Culture First Conference (Pt. 1)

Do you ever notice how challenging it can be to remember the detailed content of something you learned, even if you found it valuable? Earlier this week I spent 2 days at Culture Amp’s inaugural Culture First conference and while grateful for the experience as a whole, I know I won’t retain much of what I learned without some deliberate metabolization of that content. With that in mind, I’m going to selfishly provide (isn’t that a fun paradox) a written summary of my experiences and key insights from the event. Perhaps something will stick or spark for you!

Sunlit bay views and bountiful smiles among 750+ “people geeks” (mostly HR folks, though everyone is welcome) set the stage for inspired keynotes, breakout sessions and tech demos. Culture Amp is a SaaS company that provides a popular platform for businesses to survey employee feedback on measures of engagement and correlated business functions, such as management, diversity and inclusion, or specific initiatives. A good portion of the vendor space was devoted to demonstrations of the Culture Amp platform, showing off its 1.5 million responses from 1700 companies, and the capacity to compare one’s own data set to different industries and demographics.

What I learned over the two day conference falls nicely into two categories: 

  1. What was offered.
  2. What I gained. 

What was offered was the insights of others, primarily a few amazing keynote speakers, which I’ll describe in part two of this series.

What I gained was my own insight into the nuanced nature of organizational culture change, which is exactly what I was looking for. I’ll focus on that for the duration of this post.

My motivation for attending the conference (beyond networking and hearing great speakers - check, check), was to do some topological research into the “field” of culture change and culture development. I wanted to understand:

  • What do people mean when they use the word culture? 
  • Who’s talking about it? Who is it that cares?
  • Who has the capacity to do something about it? 
  • To what ends do we tinker? 

In this line of inquiry I felt somewhat undercover or of private agenda, as the conference and its attendees seemed for the most part to take for granted a shared understanding of the term. If I had to describe what it was everyone was there to talk about without using the word culture, I’d point to the concepts of engagement and well-being, especially in relation to organizational performance. This is in line with the Culture First event tagline written on the back of all of our badges: 

“A global movement towards a better workplace.”

Now contrast this shared assumption at the conference with an assumption I had going in.

The night before the conference I finished reading Ed and Peter Schein’s Organizational Culture and Leadership. Ed Schein’s definition of organizational culture remains the most compelling definition I’ve found so far, particularly because of its implications for diagnosing and facilitating meaningful cultural change, as opposed to a description of an organization’s culture for its own sake. 

“The culture of a group can be defined as the accumulated shared learning of that group as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration; which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, feel and behave in relation to those problems. This accumulated learning is a pattern of system of beliefs, values, and behavioral norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions and eventually drop out of awareness.”

Schein’s definition highlights the subconscious and utilitarian components of culture, and therefore suggests that culture change initiatives are not likely to succeed on the basis of rational argument alone. This definition therefore challenges what seems to be a central assumption of the conference: data can drive meaningful culture change. Can it?

At first glance, camp Culture Amp might say yes, probably acting under the assumption that people are rational agents. Camp Schein might say no, suggesting that data alone isn’t sufficient. A third camp of nuanced critical thinking, to which I try to belong, might say, “it depends” (tip of the hat to you, Dave). 

And what would it depend on? I’m writing a long, nerdy answer to that question which draws on original insights and multiple theories of change management in order to provide insights into managing the variables (including data) of culture change. In the meantime, I’ll cut to the obvious and less interesting conclusion in punchline format.

Data can help drive change, and, don’t stop at data. Al Adamsen said in his keynote, “data strategy precedes analytics strategy.” Let's not mistake correlation for causation, information for understanding, or action for effectiveness. Let's use data, not let it use us (I’m sure I can’t be the first person to say that…). 

What other insights and experience did I gain from the Culture First conference?

  1. People in this space are so kind! Great connections made.
  2. Aaron Dignan’s Mars 2100 simulation game gave me a visceral first hand experience of how tragic and how common the effects of rushed decision making can be. I’m convinced we all do this all the time, and I’m more motivated than ever to be an advocate for helping others slow. things. down. when it comes to big decisions.

Part 2 summarizes the insights from a great lineup of speakers including those of Adam Grant, Patty McCord, Lindsay Graham and other masters of their craft.