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Inheriting a culture

Source: Public Sector Executive April/May 2014

Josie Cluer, public sector lead at transformation consultancy Moorhouse, discusses the challenges in building a unified working culture when the public and private sectors are forced to mesh together.

The government’s public service reform agenda is driving an increase in outsourcing. The highest profile examples of this are the Department for Work and Pension’s Work Programme and the Ministry of Justice’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme.

In some cases, where a private or third sector provider wins a contract, the staff are ‘TUPE’d across’ to the provider organisation: transferred to the new organisation on the same terms and conditions as they were in the public sector. HR professionals will have many detailed issues to work through (such as pensions, staff consultation, union relations and job matching) but leaders and managers face enormous people challenges too.

Given the purpose of outsourcing is usually to improve performance (often whilst reducing cost), it is critical to get the new team
delivering to full capacity as quickly as possible. This is dependent on building a unified culture which everyone in the new organisation shares and which binds the new team together. But developing a culture is easier said than done. What lessons can be learnt from organisations who have been successful?

1. Understand where your team is starting from

Organisations in the public and private sector often have very different cultures. Many people have only ever worked in one sector and can regard the other as alien. These preconceptions are often built on lack of knowledge or experience. People from both sides will come with suspicion of their new colleagues with different backgrounds. Alas, the attitude such as ‘the public sector is slow, bloated and full of bureaucracy’ is as lazy and outdated as ‘the private sector is focused on profit and targets and doesn’t care about the end user’.

It can be helpful to explore and understand the prevailing cultures in the organisations which are coming together openly and honestly. Diagnostic tools can be used to identify similarities and differences so managers and leaders can identify potential rubbing points and synergies. It also gives team members an opportunity to discuss and articulate the features (both positive and negative) of their cultural norms.

2. Prioritise culture as part of the integration

If culture is ‘the way things are done around here’, all new teams will develop a culture, whether consciously or not. Because organisational culture can have such a profound impact on performance, it is worth deliberately defining and shaping the culture which best meets the business needs of the service being provided, rather than letting it develop on its own.

It can be likened to a flowerbed: the flowers will grow – albeit in a haphazard way whatever you do – but there will be a prettier view if time is spent planning what it should look like and tending the flowers as they grow. Culture is the same. For top performance, the cultural equivalent of gardening could include running workshops to explore and articulate what the new team would like the new culture to be, developing a values statement, and regularly taking stock of how the culture is developing. For example, one new team from different backgrounds spent time developing a shared set of values and displayed them on the wall.

3. Make turning culture into behaviour everyone’s job

Building a culture can seem ‘fluffy’, and all leaders face the challenge of translating their ambitions into reality. Everyone has a role to play. Of course, leaders must lead, and provide visible commitment to building the culture for the service.

But the role of middle managers is often overlooked: they actually set the tone for their teams, as they are the ones whose behaviours and actions are on show most of the time. They have more opportunity to demonstrate the practical application of the culture day to day.

So they must be equipped to do so. This is all too rare, and time should be taken to help middle managers who lack the skills or confidence to challenge poor behaviour or actions that could hinder the desired culture.

Finally, leaders are not always the most senior people in the organisation. Everyone knows the junior staff who are well-respected amongst their peers and whose opinions hold sway.

Positioning these people as ‘cultural champions’ or similar can help translate values into behaviours and keep a focus on building the culture.

In the complicated process of integrating new staff into an organisation, developing culture can seem like a side issue, but the investment will pay off, both in terms of the performance of the transitioning services and staff satisfaction.


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