Feature

Culture through the looking glass


Transformation might spin everything on its head, but firms have to get to grips with it

Words by Daniel Cave | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Daniel Cave


Design by Matt Bonnar

Alice through the Looking Glass and What She Found There might not be as famous as its predecessor Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but Lewis Carroll’s fourth literary work does hold a few, perhaps surprising, lessons for HR.

This is because Through the Looking Glass is, in essence, a novel about transformation. The book begins with Alice, slightly older than her Adventures in Wonderland years, stepping through a mirror into a world where everything is literally transformed: images, logic and movement are all reversed.

Alice struggles with some of the chaos that this transformation causes – existing in a world where everyone moves like a ‘come-to-life’ chess piece and the idea that running fast might help you remain stationary. In many ways, the young girl’s grappling with a new landscape is much like HR’s as they deal with wholesale business transformation.

That is because these days HR is now operating on a business landscape that can sometimes feel like it has been flipped on its head. The world is now digital first and employee centric – with new rules for data utilisation and protection, employee engagement, and even where employees might work.

Yet, this shouldn’t be surprising. As Phil Sproston, Country Manager UK & Ireland at Top Employers Institute (UK) told HR Grapevine: “The current agenda for HR is dominated by the need for business transformation.” However, the need to action this can be difficult. “Effectively, it means changing an organisation from top to bottom,” Sproston added.

Even if organisations might at first struggle with change, much like Alice does in Carroll’s novel, Sproston continues that “adapting to change is not a luxury, but an essential requirement.” To find out what this means in practise, Top Employers Institute, a firm who certify employer excellence, has conducted research on this topic.

Whilst business change might not include Mad Hatters, Red Queens or beastly JabberWocky’s, the Top Employers Institute found that firms who were transforming in the right way were moving towards having a more transparent culture, embraced uncertainty and away from silos. As Top Employers lay out, functions can no longer confine themselves to being interested in a single operation – much like those ‘come-to-life’ chess pieces did in Carroll’s magical story.

Furthermore, those firms that have been certified as top employers were found to be putting transformational values into practise and letting culture drive and inform change. Nearly all defined and communicated organisation-wide values and 93% translated desired behaviours and values into action. 98% were found to be leaders in ethical integrity too.

HEINEKEN are one firm who are meeting this era of change head on . Guided by core values, they are ensuring that all transformation is steered by how it might align with company culture and the people that work at the firm.

Rather than let transformation ride roughshod over company culture, Nicola Bowsher, Head of Change and Operations at HEINEKEN UK Limited explained that “[they] believe that how we do things – in our words our culture – is our most important organisational enabler.”

In fact, the firm has recently launched a new employer branding campaign Go Places 2.0 designed to transform the profile of person that they recruit. Rather than casting aside current employees, incumbent staff are at the centre of a campaign to illustrate company culture as well as what success looks like at the firm. “Our core values, behaviours and what we stand for – as an organisation, as an employer, as key player in society – guide, shape and influence our plans,” Bowsher added.

Experian are another firm putting culture front and centre of future success as they face what Rachel Duncan, Head of Reward & Wellbeing, UK&I and EMEA at the credit reporting firm described as “a rapidly changing technology landscape”.

She continued: “At Experian we believe culture is a fundamental enabler to our future success. Over the past nine months we have worked to develop a shared language for understanding culture and individual style as well as creating awareness of the role leadership plays in driving culture change and in developing individual commitments.

“To maintain our position as a market leader, we need to continuously innovate, relying on a culture fit-for-purpose to propel and sustain our strategic endeavours.” At Experian, they follow a model which puts culture at the centre of transformation. This follows a three-step plan, broken down into explore, align, and activate steps. Firstly, Experian assess what their current culture is like and see how it could be impacted by new strategy. They then see how culture and strategy could align and finally develop a cultural programme that would allow culture and strategy to work hand-in-hand to bring about transformation.

And whilst HEINEKEN and Experian are just two examples of how culture can work hand-in-hand with strategy, even boosting it, to ensure a firm is fit for this age of transformation, they are not the only ones out there. There are countless models to do it right, but all involve understanding how culture can drive change. Understanding your culture means that you don’t end up like the White Rabbit in Carroll’s first Alice story – chasing your tail, terrified by change, and kowtowing to leaders who might not be making the best decisions. Therefore, for better transformation, the lesson is clear: listen to your culture.


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