Is community the new culture?

Today’s popular mantra across industry is that you need to create the right culture to succeed. Creating culture means developing a working environment based upon a set of behavioural standards. Employees are then expected to adopt and conform to the rules that make up that culture.

This approach has been acknowledged as the right way to run a business for decades, but there are signs the times are changing. Are we approaching a new era in manufacturing where culture, regarded as the key to success, is starting to show cracks?

The current climate is demanding change. With the influx of a new generation of highly educated and mobile workers, and increasingly digitalised surroundings, manufacturers can no longer depend on artificially constructed philosophies alone. They need organic, natural values. They need space to exert their own thinking. They need community.

Here, we take a closer look at some of the key factors driving this monumental mindset shift across industry – demonstrating why community is set to replace culture as the beating heart of 21st century manufacturing businesses.

Manufacturing is coming full circle

During the industrial revolution, almost every manufacturing business was built on community. All across Yorkshire, for example, woollen mills were constructed initially in valleys where running water provided the power supply. They later moved onto hillsides as steam became the new source of energy.

Given the limitations of transportation, many employees settled locally – living a stone’s throw away from the mills in which they worked. Similar manufacturing settlements popped up during this period all across the UK, giving birth to hundreds of tight-knit communities from which people would earn their income, livelihood and prosperity.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the essence of business was community. To ensure their prosperity, mill owners would build properties to house their workers – readily inviting a diverse workforce into their ranks. There was no emphasis on encouraging people to conform to cultural rules and ideas. All employees were driven by a common sense of purpose, which was simply the success of the mill to ensure their livelihood. This ultimately unified the community.

During the latter period of the 20th century, businesses began to lean towards a more cultural way of operating. Those at the top would set the behavioural rules, and everyone below would be expected to adopt them. But today’s changing landscape is compelling manufacturers to come full circle and put the focus back on developing community – much like it was during those heady days of the Industrial Revolution, but with a modern twist.

We need to return to a more inclusive way of thinking, where community provides the flexibility to reflect the individual personalities and interests of its employees in ways cultures cannot.

The new workforce has different demands

For many years, manufacturing has operated a climate of command and control. With lower levels of education in workforces throughout the early- and mid-20th century, there was a centralisation of authority where management made the decisions for the vast majority of employees. Those at the top drove businesses forwards. Those on the operating lines followed instructions.

But the ‘yes sir, no sir’ culture is history. The manufacturing worker profile has gradually shifted in the last 50 years – especially over the millennium with education levels rising and, more recently, ages decreasing. The recruitment queues now consist of a long line of ambitious, knowledgeable and younger people.

The Baby Boomers era of the 1950s/60s is at (or nearing) retirement, with a tsunami of skills and experience ready to exit the sector. How organisations retain this capability and ensure it is not lost forever is a major challenge in itself. Millennials and Generation X now form 30% of the overall workforce and, after the huge wave has settled, it will soon be at 70%.

Twenty-two-year-olds fresh out of university don’t want to walk into a job where they’re simply told what to do. They arrive armed with fresh, valuable, contemporary insight on a changing sector – and they have more to offer than simply filling a role on a production line.

They want to be challenged by their position, they want direction, and they also desire the kind of autonomy in their role that enables them to go after things themselves. They are ambitious, with high expectations driven by personal fulfilment and progression.

Globalisation and the removal of trading barriers has also resulted in the availability of a mobile and culturally diverse workforce – one that works to live rather than lives to work. As a result, organisations are having to deal with the challenges of a more disparate workforce that is no longer bound by the four walls of a building.

The emerging profile of this workforce does not fit the mould of an archaic culture that relies on those four walls to survive. They want to work for an organisation that reflects today’s social norms, stands for something and has a shared sense of purpose – be it social responsibility, or improving lives or the environment. The result is a new workforce that is not driven by salary alone.

This brings us to the necessity of a shift towards community. Organisations must accept and engage the diversity and ambitions of a young disparate workforce rather than imposing pre-existing, and possibly outdated, values on workers. This community should be bound by an embedded and enduring shared sense of purpose.

This desire for community and the need to belong is reflected by the high levels of social media activity among young people. These online communities are not dictated by physical location and they are not exclusive. Membership offers a sense of unity over a common interest, and it keeps people connected even when they are not together. Social media also offers the chance for this young crowd to have a voice, the freedom to speak their minds, and the opportunity to be heard. The power of community is based upon a strong and inclusive sense of belonging.

Uncovering and endorsing the raison d’être

It is imperative that businesses accommodate and adapt to the changing demographics of the new manufacturing workforce by moving away from culture and towards community.

Manufacturing organisations today need to find their raison d’être. They must determine why they exist and what they exist for. This, in turn, will play a profound part in how they attract educated and young talent and, more importantly, retain it moving forwards. The battle for talent is approaching its fiercest stage. We will all be fishing in a significantly smaller pool of bigger fish which have a more discerning appetite.

Everything is right for the time, and it’s true that culture has been appropriate for many years up until this point. It has served manufacturing (and industry in general) well, but is this mindset now becoming outdated and no longer fit for purpose? Do we need a paradigm shift?

The fact that ‘cult’ can be extracted from the word ‘culture’ speaks for itself. It’s about conforming to concepts and beliefs created by those higher up. But encouraging the same behaviours in manufacturing no longer works. Now, businesses are made up of sundry workforces with strong opinions and diverse ways of seeing things. Positive conflict is set to become part and parcel of the sector, as people challenge conventional thinking with their new experience and skill sets. To take advantage of this competitively as a business, a move towards community is a necessity.

Within this new working environment, the essence of management is having to shift towards the purity of leadership. We can no longer drive people through the carrot-and-stick method and push them towards our goals and objectives. We must take people on a journey by giving them a clear direction and providing both the autonomy and support required to help them get there. Therefore, instead of encouraging people to conform to rules that make up the culture, manufacturers must embrace diversity and encourage new ideas to thrive in a progressively innovative, freethinking industry.

The best businesses don’t push culture in the modern age. They build communities.