Breaking Out of the “Old” HR: Maybe It’s Time For Culture Development

Human Resources has a reputation for being a department of policy enforcers.

While it might seem intuitive that the role of HR would be to serve the employee as a customer, this isn’t usually the reality. Instead, HR is most often seen as being responsible for protecting the interests of the business — sometimes at the expense of the employee.

According to Anita Grantham, VP of Culture Development at Infusionsoft, “HR is where dreams go to die.” So why is it that even in companies fully committed to culture HR is seen as a necessary evil?

As organizations continue to outsource the payroll and benefits function of HR and the trend toward organizational culture driving performance and engagement continues, it makes sense to assign a team to focus specifically on Culture Development.

What is Culture Development?

When employees know where they fit into the growth and success of the company they work for, the result is high engagement and shared purpose. A Culture Development team would be responsible for facilitating this alignment while enabling the growth of both the organization and its employees. This team acts in an organizational development capacity, but with a focus squarely on serving employees as a strategy for driving engagement.

Basic functions of a Culture Development department might include:

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  • Talent Acquisition: For culture driven organizations, culture fit is a top priority when hiring new employees. It’s important to have someone on the job passionate about the company culture and willing to explore unique and innovative ways to vet talent.
  • Leadership Development: If Culture Development is responsible for enabling growth, someone needs to design the progression curriculum so employees have a clear understanding of what they need to do in order to grow within the organization.
  • Personal Development: Zappos employs a full-time life coach to help employees achieve their goals. Infusionsoft has a “Dream Manager.” The idea is to have someone on staff to help employees achieve personal goals, which communicates that the employees’ goals have value to the organization as a whole.
  • Environment and facilities: While the work environment is not the determining factor in whether or not a company has a great culture, environment can play a significant factor. It makes sense that if Culture Development is in service to the employee as a customer, the team would be responsible for creating a positive work-space experience that incorporates the company values.
  • Culture Evangelism: No culture development team would be complete without someone to document the culture, communicate what the team is doing and how these initiatives fit into the larger strategy for the company.

Not a function of Finance and Admin

You might be tempted to stick the Culture Development team under the F&A umbrella, but this would be operating under the old HR paradigm. By its very nature, F&A is risk averse. It wants to save as much money as possible. This thinking means that employees are still seen as expenses rather than assets.

Instead, making Culture Development a function of corporate development could create a strong alliance between the heart and head of an organization. It also indicates a strong commitment to culture as a strategy for driving the growth of the organization.

With the right leadership, this alliance can enable the team to operate with some autonomy and allows room for strategic risk-taking.

Kimberlee Morrison also writes frequently on the Infusionsoft Culture Corner blog. 


21 Comments on “Breaking Out of the “Old” HR: Maybe It’s Time For Culture Development

    1. @google-b4667331aab55e9b45d3e2aed9056038:disqus I don’t know that businesses are confused. But the truth is that a business isn’t really a business if it doesn’t make money. So the challenge is finding the right balance. Businesses that effectively balance the heart and wallet hopefully achieve success while recognizing the great value employees create.

  1. Great article Kimberlee! I almost cried at the words “HR is where dreams go to die”!! Oh my! I love your emphasis on engagement, after all, without your people to champion your goals, what have you got? Not too darn much I’d say. I used to work in HR – really hope it evolves.

  2. I think that the challenge that HR is facing lies in their ability to influence the leaders of their organisation. The reality is that the business is the one paying the salary of HR professionals and the business should be the first customer of HR. However, the HR purpose has to evolve from “doing for the business” to “influencing the business”. HR needs to influence the leaders and managers in adopting the right practices and making the decision that will build that culture. The main issue is that most business are so focused on short term profitability that they make decision that are counter productive from an HR perspective, and instead of standing their grounds and build their case, HR executes. HR professionals really have to step up their game and start talking in business terms to sell their ideas and influence their leaders.

