Healthy Organizational Cultures with Gary David, PhD, Bentley University

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The following was transcribed from a recent interview on The Agile Brand with Greg Kihlström podcast. 

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Today we’re going to talk about experience design from a systems perspective and what creates a healthy organizational culture. To help me discuss this topic, I’d like to welcome Gary David, Professor of Sociology, Information Design, and Corporate Communication at Bentley University.

[Greg Kihlström]  Let’s start by talking about experience and relationship between customer and then employee experience, which we haven’t quite touched on yet. But how would you define this relationship between that customer and the employee experience?

There’s a really nice book, an older book now, that I reference quite a bit, and it’s called “The Customer Comes Second.” And I just did a talk on how to identify employee gifts and capabilities. And I reference this book. And one of the responses and the feedback was from an attendee who was very uncomfortable with this formulation of the customer coming second because we’re always taught the customer comes first. But in reality your employees need to be your first customer. And if your employees aren’t not just happy or engaged but if you’re not designing experiences with your employees in mind, the customer experience is going to suffer, OK?

And so if you focus on the employee experience first, the customer experience can benefit from that focus. And so they’re really closely connected. And this goes back into the systems framework, right, that companies often treat experiences as siloed, user experience as separate from customer experience, as separate from employee experience, from digital, from brand, from et cetera. I focused on what I call integrated experience design, or how to align these experience channels in a strategic way so that they’re not working against each other. And especially around employee and customer, you’ve really got to focus on this employee experience to allow the customer experience to take off, right? But if it doesn’t start with the employees, you’re going to have a harder time moving the customer experience.

Can you have a good customer experience without good employee experience?

I guess it depends on how you define good, right? I mean, is it good enough? Is it good enough to keep them coming back? So there’s a lot of variables involved there. And one of the frustrating things about talking to a sociologist is the number of times we say “It depends.” And I tell my students, you know, “Every time I say ‘It depends,’ drink.” And then by the time you’re either going to be very well hydrated or very intoxicated, depending upon what you’re drinking right? Well, it depends. It depends how much are you paying me right now. No, I’m joking – only a little bit. You know, it really does depend on what’s good enough, and good versus great. And is “good enough” good enough?

I mean, you might be good enough, but is it going to be great? And is it going to be a key differentiator between you and your competitors? And going to the Pine and Gilmore work about competing on the ground of experiences, good enough might not be enough, especially as people up their game. And so it might be good enough for now. But it’s not going to be good enough for tomorrow. And so companies need to be thinking strategically and proactively around what it means to be good enough and how to do better in that space, especially around the employee experience as a starting point.

The tomorrow aspect is a key part to me. I think you can probably get something really good for a very short period of time because everybody’s trained and everybody’s at least somewhat motivated. But it’s sustainability of customer experience that really matters. If you have turnover because employees are disengaged or unmotivated, you’re not going to have a good customer experience. If your processes aren’t good from the start, again, you may have great customer experience one week or one month, but then it all kind of goes to hell after things shake out.

And I’m working on a book right now with the co-host of my podcast “Experience By Design,” and the book is called “Experience By Design.” And we’re writing a chapter on expectations. And I don’t think expectations get enough attention. And so it’s hard to evaluate “good enough” without first considering what the expectations are. And one of the classic examples of this is something like, you know, spirit, right? My expectations might be low, and this is part of the expectation-setting of the organization that they’re like, you know, “Don’t expect too much.” And one of my mottos actually goes back to a song by I think it was the Gin Blossoms, where the lyric goes, “If you don’t expect too much from me, you might not be let down.” And so there’s a lesson to be learned there, not that we should set a low bar but that we, in terms of looking at perception of interactions, we also have to layer in there expectations, and how do we build expectations into our experience design to let our customers know what they might expect and also understand what our customers expect, and not just expect from ourselves or our competitors but connected spaces.

And so if I’m renewing my driver’s license online or if I’m doing something online, I’m not just expecting what I expect from the government for my driver’s license but I know how good Amazon does it, or I know how good someone else does it on an online space, so my expectations are going to bleed over into this other engagement, into this other interactional experience space and influence what my takeaway is from that. And so it gets into this very complex kind of experience-design environment that companies can often feel overwhelmed by, but I think part of our job as experience designers is to help those companies translate that complexity into action, so that they don’t feel overwhelmed by it but they can actually approach it from a proactive standpoint.

That’s a good segue to my next question. You talk about experience design from a systems perspective. What does that mean to you?

