A K.P.I. culture.

KPI’s. Key Performance Indicators. Things of beauty. Performance Indicators would not suffice, they had to be Key, no less.

We all came once across an ad or a discussion: “here at WeReSoGood, Inc. we have a KPI-oriented culture“. Darn, I don’t! Am I abnormal? Or should I have a culture-oriented KPI, Doctor? Let’s start from the beginning then: the real discussion is about the importance and interest of KPI’s in Corporatia, as opposed to good ol’culture. And first, let us define both terms.

A KPI is an objective, usually – but not exclusively – quantitative, assigned to a person or a group, within a given time frame. The usual “good practice” wants KPI’s to be precise, even better: S.M.A.R.T. They most often are, one way or another, a subset of the company objectives and are formally assessed at the end of the period they are valid for.

Corporate culture now, is vague and as wide a concept as a KPI is narrow. It is composed of “shared values and norms” which regulate interactions and define what are acceptable and less acceptable behaviors within a firm. And it stops there… In other words, it will lead somewhere, somehow, some day. How romantic!

And yet, everyone says they want to “change the culture”. Ah Maria, time to look and time to care! I can understand that. One of my beloved professors in school, in a galaxy far far away and a long long time ago, used to paint the following on the wall of our class-cave: “when a  manager is given a KPI, s/he starts managing the KPI and stops managing the business”.  Oh thou that teachest such valuable things to us, dear Professor, you disappeared after having come to class too early one day, before the tooth-saber tigers  had vacated and thus actively assisted in their  disembowelment workshop but still: let me sacrifice an ox to your wisdom!

This is where the difference lies between culture and KPI: a culture being a set of values, it is immune to a number of flaws KPI’s have. It comes with a wider meaning and a sense of purpose. It is larger than just the area of influence of the manager since it enables one to understand one’s action in a larger context. It therefore allows employees to be more autonomous in the absence of directive (even if we refer to a culture of execution. Tricky, but think about it…). It is shared and collaborative by definition: even individualist cultures include “unite and fight” as a rule against the outside threat (probably even more so than other more “we’re all a team, now time for our daily grouphug” cultures).

What is more, is that culture comes with three interesting properties KPI’s do not have: it is self-re-enforcing (the stronger… the stronger!), self-filtering (s/he who does not fit will not last. Culture filters out incompatible profiles) and is more accepted. Being permanently assessed by the peers – plural -, behaviors have consequences usually more accepted than the assessment of a single manager whose direct interest (read: bonus / budget / peace in the team at the time of the merit review and salary increase) usually depends on the few words s/he will speak during a yearly or semi-yearly 1-hour interview (If you do not believe in this, read Sartre again).

Not feeling sleepy yet? One more thing then: to know what the values are in your environment, ask yourself: what makes people walk tall in the company? Difficulties usually arise when the corporate static troubles the line. So do not pay attention to the USSR type of communications delivered to your brain at each Powerpoint get-together such as “we stand for human values” (hand on heart please and see how lips don’t sync… starts early eh?) but ask yourself who the people are whose advice is sought, whose careers are considered and whose names often come in the succession plans. They are quite often good embodiments of the mostest truest company values.

And I almost forgot: KPI’s and culture almost always oppose in the definitions we discussed. So if values that are “meant” to compose this corporate culture are rated in your company, you DO have a strong KPI… culture!  (It exists! “on a scale of 1 to 5, Mr X’s Integrity is 4.” Witnessed by your humble servant. Now, how is this rated? By whom? What are the definitions for 2 or 4: “hypocritical above average”? “Honest above average”? What’s average? And 3 is probably “midly honest & truthful”? Says who? Sublime. You were warned: they ARE amongst us!) 😉

One of these days we will discuss the interest of KPI’s (there is one), how companies forge a culture, and the interesting polysemy of the verb “to forge”.

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