HRCI Leads by Example with Culture and Agile Transformation

Many studies highlight the need to focus on culture transformation to improve effectiveness. In the 2021 Deloitte Human Capital Trends survey, HR professionals identified “building an organizational culture that celebrates growth, adaptability, and resilience” as the most important action to transform work. Unfortunately, the journey to transform culture is challenging and rarely includes strategies, plans, and measures that bring clarity to the specific work involved.

The Human Resources Certification Institute® (HRCI®), headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, is the premier credentialing and learning organization for the human resources profession. Dr. Amy Dufrane, CEO of HRCI recognized the potential impact and value of culture transformation when a change in a strategic relationship crystallized the genesis of a new HRCI business model. The HRCI journey includes many learning examples for HR professionals and leaders regarding intentional and effective culture change.

hrci human & technological capability

Understanding the Ideal Culture

Amy stated, “as an organization we recognized the need to be clear about our culture and identify opportunities to target where we could evolve or improve.” In 2017, HRCI decided to use comprehensive culture and climate assessments from Human Synergistics. Jim Lewis, SPHR, GPHR, Human Synergistics accredited practitioner and HRCI Board member, brought the tools to HRCI. Using the Ideal form of the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI), senior leaders defined the behaviors and mindset that “should be expected” to make HRCI a sustainably high-performing organization. Leaders indicated a strong preference for norms for Constructive styles and related behaviors that promote effective goal setting, growth and learning, creativity and collaboration. Leaders did not value the Aggressive/Defensive styles assessed by the OCI that emphasize promoting one’s status and security via task-related behaviors; nor did they value the Passive/Defensive styles that implicitly require interacting with others in self-protective ways and maintaining one’s personal security.1

Organizational Culture Inventory® – Measures of Values and Norms

hrci oci values and norms

Understanding the Current Culture

All team members were asked to complete the Organizational Culture Inventory® and describe what was actually expected or required to fit in at HRCI. Their responses were aggregated and reported back in a manner that provided a language to discuss  the relative strength of the various behavioral norms, expectations or “unwritten rules” in the current culture. Some evidence of shared expectations for the Passive/Defensive behaviors–particularly in terms of the avoidant and dependent styles–were evident and reflected the belief that people should push decisions upward, take few chances, and avoid confrontations. Moderate expectations for the Aggressive/Defensive styles were also evident, especially the Perfectionistic Style in terms of keeping on top of everything and never making a mistake. Unfortunately, expectations for the Constructive Styles were weak in some areas, especially the Self-Actualizing style in terms of communicating ideas and thinking in unique and independent ways.

A culture disconnect was confirmed. The day-to-day norms (the organization’s operating culture or current culture) differed from, or were out of alignment with, its values (represented by the ideal culture). This occurs when certain structures, systems, characteristics of jobs, and leadership approaches found in the work climate (and built up over an organization’s history) are inconsistent with and/or run counter to stated values.

Understanding the Current Work Climate

Most organizations do not differentiate between measuring the work climate and culture as they administer engagement, great place to work, or other assessments that measure only the former. These surveys may be useful but typically measure only a fraction of the systems, structures, and leadership approaches reinforcing the current culture. HRCI team members completed the Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI), a comprehensive climate survey administered with the culture survey, to measure 31 causal factors or “levers for change,” and 12 outcomes, including satisfaction, motivation, quality, and adaptability. The results for most of the causal factors were around the historical average, but eight were substantially lower, including employee involvement, empowerment, respect for members, and upward communication. Five of 12 outcomes were significantly below the historical average, including role clarity, satisfaction, organization-level quality, and external adaptability.

Providing Context-History

It is easier to connect the dots and make sense of the current culture if you understand and consider the history. Long-service HRCI team members identified many strengths that helped with change efforts. Team members consistently exhibited high integrity and ethics, loyalty, and dedication. They also were caring, friendly, collaborative, and supportive to the level where you could turn to anyone for help. The sense of “everyone pitching in” was in some ways a blessing and a curse because there were many culture challenges that endured, including trying to do too many things, pivoting often, and moving fast to the point where things could fall through the cracks.

Charting a Path Forward

At the same time the business model was quickly changing, the Board and Executive Leadership Team focused on evolving the vision and strategy. Amy emphasized the importance of having a growth mindset and recognized that some strategies might not work out. A cross-functional Culture Club led efforts to support HRCI values and remove barriers to advancing the culture.

