Should Human Resources manage the organisational culture?

November 8, 2018 |  Leave your thoughts

Charles Handy defined culture simply as the way we do things around here, but if you look at Edgar Schein’s definition it becomes clear how encompassing culture is in the organisation:

Culture is a pattern of shared tacit assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. [1]

But even though culture is so significant, in many organisations, no-one takes specific responsibility for managing culture. Someone in HR may have culture as part of their portfolio, but mostly they will only do a cultural survey from time to time and engage with external consultants when a change management effort is required.

The topic is further compilated by discussions on who should “own” the culture and whether ownership is equal to management.

The answer is that the leaders in an organisation should own the culture. As much as they are responsible for deciding the strategy and vision of the organisation, they need to decide the cultural direction of the organisation and lead changes to it.

But leaders are not able to undertake the daily management of culture in an organisation because of their responsibilities. So, even though they play a critical role in deciding on the right direction for the culture and in establishing and leading the culture, someone else needs to take on the management of culture.

Culture is predominantly about beliefs and behaviours and it is therefore aligned to fields of study of HR practitioners. Therefore, HR is in a good position to take responsibility for the management or governance of culture under the direction of the CEO.

In many organisations, there is a recognition that culture should form part of HR’s responsibilities and HR departments are now often referred to People and Culture even though there is very little focus on culture.

HR has traditionally not had a strong understanding of organisational culture and many HR departments are ineffective in this sphere. This has led some experts to advise against HR being involved in managing culture.

Culture does not change in a “one and done” event, nor is it something you can relegate to your Human Resources department. From long years of experience, we know that the leadership team must shoulder the responsibility of shifting culture.

It is obvious that leadership should play a key role in cultural change, but someone needs to undertake the work associated with managing culture and we believe this responsibility sits with HR.

In recent years, some organisations have appointed a Chief Culture Officer (CCO) and Forbes describes the role of the CCO in the following way:

“Their job is to cultivate a strong culture, especially as business and employee needs cause the culture to evolve.”

In 2006, Google hired Stacy Sullivan as Chief Culture Officer, and the C-Suite was changed forever. Her sole duty was to keep a watchful eye on culture and was revolutionary at the time. [4] Since Stacy’s appointment, increasingly more organisations are seeing value in appointing a CCO.

Most CCOs do have a strong HR background, but some exposure to marketing and business operations is also valuable in the position. Usually appointing a CCO only happens when organisations have developed a sophisticated and mature understanding of the working and impact of culture.

To get to this point, someone must take up the mantle and Human Resources is best placed to do so. However, this requires that HR develops the knowledge and skills to undertake this responsibility.

As a member of the HR team, make sure that you develop the necessary skills to support the company in managing culture by joining us on Thursday, 22 November 2018 for our Getting to Grips with Organisational Culture course.

Click here for more information.


[1] Schein, Edgar H. The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (J-B Warren Bennis Series) (p. 27). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

[2] Connors, Roger. Change the Culture, Change the Game: The Breakthrough Strategy for Energizing Your Organization and Creating Accountability for Results (Kindle Locations 372-373). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.




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