JoAnn Hackos, PhD, Comtech Services, Inc.


In a January 2008 article in the Harvard Management Update, authors Paul Meehan, Darrell Rigby, and Paul Rogers offer a challenge to managers.

“Strategy matters, sure. But without a winning culture to drive it forward, your strategy’s taking you nowhere.”

Clearly, as a publications manager today you are looking for an effective strategy to increase the value your organization provides to your company. You are actively addressing many truly daunting issues:

  • How do I make my organization more efficient and productive?
  • How do I reduce the costs of publishing content by using content management, topic-based authoring, XML, and so on?
  • How do I reduce translation costs and improve the timeliness of content in multiple languages?
  • How do I manage a virtual, global team without affecting the quality of the work?

As you know, this list could be much longer. Our new strategies call for significant organizational change. That change must take place on a foundation of departmental culture. Unfortunately, sometimes we find that the existing culture is itself part of the problem. Changing the culture of our organization may be a major sticking point to achieving our strategy for business success.

What is your department’s culture?

According to Meehan et al., a winning culture has two key characteristics:

  • a unique personality based on shared values and priorities
  • a set of sanctioned behaviors that result in “customer-focused actions and bottom-line results”

If we look at a typical technical publications department, we might find a set of shared values and priorities like the ones I frequently hear from managers.

“We always meet our deadlines. That’s clearly our number one priority.”

“We make certain that all the new features and functions of the products are represented in the documentation.”

“We follow well-established authoring guidelines and editorial standards.”

Few of you would disagree with these statements. But consider—do they reflect a set of behaviors that facilitates a new way of developing and delivering customer-focused content? A customer-focused culture would include statements that place high priority on understanding what users need from technical content. A culture that values minimalism would stress reducing unnecessary content over documenting every feature and function. A culture aware of the need to reduce costs would be talking about eliminating redundant work and measuring productivity.

Audit your department’s real culture

To get to the bottom of a possible mismatch between your actual culture and what you want it to become, conduct a “culture audit.” The authors recommend having one-to-one conversations with all or most of your team members. In the conversations, focus on what each person believes is most important about his or her role in the department and the company as a whole. Listen for the language, the words that people use to describe what is most important or most satisfying to them about their jobs.

When we conduct IPMM audits (the Information Process Maturity Model), we do just that—engage most if not all the team members in individual, confidential conversations. In many cases, we find that the team members are not attuned to their managers’ goals and priorities. They speak strongly about the real culture embedded in the organization, one that strongly resonates with values such as hard work, tools knowledge, and good writing skills. In too few instances do we hear about reducing content volume, focusing on real customer needs, or ensuring that content is genuinely providing value. They meet their deadlines, they’re conscientious, they’re hard working, and they don’t know why others don’t see the value of their work.

Your audit might find, like Gail Kelly did, that her bank employees were “friendly, out-going, and service-oriented, but they weren’t comfortable talking to customers about additional products or collaborating across departments.” Kelly had to put in place a process to change the culture to one in which every employee participated in selling products to customers that would truly benefit their financial well-being. She was trying to make everyone aware of their responsibility for the bank’s and the customers’ success.

Build a new, more effective culture

Once you have ferreted out the real culture of your organization, you will know what you have to work on. Building a new culture is not easy and may not be successful without a lot of careful thought and effort.

Once again, the authors call for individual conversations. You need to assess every team member’s commitment to a new strategy. You need to help them understand how their everyday behaviors and attitudes make a difference. One of the most effective methods is to model the new behaviors yourself and ensure that your key influencers do the same. You also need to identify potential naysayers and decide how to influence them to change or reduce their influence among the team members.

Work with your team to precisely identify the culture you want in your organization. If you want to be customer-focused, be certain that customer contacts have first priority, that time is set aside for customer meetings or phone calls, that the results are carefully analyzed and turned into immediate action. If you want your organization to focus on increasing productivity, create a collaborative structure that requires team members to work together to define common content and find opportunities to reduce work that adds little value to the end product.

Develop a roadmap

As you plan for a cultural change, create a roadmap with measurable review points. The change roadmap must be carefully specified, defining what each step will produce both in terms of deliverables and new behaviors. If you want to increase customer focus, develop a set of activities and monitor them carefully. If you allow people to miss their commitments because they’re too busy meeting their deadlines (their first priority and true culture), you’ll never get the change you want.

Use the roadmap to establish individual objectives for each team member and make those objectives count on periodic reviews. Tie personal performance to successful completion of the new activities and a demonstration of the new behaviors that you want in place.

Cultural change is necessary, but it’s not easy

Many publications departments today are undergoing changes in strategy. These changes are necessitated by a changing business climate that requires reduced costs, increased productivity, and more successful servicing of customers needs. For publications departments, the changes mean new tools, new techniques for writing and managing content, greater awareness of translation challenges, and more. Making these strategies really work and producing measurable business results requires cultural change.

Publications managers often tell us that their current culture does not match their future strategy. The program I recommend includes these necessary actions:

  • carefully audit your present culture
  • identify the strengths and weaknesses of each team member
  • specify the changes in behaviors and priorities that your new strategy requires
  • develop a roadmap for change and measure each team member’s performance
  • model the behaviors and ensure that key influencers do the same
  • weed out behaviors that undermine the new culture you are trying to build
  • measure the team’s success in changing and celebrate

Throughout the process, you must keep the momentum going and communicate the goals and new behaviors more times than you think possible. As part of your communication plan, build excitement about the future and what you expect will happen when you meet your goals. Recognize those who are successfully adapting and use them as examples for everyone else.

Don’t expect a cultural change to happen immediately. But recognize that now is the time to start on the road to making one happen. Read the article in the January 2008 edition of the Harvard Management Update, “Creating and Sustaining a Winning Culture.” Reprint # U0801C.