Improvements covered five major areas:

  1. Increased strategic connection with customers and team members – A CEO hrci team outdoorAdvisory Council played an important role in influencing major strategies and plans. Customer feedback drove new products and HRCI created many resources to educate and provide value, including expanded certifications, online courses, podcasts, and webinars. Team member and customer feedback informed the definition of a comprehensive VSEM (Vision, Strategy, Execution, and Metrics) framework.
  2. Consistent measurement and language for culture and levers for change in the work climate – The HRCI team now had a clear understanding of their values, the gap relative to the norms or expectations driving the behavior of team members, and the levers in the work climate that were contributing to this gap.
  3. Increased emphasis on structured involvement, cross-functional teams, and recognition – HRCI formed not only the Culture Club but many other cross-functional teams as well, fostering a sense of inclusion and ownership with significant strategies and plans. They empowered teams to take action, obtain support from executive leadership, and provide updates to all team members. HRCI added employee recognition mechanisms (including a prominent employee recognition board in the office) and increased team and department events throughout the year. A “kudos” section was added to Town Hall meetings where team members could recognize above and beyond accomplishments by their colleagues.
  4. Open, consistent, and transparent communication from leadership – This area of focus underpinned many change efforts. Amy shared weekly (yes, weekly!) “CEO messages” with all team members. HR, IT, and Marketing provided weekly updates, and Executive Leadership led town halls to foster two-way communication. They emphasized encouraging a safe environment for positive conflict and problem-solving.
  5. Introduced Agile to bring structure to many projects – Agile is a good fit for HRCI and the HR field. Amy explains, “our customer is HR, and it changes constantly. Agility is at the center of what’s needed in HR, and we need to be at least as agile as our clients.” They started with a small group and a DevOps team. The work expanded to include training the entire organization on utilizing Agile. They launched additional teams that moved quickly and kept people informed along the way.

These five areas stood out, but improvement efforts expanded far beyond. Culture change is not for the faint of heart, and no short list of improvements will do justice to the work involved. Additional enhancements included:

  • Defining a revised set of values and expected behaviors,
  • Assessing and developing individuals and teams with a special emphasis on developing leaders that are listeners and communicators,
  • Implementing a new performance appraisal system,
  • Implementing new hire and orientation systems. There was a focus on filling open positions with intent, especially leadership roles, to support their values and ideal culture, and
  • Forming a Happy Squad to coordinate fun activities.

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Confirming Progress and Continuing the Journey

In 2019, HRCI took the critical step of remeasuring the culture and climate with the OCI/OEI surveys. They confirmed their culture was evolving in a constructive direction. All four Constructive styles increased by at least 20 percentiles. The Humanistic-Encouraging style increased by 39 percentiles, including stronger expectations to encourage others, help others grow and develop, and resolve conflicts constructively. All eight Defensive styles decreased by at least 15 percentiles. The Oppositional style dropped by 37 percentiles, including weaker expectations to oppose things indirectly, be hard to impress, and oppose new ideas.

The levers for cultural change and outcomes, as re-assessed by the OEI climate survey, also improved substantially. 19 of 31 levers for change that influence and reinforce the current culture improved by at least 25 percentiles, including articulation of mission, involvement, empowerment, respect for members, downward communication, and upward communication.

10 of 12 outcomes improved by at least 20 percentiles, including role clarity, satisfaction, stress (reduced stress), organization-level quality, and external adaptability. HRCI had the discipline to refine their improvements to the work climate based on a clear understanding of the underlying culture, ultimately influencing outcomes for individuals, teams, and the overall organization.

hrci culture-climate change v4

The chart above highlights the scope of the transformation and its impact on both culture and outcomes. The HRCI team shared the results in a town hall meeting and targeted additional improvements to continue their Constructive culture journey. The story could end there, but 2020 was a year when all cultures would be tested.

Culture Fuels a Major Business Pivot

Like most organizations, HRCI was dramatically impacted by the pandemic as test centers closed and the team pivoted to remote work. HRCI has a history of changing quickly, but this time the systems and culture had evolved to a place that helped with the shift.