Well, for me as a sociologist, we’re trained to think in systems. And so take for example user experience. And I’ve been teaching our Ux program for a long time now, and we have a really great UX program at Bentley University. And often UX approaches the topic from what’s called an HCI model, or human-computer interaction. It’s often cognitivistic and individualistic. We’re testing how a person interacts with an interface. So the unit of analysis is the individual and their mental approach to it, to the interface, to the design, to the task, right?

There’s another approach. It’s called the computer-supported cooperative work approach. And this came out of Scandinavia in the 1990s. And this looks at the embeddedness of technology in an organization. Anybody who’s used a technology in an organization like an enterprise system knows that it’s not just how you interact with the technology but it’s how you’re interacting with the organization through the technology and how that technology might support or inhibit collaborative work and communication with other people in the organization. And so there’s layers of considerations going on. So that’s just, like, one example of a systems perspective. Another one, I was talking with a person in the patient experience space earlier today, and patient experience really doesn’t capture the complexity of what health care institutions are trying to accomplish because it’s not just patients. There are clinicians of various kinds. There are caregivers. There are insurance agencies. There are employers. There are government, regulatory agencies, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. All of those different players have a vested interest in this healthcare space. 

So really the patient experience is about a much larger healthcare experience. One of the things I get my students to do and, when I consult, I get my clients to think about is elevating experiences. What’s the experience ecosystem that you’re operating in? So it’s not just about the customer as a touchpoint but it’s in a broader environment that this thing is taking place in, and how do we kind of map that out and think about that complexity, think about that system so we understand the forces that are influencing and impacting what we’re trying to achieve. 

Let’s switch gears a little bit here and talk about organizational culture and its evolution over time. So there’s healthy and unhealthy cultures. But in addition, there are also vastly different cultures from organization to organization that aren’t necessarily good or bad, just different, right? How can a leader know the difference between healthy and unhealthy and just different?

It’s a really great question because there’s not a clean answer to it. But I do think this is where, again, something like a sociology approach or an anthropological approach – I just came back from the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings that were in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I know both disciplines, sociology, anthropology. We study culture. This is what we do. We often do it from what would be called an ethnographic perspective, so we’re trying to understand the culture as a lived experience. And so it’s hard to extract the lived experience of culture simply from a quantitative dashboard, not that that can’t be a piece of the puzzle in our understanding, but it doesn’t provide us with all the answers of what that lived experience looks like. And so I think it’s really important for any leader to get out from behind the corner office and to really have trusted basically communication streams into their world. 

You know, just as a segue here, as a different topic, one of the things with Russia in the Ukraine right now is that Vladimir Putin didn’t have good information about the reality of the Ukraine because his advisors would only tell him things he wanted to hear. Well, you’re going to get into a lot of trouble, clearly, if that’s the world in which you live. And so you really need to have those lines of communication that incorporate multiple data streams, qualitative and quantitative, in order to get the more multidimensional understanding of what that culture might look like and also all the different aspects of culture, you know, so whether it is beliefs, whether it is practices, whether it is symbols, whether it is storytelling that’s being done by people in the organization, et cetera, all of those things are part of culture. And a good leader, in their attempts to understand culture, needs to have an understanding of what those things are in the organization.

To make it even more complex, there are shifts over time, too, right? So again, not only is culture not necessarily good or bad but also a company may need a different kind of culture. You know, a startup that’s six months old may need a different culture than a 16-year-old company. So, from your perspective, what are the things that maybe should shift in that older organization or over time, and what are things that may be counted as losses if they disappear?

That’s funny, I wrote a blog at my consulting website,, if anybody wants to see it. And it was on basically what I called “reboarding.” And, you know, we talk about onboarding; we talk about offboarding. Well, what about reboarding? What about rekindling the fire that employees and organizations have for each other 10, five, 10, 15 years in? And I actually related it to a marriage. And, you know, when a relationship is brand-new, it’s all exciting and engaging. And you’re infatuated with the whole thing. And then maybe at the very end, you just want it to be over. You know? There’s another line from another song. We’re just going to pull out song lyrics. It’s by Amy Mann, “What started out with such excitement would gladly end in, you know, with relief.” So it’s like, let’s just get it done with. But, you know, before it gets to that point, how do you rekindle the engagement? And I think that, not just for organizations that are 16 years old or older, but if you’ve been with an organization for a certain length of time, how do you reconnect with each other? And I don’t think any attention, or much attention, is given to that. There’s so much attention given to the newness, and there’s more attention being given to the end stage. But that middle part, there’s a lot of opportunity there to re-engage, to not lose that excitement, to repurpose the relationship, to almost renew the organizational vows to each other, so that you can identify what you still like about each other. And if what you liked before is no longer sustaining, right, the newness, the excitement, how do we reinvigorate that? And so almost thinking about organizational relationship counselors and thinking about coming in with that kind of approach, you know, couples therapy between employees and organizations, to try to think about what did we lose? How do we recapture that? And this is part of, when I do this inventory assets, or accepting the gifts that employees bring to the workplace, that’s part of that effort, to really appreciating what each other has to contribute to one another so that you can make that connection work once again.

