03/12/2012 08:00 GMT | Updated 02/02/2013 05:12 GMT

The Elusive Giant: Company Culture and HR

When a storm is blowing outside you don't see the wind, but you certainly see its effects. The same can be said of corporate culture and its impact on your company. Just ask any of the international media or banking firms caught up in recent scandals over institutionalised criminality. At the root of these high-profile cases are failed organisational cultures and 'systematic dishonesty'. That unquantifiable, ever elusive, structural construct is at the heart of everything your company is and does. And what's more, its effects are truly tangible.

The concept of a corporate culture is nothing new. In 1966, Marvin Bower, from the global consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, famously described culture as "how we do things around here". However, the reality is slightly more complicated. A company's culture is made up of more than the behaviour and habits of its staff. It's more, too, than the values the organisation professes to uphold. Culture is an organic thing. It emerges slowly over time; the product of years of grassroots processes, structures and perspectives, until it becomes embedded into the very core of the organisation.

The culture that emerges within your company will determine your profits, your staff turnover, motivation, wellbeing, and reputation. And yet, culture is almost impossible to measure. If a system or process in your organisation isn't having the desired effect then you can remove or alter it to make it better. But culture runs far deeper than that, and it's much harder to appraise. However, although company culture is impossible to measure, it's not impossible to manage.

It's been my experience that the management community are central to driving the processes, perspectives and behaviours that compound the culture paradigm. If structures that allow managers to spread bad practice are addressed, and a best practice approach instilled, wayward managers are prevented from spreading a negative culture through the organisation. At Silent Edge, we find that if a manager has poor presentation skills, a lack of industry knowledge, or a lax approach to honesty, then the same qualities will be reflected in their team. That's why it's so important to embed a best practice approach. If staff are managed and assessed according to a universal set of objective, positive standards, then bad habits are unlikely to be transferred.

Another lesson that HR Directors can learn from the recent scandals is that it's absolutely vital to monitor the behaviour of every person within a team. Stand-alone interventions and training are one thing, but it's altogether more vital to be consistently vigilant; to observe the behaviour and approach of staff on an ongoing basis. This process of assessment must be a perpetual, unrelenting practice, embedded into the day-to-day running of the organisation.

One final observation regarding HR and company culture: almost every organisation in the world, from the Catholic church to the Society for the Protection of Donkeys, has a set of values or a mission statement. At Silent Edge, our company values are respect, honesty and passion. However, this statement of principles means nothing without the behaviour to back it up. If HR interventions are to build a positive company culture, then they must stimulate the behaviours that drive these values. Clarify the actions and approach that your organisation deems acceptable. Propose a code of conduct. Observe your staff. Enforce the appropriate behaviours. It's not enough to say "we are an open and honest company", you have to ensure that your staff's behaviour reflects your company's values, because if they don't, you might wind up in chaos, or in court.

The cultural anthropologist, Mary Douglas once said that "If you want to change the culture, you will have to start by changing the organization". A company culture is more than just the sum of its parts. But by addressing the systematic and structural processes that underscore the paradigm, HR initiatives have the potential to change company culture for the better. HR professionals are no strangers to the experience of being overlooked because of the unquantifiable nature of their impact. However, like the elusive giant that is company culture, HR has the power to influence every level of the organisation. The metaphorical storm can be managed; and by harnessing its power, HR can cultivate the perfect climate for their company to thrive.