My Twitterfeed has been getting a lot of retweets from Zappos, the US-based online shoe and clothing company now owned by Amazon. This is not surprising, since they have a very proactive policy towards social media. So I checked out the organisation and found that they not only sell goods, but they also ‘sell’ their organisational culture.
They have a whole set of web pages and a team dedicated to sharing their culture with the world, in a variety of ways. These include tours of their HQ, a three day short course (which they call a ‘boot camp’ because a strong element of their culture is their use of language), Q & A sessions with their leaders, subscription to online content from the Insights team , and outreach speakers for conferences and events. Hence the Insights team includes an ‘Events Samurai’, a ‘Culture Evangelist’, and an ‘Events and Tours Logistic Ninja’. You get the idea…
Now Zappos is not the first highly successful service organisation to do this kind of thing. Disney set up a very large department dedicated to sharing their culture and ethos with those that wanted to learn about the the Disney ‘magic’. So why do they do this? First, they do so confident that whoever comes along to their session will never actually be able to emulate them (remember this, since my next question is whether or not you can learn from these organisations). Second, it is in response to huge market demand, and it may provide an additional income stream, albeit small compared with the main business of the firm. Third, a cynic would say that it’s hubris. But finally, and this is the most important reason, it supports and strengthens the culture within the organisation. It helps reinforce the employees sense of well-being and loyalty if others are coming to learn what they do.
So do Zappos Insights clients benefit from their experience? Can organisational culture be learned? Their website states that you can learn ‘how to’, but I would suggest that it is only possible to learn ‘what’ they do – putting this into practice is a whole new ball game. Culture is complex and embedded in the individuals that work for the organisation. The external expressions of this may be fun job titles, zappy mission statements, and in-company libraries, but these grow within an organisation, they cannot be imported from outside. And leadership that cannot grow its own culture is unlikely to change its approach just from attending a ‘boot camp’.
It is also somewhat ironic that organisations want to learn from a company whose culture is so obviously ‘different’ (OTT?). It is rather like learning to drive a family car from a F1 racing driver – great to learn from a highly professional driver, but unlikely that you will ever be as skilled as he is.