intuition more important? does job title impact on who is right? do you show up on time? do you use your own products? does craftmanship matter? is it okay to take risks? does watching what you spend matter?

So, how do you change a culture?

Horowitz's four keys to changing company culture, with some fine examples, are as follows:

1. Keep what works

Steve Jobs was urged to be more like Microsoft (concentrate on software) when he returned to Apple. But he stuck it out, going even more vertical with integrated tech and creating a music player and a phone.

2. Create shocking rules

Rules have to be shocking enough to be noticed and questioned by your staff. Mark Zuckerberg's 'move fast and break things' rule was important to establish innovation as a priority, sometimes even over quality.

3. Incorporate people from other cultures, at high levels in your org

Google Apps, despite a big head start on Microsoft 365, was not getting cut through because the company was not used to selling to enterprise. So, Diane Green was named SVP of Cloud Services in November 2015, to try to address this.

4. Make decisions that demonstrate priorities

Reed Hastings stopped the DVD teams at Netflix (then responsible for 100% of revenue) from coming to staff meetings as he decided to prioritise the streaming business.

So, what role does HR play in all this?

Is culture all about leadership? What role does HR play? In an article titled 'getting human resources right', VC Fred Wilson argues that HR is the 'culture carrier', working directly under the CEO to enable transparency.

That means the HR department is responsible for much more than simply recruitment. Feedback on performance and development goals is vital but so, too, is ingraining culture.

That starts with something as simple as a company handbook, setting out rules of behaviour and what happens if they are not followed. Startups, particularly, need to set the tone early. It's easy to see how culture can propagate (good or bad), and one only needs to look at recent headlines from Silicon Valley to see how impactful this can be.

Wilson goes further and says that the onboarding process should be a matter of weeks, not days. It should be about culture, process, strategy, operating plan and rules, not simply saying “here’s your laptop, here’s your desk, here’s your boss.” These are all common sense (but not universally adopted) strategies.

Does digital disrupt HR?

Looking a bit deeper, what are the impacts that digital technology (and a company's digital transformation) may have on the remit of HR. Of course, there are many impacts on the business, such as fewer silos and more talent management, but what exactly will HR do that is different?

Accenture outlines the following possible changes, stating that HR will:

  • become smaller, i.e. HR professionals will collaborate closely with other business functions.
  • begin to behave more like marketing — analyzing employee data, creating customized talent offerings, and marketing and branding talent and HR processes.
  • play a bigger role evaluating external technologies, and building interfaces between them and the organization’s own data and systems.

All this seems to make sense, and plays well with the idea of a managed culture and increased transparency. So, what does your culture and HR department look like, and how will you go about changing both?

Ben Davis

Published 9 March, 2017 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (3)

Hilton Barbour

Hilton Barbour, Marketing Provocateur at Hilton Barbour Inc

@Ben - Strongly recommend reading Edgar Schein - he's the Peter Drucker on the subject of Culture. I'd contend that, in this age of Digital Transformation, Culture will either be the biggest accelerant or impediment to organizational success. Some thought's here -

over 1 year ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Editor at EconsultancyStaff

@Hilton Thanks for the tip

over 1 year ago


Rob Wolff, Senior Consultant at High Performing Culture

@Ben - Thanks for the focus and content. I'd add that Culture should be a clear priority. Too many companies visit it once or twice a year. The desired culture should be clearly articulated in a way that everyone can understand, and then it should be taught and reinforced over and over and over. If you have 5 minutes, I'd suggest you look at the video here .

over 1 year ago

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