  3. I appreciate your honest perspective regarding the Human Resource industry. I am currently in the mist of a career transition and this article was very I sightful. In my experience, it is most important for anyone in management to establish a balance between what is best for the company and what is best for the employee. There are time when we need to decide which battles to fight and which to compromise. In any case, it is imperative to develop a trust with the employees regarding your decision-making skills. In order to gain this trust, one must show diligence in making unbias decision after a thorough evaluation of all the factors. The idea of a Culture Development team has been proven to improve the overall morale and productivity of the company. When the company values the growth of their employees, the employees are motivated to show their appreciation and loyalty to the company through hard work. Overall a impactful message! Thank you.

    1. As a senior manager, my experience is that, “the balance,” which sometimes can be a fine line, is what most HR departments lack.

  4. Wow! Great article! This really gave me some things to think about. I am currently pursuing a BA in Organizational Management and have been on the fence about whether I auld keep my focus in Human Resources, or begin entertaining other options. This article gives me some things to really think about.

  5. Great emergent thinking, I agree totally…..just wanted to make the point though, that it is easy to forget the extent to which HR administration processes impact on the employment experience of an individual, therefore impact engagement and cultural development efforts. If the two functions aren’t connected, the risk is the great culture development work never quite sticks because F&A (and “Old HR”) generally will drive a transactional solution to HR processes. I’d support and applaud those who are going this way, but would advise the to proceed with caution as this model requires considerable insight and awareness from the F&A leaders on how systems and processes “touch” the employee experience.

  6. As companies start hiring people to do Culture Development, I think it’s important to realize that the skills & personality of a great “old HR” employee are vastly different from the skills & personality of someone who is good at Culture Development. It always amazes me that so many companies expect their employee development/OD staff to rise up through the ranks of HR when they should be looking for a completely different type of person.

  7. Bravo! Human Resources as a function is still in its infancy and must continue to focus on continuous improvement. This kind of strategic thinking – these kind of new ideas- are what will shape the future of employment as a positive force in peoples lives. Where one half of the HR function should rightfully remain in the risk adverse conservative faction of a firm, one half should as well break trail in high risk-high reward territory. (A People Capital Laboratory). KUDOS FOR THIS FUTURIST THINKING!

  8. This “corporate culture” stuff might seem warm and fuzzy but what about the reality of the work place. It’s not a culture, it’s a place I go to make money. All the jargon and clever buzz words may work in some environments but, not all. Emergency service workers,shift workers, construction workers and those who don’t inhabit an office cubicle are generally uninterested in “cultural evangelism”. I’m an older worker and have little use for HR tactics designed to make HR persons look wonderful at the cost of the grunts who actually do the work. I’d prefer less “cultural” BS in the workplace and more pragmatism. I don’t want to be “engineered” by some “dream manager” who’s half my age with far less real life experience.
    I work efficiently and generally exceed what my job requires and in turn, I receive pay for said work. Why complicate such a simple arrangement ?

    1. @70ce62c5101d3775a7fc800eeddae38b:disqus sure we work to earn money but the environment in which we work affects productivity. And I contend that articulated or not, every company/business has a culture. This article is about the intentional shaping/guiding of the culture as part of business strategy. When culture is applied as strategy it’s not about “warm and fuzzy” but rather how the values (usually the foundation of the intentional culture) are put into action to achieve business results. We don’t want people to feel like grunts, we want them to feel like they have value as individuals and that their work is connected to the company mission.

      The model of Culture Development might not fit into every organization, nor is it intended to. It is simply an option for companies that choose to employ culture as part of their business strategy.

  9. “New HR” also spends time keeping up to date on laws and how they can move the needle on the bottom line. With the breadth of the FMLA and ADA, many HR Departments are looking into conflict management and ADR mechanisms to assist supervisors with issues relating to interpersonal frictions/issues, successful reorganizations, and performance management – the things that may contribute to an employee’s stress-levels becoming sufficiently severe to result in a serious health condition or diagnosis.

    Relatedly, EAP programs are more commonly including mediation or ADR services within them, but these EAP’s often do not cover “family mediation” services such as divorce mediation and/or elder and long-term care mediation services. It continues to surprise me that more HR leaders don’t forge relationships with local or regional mediation firms who offer family mediation services. Stresses of the home-front often bleed into the workplace, why not promote awareness of these tools over more training and legal oversight of the “performance improvement plan” for a distracted employee?

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