We’ve talked a bit about how things can shift; there’s a lot of diversity within what works at one org may not work at another. How do you measure healthy culture then? What are the metrics that might go into determining that?

There’s a lot out there. Andi Simon, who is a business anthropologist, wrote this great book, and I’m looking at my bookshelf because the name is escaping me right now, but Andi Simon, A-N-D-I, wrote a great book, and they talk about a survey from the University of Michigan that could be used for measuring organizational culture. There’s a lot out there, right, and that’s fine. I mean, I design surveys. I’ve done surveys. I’m not a big survey person, because I think surveys can be indicators of something, but they can also indicate just how people take surveys, right? So it might just be an indicator of that. 

As I tell my students, crime statistics have nothing to do with how much crime is committed and has everything to do with how police report crime. It’s a very different thing. I developed a class that was called Data, Context, and Information. And the point of it is, to make data into information, you need to add context. And if you’re just relying on a survey or this dashboard, you really have to understand the context in which that data is created, not that it can’t be useful, but, on its own, you should use it at your own peril or at your own risk. This is where developing multi-methodological, or what we would call triangulating, using different data measurement touchpoints to develop a better understanding of what’s going on in an organization. 

For example, I was talking with this organization that was experiencing a lot of change because they were hiring a lot of people. And I asked, “Well, how many remember when stories are being told?” And they’re like, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Well, you know, people who have been here for a while start saying, ‘Hey, remember when, you know, the organization just started and it was like this? Remember when we used to be at that other place?’ Or ‘Remember when it was just, like, the 10 of us?’” And they’re like, “Oh, yeah, people talk about that all the time.” And I said, “Are you capturing that? What are those stories about? Are they about, you know, how far we’ve come in a happy way? Are they talking about it in a way that’s like ‘Remember when things were so much better?’ And how can you capture that to basically socialize the new people into the culture that you’re trying to create?” So even something like narrative can be a really important metric, if you know how to analyze it. And part of what I teach, and when I do consulting work I do it on my own, is analyzing the qualitative data you have all around you but you don’t know how to leverage. And that can be really valuable information because people might share it, just unconsciously. It’s just out there in the cultural space, and the organizations don’t know how to capture it, analyze it, and then turn it into actionable information to then build healthier cultures around.

About the Guest

From Gary:

As a certified applied and clinical sociologist, I use a systems approach to generate analytical insights, design solutions, and create client value.

As an instructor, consultant, and facilitator, I have worked with companies across sectors in achieving a contextually-based experience design strategy, developing community-based approaches to achieve distributed work, and identified opportunities for and barriers to organizational cultural change.

Research and instruction specialization in:

Ethnographic and qualitative studies of work,

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Achieving collaboration in distributed teams

Experience design

Forensic linguistics and applied conversation analysis

Organizational cultural inventory and change

Over 20 years of instructional experience across a range of audiences, including: undergraduates, MBAs, master’s program in UX, professional associations, non-profit organizations, and for-profit businesses.

About the Host, Greg Kihlström

Greg Kihlstrom is a best selling author, speaker, and entrepreneur and host of The Agile Brand podcast. He has worked with some of the world’s leading organizations on customer experience, employee experience, and digital transformation initiatives, both before and after selling his award-winning digital experience agency, Carousel30, in 2017.  Currently, he is Principal and Chief Strategist at GK5A. He has worked with some of the world’s top brands, including AOL, Choice Hotels, Coca-Cola, Dell, FedEx, GEICO, Marriott, MTV, Starbucks, Toyota and VMware. He currently serves on the University of Richmond’s Customer Experience Advisory Board, was the founding Chair of the American Advertising Federation’s National Innovation Committee, and served on the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Marketing Mentorship Advisory Board.  Greg is Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified, and holds a certification in Business Agility from ICP-BAF. 


Posted by Greg Kihlström

Best-selling author, speaker, consultant and advisor. Principal at GK5A.

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