By Gloria Lombardi

There’s a shift away from talking about productivity and efficiency, and towards experience, culture, and values – all while quietly using engagement as a proxy or codeword for productivity! Certainly, the future of work will be less about low-value administration (thanks to machine learning and automation) and more about quality products, services, and experiences.

Concerns about company performance often revolve around leadership styles and employee engagement – and then turn to culture. We may think of ‘culture’ as being ungraspably large, and yet grasp it we must. Intangible as it is, culture’s affect upon business success is very real. There are many ways to tackle culture change and, while culture may be an ever-shifting, almost living, thing, change practitioners believe it’s vital to invest in consciously shaping company culture.

James Murphy, of Engage International and founder of the Lotus Awards, speaks to MARGINALIA about the even bigger concept of the ‘business ecosystem’ and how a company’s culture and goals need to respond to the wider ecosystem’s direction. In this wide-ranging interview, Murphy extols the importance of innovation, sustainability, and delivering a great customer experience to create benefits for the business, for society, and for employees. Readers are invited to learn more about CISP (the Culture, Innovation, and Sustainability Project) and enter the Lotus Awards.

Gloria Lombardi: What do you mean by ‘business ecosystem’?

James Murphy: It’s a concept developed by James F. Moore in the ‘90s; essentially, it refers to the overarching community, made up of organisations and associated individuals, working to serve the customer within the very same community. Businesses may supply other businesses, and in turn be customers of others. It’s a holistic view of the supply chain, as a literal ecosystem. Moore suggested and found that many organisations within the ecosystem would align their goals with the bigger organisations, and organisations of all sizes would coevolve, almost as a singular organism.

It’s useful to keep the business ecosystem in mind when developing your strategy or planning market expansion. Even competitors can be within the same business ecosystem and just as your company may respond to their actions, they may respond to yours. Everything’s interrelated, interconnected, and to believe your company is some kind of self-contained entity is risky; no company is a closed-system, every organisation sits within a larger ecosystem, maybe more than one.

I think the concept can be taken further, to encompass society. There are lots of ways to segment society, to label and split people into groups and demographics – perhaps based on values, location, or background. But whatever groupings you use, I think you get a better sense of things when you look at them within a larger ecosystem.

GL: What’s sustainability got to do with the ecosystem and company success?

JM: Sustainability isn’t about carrying on and always doing the same things, it’s a process of change! Change is needed to bring resources, decisions, and goals into alignment to create better results – for the business, for society, and the environment.

Organisations will come and go, but society will continue. People’s needs will always need fulfilling, and different organisations will rise to serve them – to provide jobs and provide products and services. Sustainable developments support a harmonious ecosystem that cares for itself. Sure, the pendulum swings and there can be winners and losers, but it shouldn’t be a zero-sum game; there’s enough room for different types of ‘winning’ without the destruction of the environment, segments of the economy, or ‘losers’.

On the large scale, many countries are investing in renewable energy, and this has an affect on the country’s and the global economy, and upon society.

For hundreds of years, our use of coal and oil has damaged the environment, destroyed habitats. Now look at India; their population is growing massively, and they need a lot more power. India hasn’t used coal and oil for as long as the UK and the USA, so they aren’t responsible for environmental impacts in the same way. It’s cheaper to build coal power plants, but should Western countries help India with the technology, or investment, needed to get into renewable sources? Would investments in renewables protect the environment and grow the Indian economy? It’s a balancing act, of course.

I use this example, this quandary, when presenting about sustainability because Al Gore actually brokered a deal so that USA technology will support India’s renewable development so that India doesn’t have to invest so much money, and can avoid total reliance upon coal and oil power stations.

There’s the environmental, societal, and business ecosystem right there! Things worked out harmoniously to benefit everyone, even those not directly involved in the deal.

GL: How can people find their perfect job, in a company that suits their working style?

JM: The Japanese concept of ikigai helps uncover and direct your focus, your passion, and your reason for doing something.

It’s all relative; some people are satisfied to work for 4 to 8 hours a day for the pay check, and enjoy their home life. The job itself isn’t important to them, so long as they get what they need from it. Not everyone can have the ‘perfect’ job that inspires and engages them, and allows their talents and skills to flourish and benefit the company. But you can make sure people have a better time at work – making sure that individuals are treated fairly, shown respect, and offered equal opportunities for growth. Work can be mundane, but the work environment (as a whole I mean) can always be sustainable, even nurturing.

