How a cultural shift can transform SOEs

One organisational culture expert says Singaporean organisations need to shift from ‘hierarchical’ to ‘achievement-oriented’ culture for better financial performance

How a cultural shift can transform SOEs

Despite the positive image most SOEs enjoy, one organisational culture expert said that organisations in Singapore give “the appearance of competence but fall short in equating with the level of performance of organisations with ‘achievement cultures’”.
“Our data on Singaporean companies shows that members work hard, long hours and are expected to keep ‘on top’ of everything. This creates a hierarchical organisation which is over-managed and where members lower in the organisation are expected to conform and follow the rules,” said Michael Gourley, director of Asia/Pacific, Human Synergistics International (HSI) to HRD.

Gourley, who was instrumental in the coporatisation of 21 New Zealand government trading departments into successful SOEs and was a speaker at the recently concluded HR Leaders Asia conference here, also said that part of Singapore’s commercial success is its strong foundation in high achievement values and added that there is a need to renew these values in SOEs and other organisations.
“This fits in with Deputy PM Tharman saying that the republic needs to be innovative at all levels … ‘that the aim of being an innovative economy would succeed only if the culture of innovation was pervasive across society. This includes leadership, organisational culture, and being an inclusive society,’” he quoted.
Gourley went on to define an ‘achievement culture’ as one where members are expected to take on challenging tasks, think and plan ahead, and focus on continuous improvement.
“It is being an achievement-oriented culture which characterises organisations that do things well … These values apply as much to SOEs as they do to privately-owned organisations,” he said.

SOEs can also learn from the private sector, he said, by moving away from a hierarchical organisational structure to allow for more flexibility and influence at other levels in the organisation. 

This results in problems getting solved appropriately, “clients and customers are served well and the orientation of members is healthy,” he added. It would also yield the added bonus of better financial performance.

He cited a paper written by Dr Robert Cooke, CEO and director of HSI, on the correlation between constructive culture and financial performance, which found that there is an indirect link between the two; it is the traits exhibited in a constructive culture—member commitment, motivation, teamwork, cooperation, and organisational-level quality—that affect high financial growth.

For HR practitioners, whether for an SOE or a privately-owned corporation, introducing a cultural shift within the organisation should begin with accurate assessments. “Not only is there a need to accurately assess the cultural norms, but also the factors found to be causally related to culture,” said Gourley.

“These relate to the mission and philosophy of the organisation and how they translate into the way in which people, roles and activities are ordered, human resource systems, job design, communications, and leadership performance.”


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