Understanding your organisation’s cultural DNA

By Laura Knight, Director of the IPSCJ

I recently had the pleasure of delivered a workshop at the latest Beech Centre Members Conference titled ‘Do you know your organisation’s cultural DNA?’, hosted by Leeds Teaching Hospital. This conference gave members of the Beech Centre – an organisation that provides organisational development consultancy, training and support – an opportunity to reflect on what they know about the cultural DNA of their organisations. Members include police forces, local authorities, hospitals, rail services and other public services, which enabled varied discussion and learning across sectors and contexts.

Having worked for Northamptonshire Police, Northamptonshire Police and Crime Commission and now for the collaboration across these organisations with the University of Northampton in various research, evaluation and policy roles, I have followed the organisational development journey of Northamptonshire Police for nearly a decade.

Over this time many different approaches have been taken to understanding the culture of the organisation, undertaking surveys, workshops, discussion groups, online forums and seminars. Working with Beech in 2013, an ‘organisational diagnostic’ was undertaken which critically assessed the strategy, structure, processes, people and culture of the force, providing a hugely insightful benchmark against which to consider strategy and development going forward.

In the context of continued change and growing opportunities to do things differently, police services nationally are considering collaborations, alliances, shared services and partnerships to deliver high quality and effective services. These considerations require new thinking, strategies and approaches to develop innovative operating models, deliver transformational change and bring people along the journey. Understanding the current cultural DNA of these organisations is vital to undertaking these activities well and to successful delivery of public services in the future.

In workshops I encouraged colleagues to consider the information they already have access to. Beyond specific staff surveys, helpful as they are, there is generally a wealth of information readily available which provides cultural insight.

For example, evaluations of service delivery, needs assessments, gap analysis, cost-benefit analysis of services or processes, reviews and wider exploratory research. The ‘why’ questions across existing assessment work will almost always point to the cultural DNA of the organisation, explaining where the decisions are ‘really’ taken and by who, what the ‘real’ motivators behind performance are, what the ‘personality’ of the organisation is and how the ‘way we do things’ becomes ingrained in new recruits.

For policing, the majority of this DNA is replicated nationally and has survived for several decades. Identifying the positive and helpful DNA and ensuring its continued replication is just as important as identifying those faulty, unhelpful genes and ceasing their journey forward.

Generating interest and buy-in to the concept of cultural DNA and organisational development across ranks and staff roles in policing can be a challenge. In the main the service is fast paced and a 24/7 operation, the culture is very pragmatic, risk and solution focused.

This way of thinking and approaching challenges permeates through the rank structure which can induce a rapid decision making process that is wholly appropriate when dealing with front end service delivery issues, but can make long-term organisational development approaches difficult to embed.

Using Robert Dilt’s model of neurological levels, we worked through the layers of thinking that impact on the performance at the individual or organisational level: from environment, behaviours, capabilities, values, identity through to overall mission. Assessing aspects of these layers of thinking that have held strong over long periods of time or through particularly challenging and changing times, highlights the organisational DNA.

Perceptions of policing as a vocation have changed very little since the current model of policing was implemented in the early 1800s. Similarly, the command and control approach to structure, processes and people has changed very little too. These constants impact significantly on the development of the organisation and its ability to change, meet new demands and flex to delivering different roles and services as part of wider public service reform.

The national agenda to increase the role of citizens in policing, through an increased Special Constabulary of voluntary warranted officers and more broadly through increased volunteering roles and public engagement, highlights the need to understand policing organisations in-depth.

In order to radically shift both the delivery of, and public understanding of, new operating models in which volunteers deliver a significant and high proportion of policing activities, insight into how to maintain the positive DNA and lose the negatives is vital.

As work develops in the organisational transformation research network of the East Midlands Policing Academic Collaboration (EMPAC), I will continue to update on ideas and challenges of organisational development and culture in policing.