If you have the drive to seek your perfect job, you need to consider four things:

  •  What you’re good at
  •  What earns money
  •  What you love
  •  What the world needs.

You’re very lucky if you can find all four in one role, but you can find jobs that touch on all four to some extent – maybe you’re highly paid for your skills, but the outcomes don’t seem important, or maybe you’re supporting massive policy changes, but you don’t really enjoy the day-to-day politics.

I assume premier league footballers and astronauts feel they’ve hit the jackpot, but their roles are short-lived; there’s often compromise.

For anyone dissatisfied with their job, or at least feeling under-utilised or underappreciated, they can do more to round-out their life by volunteering, taking courses or training, or pouring passion into side projects. It’s up to the employer to make the workplace a more engaging experience, perhaps with arranged volunteering projects as part of CSR (corporate social responsibility) or a formal or informal route to self-development.

When what we do with our working day benefits the world, then we’re working in a sustainable manner – we’re working to support the societal / business ecosystem.

Maybe a less idealistic way to look at your job is by thinking about purpose.

Do you feel your job has a purpose? Organisations need to clearly communicate their overall purpose – their employee brand needs to express the meaningful nature of their goals.

Some people like and respect their company so much that they can find their meaningful purpose within even humble tasks and jobs – they understand that every cog in the machine, no matter how small, is needed. Other people need to love their actual role and may not be so attached to the company brand. And there’s a saying that ‘people don’t leave their company, they leave their manager’ and management style and team culture are so important.

Company purpose and culture go hand-in-hand to some respect, and culture is crucial to engagement, and engagement is part of culture. I think we’ve all learnt over the last couple of decades that engagement isn’t about gimmicks, it’s more about purpose, the whole employee experience, and respecting individuality. Yes, the workplace environment matters – beanbags may be a gimmick, but flexible working spaces that suit different working styles are important.

GL: How can organisations create a healthy, successful place to work, within the wider ecosystem?

JM: The design and support of a healthy organisational environment, within the larger ecosystem, starts with values. Communicating concise, clear values is important, but values must be lived, not only printed on posters or the read-once employee handbook. The workplace itself – the physical and digital workplace – should express the values; how people treat each other will clearly communicate values to new starters and visitors.

Culture is a fluid thing, and there will actually be multiple cultures within large organisations – those with divisions, directorates, or large departments. Culture will change and evolve over time in response to internal and external pressures, so it’s important to actively shape the culture, even while recognising that it can’t be modified with a flick of a switch. Leaders who invest in organisational design, in employee experience, in communication, in engagement, will get the culture they deserve. As will leaders who don’t!

All of these things – the sustainability of the business, the culture, the employee experience, the values – come together to create a more resilient organisation, and more adaptable and responsive organisation. Organisations need to be able to roll with the punches, to be agile enough when the bad times come. They need to enthusiastically focus on employee well-being, knowing that their ultimate goal is to serve customers better. Whether that’s consumers or other businesses within the ecosystem, it’s all about providing great experiences that have people coming back to buy from you time and again. If you don’t do all that, somebody else will; the business ecosystem will continue on, even if your business falters.

GL: Exactly how can organisations actively shape culture?

JM: We run the Culture, Innovation, and Sustainability Project (CISP) to inspire organisations to help create a more sustainable future for society, the economy, and the environment. The focus on culture, innovation, sustainability, and customer experience becomes a nascent framework to build better, more resilient and adaptable organisations.

Every organisation can uniquely express these four elements, and different organisations will have different priorities, but I believe all four must be addressed if the organisation is to be successful over the long-term.

Part of this requires a re-imagining of job roles. We need to understand a role’s impact on the whole organisation, through the lenses of culture, innovation, sustainability, and customer experience. Perhaps some roles are specialist, and will not contribute to all four, but I believe that all roles should be assessed against these four elements, as roles that contribute to all four are most valuable. Imagine front-line staff or call centre staff who are actively discouraged from innovating (by having their tools and time controlled) – this is counterproductive considering these staff are in a great position to understand customer frustrations and needs. Building roles around the four elements, rather than only tactical responsibilities, will transform the way we work.

We present Lotus Awards to recognise companies that value culture, innovation, sustainability, and customer experience – we hope our awards, and our ethos, inspires the conscious designing of healthy organisations.