“The only thing worse than learning from experience is not learning from experience.” – Unknown
I’ve been in Waikiki for the last two weeks taking some time out for some rest and relaxation. Hawaii is our travel destination of choice for those times when we need to chill out and just enjoy lazy days of shopping, swimming, eating and drinking. It’s far enough away from Australia for us to enjoy and experience another culture but also close enough to home (only a 10 hour flight). However, many other Australians share the same idea judging by how many of them are here.
Last night, we went to Germaine’s Luau. Leaving aside all the kitschy, touristy elements of this event which showcases the tradition of the luau – a feast where people gather to enjoy a meal, the event was somewhat educational. Of course, at these events meant to show tourists some elements of the folklore, traditions and culture of the island together mingled with an ‘all you can eat’ buffet meal and ‘three free drinks’, you can see enough culture from the audience later on in the night after a few Mai Tais.
But all joking aside, there was one part of the show that made my ears prick up. The MC had invited an audience member to the stage to learn the hula dance by a buxom wahine (woman). Of course, to make it interesting for the audience, he threw in various innuendos much to the amusement of everyone there but at one stage he turned to the young man chosen and explained that he was going to learn how to dance a traditional dance from the Hawaiian culture.
He said, “After all, culture cannot be learned, it has to be experienced.”
He then went on to say, “Hawaiians did not have a written language and the way people learned was through observation and actually doing.”
“Just observing, doing, practice and through stories,” he added.
This has been an interesting observation of my time here learning how the Hawaiians passed on their traditions and folklore over generations despite the many different cultures living in Hawaii today. Story telling was an important way to ensure that the Hawaiian wisdom and knowledge of the land was continued through the generations so that they could continue to take care of the oceans and natural resources on the islands.
It got me thinking about organisational life today especially when many organisations implement cultural and change programs which invariably fail.
Is what he said correct? “Culture cannot be learned, it has to be experienced”.
The Business Dictionary defines Organisational Culture a the “values and behaviours that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organisation. It includes an organisation’s expectations, experiences, philosophy and values that hold it together and is expressed in its self-image, inner workings, interactions with the outside world and future expectations. It is based on shared attitudes, beliefs, customs and written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time and considered valid”.
When I think about the culture – I also think of my own heritage and values. I was born in Australia to parents who migrated from Greece. Despite attending Australian schools and having a relaxed lifestyle that blended both worlds, I grew up surrounded by Greek customs, traditions, religion, food and language. Now, I connect with others who have shared a similar experiences as I had.
At times when I had some difficulty in my life, such as being away from home for extended periods of time, it was meeting people who came from a similar background to me to ground and reconnect me. I felt I was ‘home’.
Similarly, a few days ago, we took the elevator down to the hotel lobby and the doors opened to many uniformed Naval officers, Lieutenants and Lieutenant Commanders sitting in the reception area waiting for check in. As I walked slowly through the lobby, I looked at their insignia and spotted Royal Navy, Brunei and United States Navy (I was searching for the Aussies). I was sure they were here for the upcoming major exercise RIMPAC which will commence later this month. I had a tinge of nostalgia maybe even jealousy – I could have been one of them sitting there.
Instantly, I felt the same connection to them because I had share in the past, I had the same experiences.
Once again, I felt I was ‘home’.
I wore the same uniform, I wore the same rank, I worked with the same Navies, I behaved in the way the organisation wanted me to behave, I understood innately what was happening. The unexpressed and unwritten connection once again that meant that we had shared a similar cultural experience.
Would you feel ‘at home’, an instant connection with the organisation you work for?
Why do senior leaders lament they can’t create an organisational culture? Is it the hierarchial structure at fault or is it something else?
I have been through many cultural change initiatives in organisations but frankly, I can’t remember them. They failed to make a memorable impact and connect me with the key messages. Many of them had fancy words, slogans and catch phrases (one I do remember was, “Change is Goodness“) that promised much but delivered little. More often than not, I saw our own organisational leaders not practice the behaviours they espoused (different rules for different people which eroded trust, loyalty and respect) and it left the message vacuous leaving me disengaged or apathetic towards any change initiative.
Also, all of the cultural change initiatives involved waves of mass registrations to presentations and workshops delivered by external vendors where we were trained on how to behave and how our performance was aligned to the behaviours expected.
So maybe this MC at Germaine’s luau was right? Culture can’t be learned – it has to be experienced.
Maybe it’s time to stop enforced cultural change programs and instead, get people to start talking and sharing.
Using social networks and tools that will allow them to share their knowledge and build upon their networks so that they can align their own passions to the organisational purpose; to narrate their work so that everyone can see how their small part of the organisational puzzle fits in with the broader strategy and shared purpose.
What do you think?