“What makes your company unique?” I asked at a workshop Consulus was conducting for a client company.

After a period of awkward silence someone softly said, “Our commitment to quality.”

“So how did you nurture that within the company?” I asked. Again my question was met with awkward silence. The men and women in the room might be some of the most brilliant engineers around, but when it came to the question of organisational culture, they were stumped.

This same scene happens over and over again at engineering companies throughout Asia. How is it that engineering companies are so adept at solving the most complex problems but tend to get stuck when it comes to building corporate cultures? The trouble is that these firms do not approach brand culture development like an engineering problem. If they did, it would be a much more effective process.

Different view, different results

For many engineers in Asia, organisational culture is a vague concept. It is hard to see and difficult to measure. The mere mention of the phrase will have their eyes glazing over with disinterest. Yet in most of the engineering companies that we serve, it is the absence of an organised system of beliefs and practices that results in inefficiency, lack of collaboration and resource wastage. The frustration is real for these companies. They can see the problems, but they are unable to solve them on their own.

The truth is that many engineering firms in Asia believe that organisational culture is something they can live without so long as they continue to deliver quality work. Although Asia now provides the bulk of engineering projects, the lead engineering firms are still from the West since they have stronger track records, specialised methodologies and technology. Asian firms are happy doing the implementation work and not investing on developing their own intellectual property through a unique brand culture.

Unique culture and engineering leadership

It’s a pity that too few Asian engineering firms see brand culture development as a means of rising up in the value chain. If you look more closely into the practices of the world’s leading engineering companies, you’ll see an obvious link between unique culture and engineering leadership. GE would never have become the giant it is today, if it did not have a clear code of beliefs, distinct training practices and a leadership institute such as Crotonville.

Although Asian engineering firms have the skills to deliver and the intellectual capacity to craft feasible solutions, they spend far less time codifying their know-how and coaching others within the firm. This creates knowledge gaps when veterans leave.

Build like an engineer

The solution to these issues is to build organisational culture like an engineer. We have used the following approach in client companies and found that it works:

1. Define the root of the problem
As with any engineering problem, research and data gathering are essential to finding a solution. Seeing the business problems in terms of numbers and statistics makes it easier for engineering firms to connect with the issues at hand. One CEO told me that they have always been aware of the problems in the company, but having all the data put together and shown through statistics made it easier to point out the problems at hand. The research data not only helps in determining the root causes of the problem but also shows them where to start in building a tangible action plan.

2. Focus on tangible results
After the problems are identified, steer clear of half-baked solutions that stop at the conceptual level. When we build purpose models for our client companies, we take pains to clarify all concepts and plan how to implement them at the individual, departmental and organisational levels. When CEOs say that their companies lack a unique culture, what it usually means is that they have yet to develop and implement a complete system that defines what every person in the company needs to do in order to achieve the right type of performance.

3. Link behavior with performance
Companies that are serious about building a culture that can drive performance should focus on nurturing and recognising leadership within the company. It’s not just about rewarding people when they meet certain targets but also about promoting people who have exhibited the right behaviors. When there is no system to reward desired behavior with career advancement, the organisational culture falls apart.

4. Create useful practices
When staff are asked to suggest action plans to improve company culture, they usually suggest family outings and company dinners. While there is nothing wrong with these suggestions, those types of events do little to build a culture that drives performance. The trick is to work the cultural objectives into daily practices. For example, if a company wants to focus on building know-how, integrating a department lunch with an internal coaching session would be a useful practice. If the staff finds that these practices help in their personal and professional growth and the promising ones are rewarded with leadership positions, things will start to change for the better.

Lawrence Chong is the CEO at Consulus.