A hell of a lot of what we do is about implementing “systems”; we want to help make our client’s company systems and processes slick.

But there is a legitimate (and killer) question we sometimes get asked and that’s “what wins – systems or culture?”

So, a bit like that Facebook relationship status, “it’s complicated” and I guess the first question we need to ask is what are systems and what is culture?  Just a quick search on google reveals the following definitions, both from Wikipedia.

What are systems?

“A system is a group of interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A system, surrounded and influenced by its environment, is described by its boundaries, structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning.”

So, in terms of company management systems, it’s the set of rules; policies, procedures, work instructions, standing orders, as well as its IT systems and processes.  All of which define and dictate the way in which the organisations work works.  And, as suggested by the definition, these aspects are all influenced by the environment in which the organisation operates.

Systems are about defining “what” is done.

What is culture?

“Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behaviour, institutions, and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups. Culture is often originated from or attributed to a specific region or location” (I would also add company or organisation)

So, if systems are about the “harder” component of defining and detailing what gets done, culture is about the “softer” aspects of your people’s beliefs, customs and behaviour’s.

Culture is about “how” things are done.

What influences systems and culture?

Probably the biggest influence is the rate of change in your environment.  If you are operating in a fast-paced, fast-changing environment some systems may be less beneficial because they will be corroding faster than an old Ford Cortina at a seaside scrap yard.  The more granular and constraining the systems are written, the quicker they will deteriorate.

But there will be components of any system that regardless of your external environment can, and should, be systematised.  Whilst your external environment might be rapidly changing it’s unlikely that your accounts processes, your purchasing processes or your recruitment processes are going to be changing to the same extent as your external world.

Systems are extraordinarily useful when work is repetitive.  This might include anything from running a call centre to flipping burgers, but in these extremes, it can make the human behind the system seem dispensable.  Simply remove the human and replace it with another one.  Just make sure that they can read and execute the instructions in the big thick instruction manual.  Even as “systems guys” (“guys” being both guys and gals, inclusive) we’d recognise that this is the demoralising end of systems which often results in the erosion of a constructive culture.

Conversely, the more volatility that needs to be responded to, or the more that creativity is needed or valued, the more systems become constrictive and, potentially, demoralising. 

The point is, there needs to be a balance and the balance will be different for different companies and environments. 

What aligns systems and culture?

There is a big hint in the systems definition as to what might unify the whole; in our case systems and culture, and that unifying mechanism; the touchstone for both systems and culture is the purpose of the organisation. 

Purpose is about “Why” things are done.

And by purpose we mean the benefits and capabilities delivered to the clients.  The question we need to ask is; What is it that the company is doing for the client that the client values?  The answer to that question provides the North Star at which the company ought to be aiming and all systems and processes need to align to that North Star.

The North Star also provides a guide to culture, if people are aligned to it there is significantly less need for systems simply because they know what the North Star is, so, they do right by the client, because the purpose is properly understood.


If systems were the key to every successful organisation, then the passport office, HMRC, the Department of Work and Pensions and a range of other bureaucratic organisations would provide us with shining examples of blistering success.  Clearly, they don’t.  These organisations have policies, procedures, work instructions and standing orders on steroids, and as many of you will have experienced these guys are great deal with?!  Not.

At the other extreme culture can be equally destructive and this sometimes labelled as “Toxic.” A toxic culture exists where the workplace is plagued by in-fighting, drama and demoralised staff to the point that productivity and the well-being of your people are affected.  For, hopefully understandable, legal reasons I don’t think it’s a good idea to document the names of companies or organisations that have exhibited toxic cultures.  Needless to say I’m sure most of us have heard about them in the news! 

Using systems to complement culture

So, there’s a blend of systems and culture that all organisations need.  And systems can be applied to component parts of the organisation.  We do a lot of work with organisations that need to recruit where recruitment processes are notoriously poor.  In many instances, simply because they are not systematised in any way.  The manager has been given no training in asking the right questions, people haven’t thought through the skills and competences required for the job, as a result of which, new people are recruited simply because the recruiting manager liked “cut of their jib”.  Three months later the company is back at the drawing board and, if the process is left too long, facing a wrongful dismissal claim because that’s a process that hasn’t been managed well either!  

Recruitment processes that aim to get people, of the right culture, into the organisation are ripe for systemisation.  In this instance, you systematise the acquisition of the people with the right cultural fit.  Components that can be effectively systematised include:

  • Writing the job description
  • Developing the job advert
  • Reviewing the CV’s
  • Undertaking a telephone interview to assess skills levels
  • Understanding learning preferences and team roles (prior to appointment)
  • Undertaking the face-to-face interviews to assess cultural fit
  • Appointment and induction
  • Training and development
  • Even managing the exit process

Implemented properly systems can save you a lot of money, time and, in the case of staff, even heartache.

One of my favourite management thinkers is a guy called John Seddon, he’s a professor of management and heads his consultancy company, Vanguard, big into public sector projects.  He’s got a degree and master’s degree in psychology, so he’s an occupational psychologist by trade.  In a past life, spent loads of time on “culture change and employee engagement” programmes.  He’s a Deming convert and (hopefully, I’m paraphrasing him correctly), he suggests that if you get the purpose right and engage people with it the “cultural change and employee engagement” programmes he previously delivered become completely redundant.

How does this fit with my management system?

The first line of the ISO 9001 management system standard talks about an organisation delivering on its purpose and, clearly any management system will have “systems” at its heart.

I can’t think that any of the ISO 9001, ISO 14001, ISO 27001 or ISO 45001 standards reference culture specifically but I’ve just done a search on the ISO 9004 guidance document and there are 33 references to culture!


I guess, as ever, the conclusion is probably … “everything in moderation.”

Focusing exclusively on either systems or culture is a mistake.  There needs to be a balance.  The balance is driven by events in your outside world which are often beyond your control. 

But the first step in the process would probably be to define your purpose, the benefits and capabilities you deliver to your client and that they value.

After which, the goal should be to master the inter-relationship between systems and culture help deliver on that aim.  This would require an iterative process whereby focusing on the purpose allows both systems and culture to be developed in unison.

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