We often talk about culture as a source of sustained competitive advantage (see Jay Barney’s article on the topic). I have run a great exercise where I send students on an artifact hunt through the business school to identify strengths and weaknesses in the school culture. Students present and analyze their artifacts and we discuss the implications for the competitiveness of the school. The next class explores the levers or impact points one would use to influence the culture. A final class might explore the implications of this for managing strategic change. The time this takes may make it better for a strategy elective but I am using it in my core class this semester.
Here is a bit more detail on how the exercise is run:
- Introduction to artifact hunt assignment. I typically show students this video of Disney (starting at the 3 minute point) along with the table on the first page of the <Artifact Hunt Worksheet>. This helps them understand what an artifact is. They use the 2nd page of the worksheet to collect and analyze their artifacts. This explains the types of artifacts such as objects, role models, stories, ceremonies, or language.
- Presentation/Analysis of artifacts. At the next class, students analyze the norms, values, and beliefs, associated with each artifact and present them to class (typically 1 per team until a clear picture of the culture emerges). I encourage a range of artifact types and a balance of strengths and weaknesses. This discussion takes time but is quite informative both for students and the instructor. I have had students bring people into the class as artifacts — I tell them that is fine (can be fun) but only for positive role models.
- Levers to change the culture. The next class is a discussion of the steps that would be appropriate for each lever (a modified strategy star). It is good to emphasize that some steps are the responsibility of the administration, others are the responsibility of the faculty, and finally some can only be implemented by the students (perhaps the most powerful ones?). Here is a link to some slides that may be useful in describing the levers (Corporate Culture slides).
- Capabilities and competitive advantage. The final class in the sequence begins by discussing change (linked to the issues raised in the exercise) and then moves to the RBV and why some resources (like culture) are hard to imitate. As a ruse, I often tell the students I am implementing a grading change to influence the culture (as rewards are an important lever). Predictably, students will get worked up about the change and argue against it. That leads nicely into a discussion of why change is so hard to implement.
- Organizational change ruse. I often follow this with the org change ruse exercise. The artifact hunt identifies things that students want to change so it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate how they would resist those very changes if you try to introduce them in the middle of a semester.
I have generally invited the Dean in to class to respond to the issues raised. A good Dean would benefit from the kind of analysis that results from this exercise and could even find some positive symbolic actions to take. Be careful about Deans who may get defensive about the negatives that emerge. That can really end the exercise on a sour note…
Contributed by Russ Coff