Culture and Human Resources are not interchangeable

 |  24 November 2021


Culture is not just a capability, it’s not just about the workforce; it’s not just about the people. Culture is about how the business functions and how the people interact with the business systems and each other. When a culture ‘project’ is started, it can limit the thinking about the breadth and depth of culture and what needs to happen for change if not managed well.


The mistake that many business leaders make is that HR is responsible for culture. They also mistakenly believe that every HR professional is skilled in change and culture. This just isn’t the case. The reality is that HR has a part to play, but they are not the holders of culture, and they may not have the skills.


Culture isn’t something that someone does, and it’s not a line in a business plan. Culture happens regardless of the attention you or anyone else gives it. The question becomes, is it the culture that you actually want?


If culture isn’t Human Resources, who is responsible.


This is a great question, and we can debate until the cows come home whether it sits in Human Resources, or it sits in Finance, or it sits in the CEO’s office, or it sits with line managers. The reality is, every single person in the organization has a part to play in the development and transformation of a culture. Therefore, it’s not that it doesn’t fit in HR, it’s just it doesn’t only fit in HR.


Truthfully it doesn’t matter what department you allocate the “project” to because there’s no one department that’s going to be broad enough to capture everything there is within the domain of culture. When you are in the process of deliberately ‘changing’ your culture, you may require dedicated internal resources to support you. Ideally, once your culture is established, it will become self-sustaining without the need for a dedicated ‘culture’ resource.  Your managers will manage the culture you want, and you can engage an external consultant to do the occasional audit to ensure you are staying on track.


I know your curiosity is burning away right now. I can feel you thinking, ‘You have a belief that it doesn’t belong to Human Resources, so you must believe it belongs somewhere.’ OK, OK. Not that it matters to this blog but, if I had to pick… then my preference would be to either place it within the CEO’s office as a temporary governing project until the change is embedded, or I would team it with the Strategy department if your business is large enough to have one.


Strategy, like culture, is an expansive subject and covers of the various facets of a business. It’s more closely aligned to the concept of culture than other specialised departments. Human Resources is a very specific business support function and focuses on the management of the workforce of an organization. Human Resources is no different than the Finance or IT departments. They are all business support functions with a specific focus. However, people would frown and say it doesn’t make sense to put culture in the Finance department or the IT department, but the reality is it fits there just as well.


Really it depends on your focus.


If your focus is customer experience then perhaps it sits with the customer or marketing team.  If your focus is on efficient practices then it could sit with finance or business planning. If it’s a strategic change for your whole business, or process, people and systems. Then it deserves a focused team approach.


Culture covers business processes, financial, planning and recording systems, and people’s capability and behaviour, and much more. Therefore, the alignment with a broad area like the strategy is much richer if you want a long term resource focused on culture. If you think about the map’s strategy to get us where we want to go and culture is how we travel along with that map, then the synergies are strong.


Many times, I’m engaged by the HR team because culture ‘problems’ are often identified through poor performance or ‘inappropriate’ behaviour of people before it’s identified through the bottom line, which is probably why culture ends up with HR more often than with other areas of the business.


When I work with large businesses, I work closely with the Executive Team, the strategy and planning team, the customer service and marketing teams, the leaders, and the Human Resources team. Don’t get me wrong, HR has a huge role to play in the creation of culture through recruitment, induction, training and supporting managers, and it often starts there, but it’s not enough to look at people systems only and expect your culture to change.


Several years ago, I worked with an organization where they located the functions of culture transformation and business excellence in the Human Resources department. The same organization also assigned a continuous improvement function and business planning within the Finance department. Sadly they did this without ensuring the business excellence and continuous improvement plans were driven from the same strategy. Unfortunately, the business wasn’t mature enough to have these functions separate. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the continuous improvement function, in people’s minds, became purely about financial efficiencies and cost-cutting, and business excellence was seen as an ‘HR training’ issue and mostly ignored ensuring both areas struggled.


I use this example because the culture in your business will suffer the same fate as the continuous improvement and business excellence functions did if treated only as a ‘people’ issue. It also demonstrates the need to have a clear and consistent strategy about the way your business functions.


My suggestion, based on many experiences in this field, is that if you are focused on culture transformation and change then, I would recommend setting up a temporary group (i.e., no longer than 5 years, no shorter than 2 years) to establish the future strategy, the way forward, and to start the process of implementing activities of change. This group should have members of the organisation who are equally passionate and skilled in the area of change management.


Also, I suggest if you don’t already have a senior change manager that is skilled in complex culture change. Then get one in. Either an employee or a consultant. Truthfully you’ll get more bang for your buck if you hire an expert consultant who can guide, train and lead the team with a focus on sustainability. 


Many great changes have occurred without this model in place. What they do normally have in common is a group of dedicated people (including the CEO and senior team) who lead the transformation closely. If you don’t think you’ve got the skills to do this. Get an expert to help you. If your car breaks down and you don’t have the skills to fix it you hire a mechanic without any loss of pride. Why does your culture deserve anything less than experts guiding hand?


Whether you choose to DIY or have someone manage your culture program for you, just remember that culture change is short term, but culture is enduring.  

And most importantly, don’t assume someone in your business has the skills to transform your business just because they appear passionate.


Passion + skills = results.  

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