Both contemporary engagement surveys and culture surveys share a common emphasis on the use of pre-existing models or (proprietary) frameworks, benchmark comparisons or norms, and simple linear analytics to identify areas where increased management attention should be given in efforts to drive culture change. However, problems exist with this commonly used approach to survey development and analysis.


First, the measured attributes or dimensions are derived from a perspective of what is commonly important across many organizations. The result is that unique attributes are either considered in isolation or as appendages without any corresponding frame of reference. It’s not the lack of benchmark data that’s the issue. Rather, it’s that the profile of organizational attributes should be studied as a complete pattern – how the various dimensions or attributes dynamically interact as a description of the organizational culture.


Second, there is an over-reliance on benchmark results. In fact, some consultancies only provide scores that are normative and are therefore standardized to a baseline comparison group. On the surface this seems appropriate and useful as leaders want to know how their organizations compare to those with the best reputations, be it with respect to financial outcomes or employee value proposition. Now there’s nothing wrong with comparing one’s organization to some kind of standard. But what often gets lost is that the source of competitive advantage may reside in not the specific highs or lows, but the pattern or combination of those highs and lows. Normative scoring on individual dimensions precludes any analysis of profile patterns and how those patterns are linked to organizational performance.  


Third, commonly used key driver analyses used to determine the most important levers of change treat these attributes together but do not consider their interaction. These approaches are inherently focused on the relative weighting of individual dimensions rather than on identifying the important combinations.


This is not to say that there are not certain qualities or attributes that seem obviously related to success, but rather that there are different combinations of those attributes that matter more. Normative scoring and simple linear analytics can take our focus away from the recipe for success as the right mix of attributes, just as the combination of ingredients in a recipe can define what makes the dish spectacular. Missing a small pinch of this or that may not be a minor loss.  


A related point here is that an effort to drive culture change along a single strategic dimension of interest may only be successful if that focus works in the context of the other attributes that define the organization’s culture and are aligned with the organization’s purpose. For example, an overarching focus on customer service can become internally counterproductive when the necessary components of internal support and collaboration are missing. The lack of results and even negative impact on team cohesion can leave both leaders and front-line employees scratching their heads as to why such an obviously important focus could lead to such poor results.


In the end, culture engineering requires attention to the simultaneous interplay of many organizational facets. Simple analytic efforts and the resulting prescriptions may be misleading.