Frequent and open communication continued, the workforce transitioned to consistent use of Microsoft Teams, and Agile teams supported major changes like implementing online proctoring and a new learning platform. Team members provided positive feedback about how leadership supported many shifts without blaming or finger-pointing.

It was a challenging time, and HRCI did not take the importance of culture for granted. They were one of the first users of the unique Culture Mirror from Human Synergistics. It’s  not a measure of culture but rather a brief survey about emerging patterns of behavior (during crises such as the pandemic) and outcomes related to teamwork and adaptability. 

Amy shared her thinking about the decision to proceed with the Culture Mirror. “We were disconnected physically, and we needed to understand if we digressed. We focused on areas we had worked so hard to improve upon, and we didn’t want to slip backwards.”

The Culture Mirror results confirmed some emerging constructive patterns of behavior were stronger than the cultural norms reported in their last survey and were helping with the changes, especially Self-Actualizing behaviors related to communicating ideas and thinking in unique and independent ways (two of the weakest constructive norms in the 2017 survey). Some defensive patterns of behavior were weaker (better) than at the time of the last culture survey, especially Conventional behaviors related to accepting the status quo and casting aside solutions that seem risky or different. Team members also reported improved results for outcomes related to teamwork and external adaptability.

hrci teamwork & adaptability v4

Amy summed up how the Constructive culture foundation built before the pandemic enabled her team to deal with tremendous change. “There is no way we would have been able to adapt as quickly as we did if we had not invested the time to understand and evolve our culture collectively.”

The Impact – HRCI and the HR Industry

The Constructive culture journey at HRCI has positively influenced business results in many ways. Customer net promotor scores improved, recertification rates improved, and learning product sales exceeded growth targets.  It is notable that HRCI was able to remain profitable during the pandemic because they had the mechanisms in place to be agile and pivot swiftly.    

The impact of a Constructive culture does not end within the walls of an organization. HRCI has a significant impact on the HR field. More than 500,000 HR professionals have earned certifications from HRCI, including certification holders in more than 125  countries. Nevertheless, the journey to improve the HRCI culture is not over.

It will require regular attention to support the HRCI mission: “We enable people and organizations to discover, develop, and demonstrate their fullest potential through innovative learning and certification in the ever-evolving world of HR.” Amy stated, “We cannot constructively impact the culture of the HR industry without continuing to evolve the HRCI culture. The only way we will maximize our impact is if we continue to be intentional and progressive with our culture, strategy, and improvement plans.”

Learning from the HRCI Journey

There are many lessons learned from the HRCI journey that serve as a guide for others:

  1. Be clear about your vision, strategy for improvement, and why culture will play a role in maximizing impact.
  2. Understand your current culture and climate through a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Go beyond traditional climate surveys (engagement, great workplace, etc.) and understand aspects of the culture itself, like values and norms, and why they are so deeply entrenched.
  3. Use team-based approaches to engage all levels in the improvement process, including the board and all members.hrci team approach
  4. Implement teams, systems, and structures that support creativity and innovation (like Agile) but supplement them with improvements in other areas that impact culture. Many organizations may depend on Agile, Lean, or another improvement approach without understanding culture and what’s necessary to evolve it with intent.
  5. Implement communication habits to stay on the same page and highlight when changes to plans are needed. Communicate frequently and openly up and down the organization.
  6. Clarify expectations for leaders and fill open positions with the intent to support your values and ideal culture. Culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin.
  7. Measure progress to confirm how the culture and climate are evolving and inform the next phase of improvement. Maintain this discipline despite competing priorities and significant disruptions.

Are you managing an intentional culture and performance improvement journey? Use our 12-Question Culture and Performance Challenge to understand if your current approach is covering basic culture assessment and change best practices.

Editor’s Notes:
To support shared-learning with your CEO and top HR leaders, consider these references:

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1 The Constructive, Passive/Defensive, and Aggressive/Defensive cultural styles discussed here are adapted from R. A. Cooke and J. Clayton Lafferty, Organizational Culture Inventory®, Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics. The current and ideal norms describing these styles are survey items from the Organizational Culture Inventory (copyright 1987) and are used by the author with permission.

About the Author

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Tim Kuppler

Faculty Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and former Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field where he led collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society. Currently with the Compass culture division of the staffing powerhouse, Insight Global, Tim authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm and is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Tim's 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts.