Part 4: Culture of Purpose
Victoria Hurth is Associate Professor in Marketing & Sustainable Business and Faculty of Business Lead: Student Satisfaction at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of a 5-part series on the interconnected linkages between purpose, governance, marketing, a culture of purpose, and leadership as they relate to sustainability and the GRLI’s broader inquiry into global responsibility. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 5, or access the full series.
As an academic, definitions and measurements are two interdependent things I spend a lot of time thinking about. When thinking about how to measure a purpose-driven organisation, many conclude that it can’t be measured, or that measurement will restrict the progress of purpose. I think we need to be clear that there are at least two types of measurement we could be talking about here. Firstly, once the organisational purpose has been set (see my earlier blog on this) a company will articulate its mission and associated objectives, strategy, and KPIs (ideally within a balanced scorecard or other way of creating an integrated report around the impact on the purpose). This is in the realm of classic strategic management and the KPIs will usually measure the success of the strategy the business decides is the best way to deliver purpose at that point in time. This is likely to be highly specific to a strategy/business so the suite used cannot be standardised.
At the same time, KPIs may be common within a business. There is also likely to be much commonality across sectors and even across all organisations (e.g. when considering carbon impacts or impact on people’s self-esteem). In this way the work of the GRI, ISO, UNCTAD and others who work in the space of methodological standardisation is vital as it enables benchmarking and rankings to be as valid as possible — thereby aiding the accountability process so vital to good governance. So, whereas the first kind of measurement is about strategic outcomes, a second kind of measurement is about understanding if a culture of purpose has been created. Much of the positive benefits of purpose for an organisation accrue due to the shift in the organisational culture. Often cited outcomes of purpose on higher productivity, lower stress, lower attrition, higher customer focus etc. are all about the effect on employees of an organisation that has the clarity and motivation of meaningful direction.
It is this second area of measurement that I feel deserves a lot more attention. Not long after starting the research on purpose with my Cambridge colleagues, we began working closely with John Rosling from Contexis who had been thinking about this for some time. He and his colleagues had observed entrepreneurial companies over a 15-year period and realised that purpose was absolutely core to whether or not a company was high performing. They also observed that there were a range of cultural attributes that seemed to explain whether or not a declared purpose was actually activated in the DNA of the organisation or remained a nice statement. They came to us wanting to test whether or not their observations were correct and develop interventions that could identify where the blockage was and help address it. What John and colleagues had put their finger on was a way of testing whether purpose was living and breathing throughout the organisation and a means to start pinning down where the issues and blockages were. By addressing this, purpose can be allowed to come to life and as a result the identified performance benefits of purpose can be more easily realised. We have worked with Contexis to develop their purpose index (which includes a soon to be updated measure of organisational purpose taken from our definition). This utilises the best academic scales available to assess the cultural attributes John and colleagues identified — everything from trust, ownership and context clarity, to engagement, creativity and organisational velocity. The job now is to scale how many companies take and benefit from the test and to start properly testing what drives purpose.
The index contributes to Contexis’ own purpose by pulling together an extensive range of data across organisations and sectors so that the whole business community can have a much deeper and nuanced understanding of purpose. For this reason, Contexis want to make the survey low cost (depending on the organisational scale and complexity) for any company to take, and the Universities of Cambridge and Plymouth are contributing time to supporting this and analysing the data. If anyone would like to know more about the survey and how they can get involved in taking it then John is the person to speak to. We are also developing a robust scale to measure purpose based on our definition (see the first in this blog series), please contact Charlie Ebert who is spearheading this as part of his PhD if you want to know more.
Read Part 5: Leadership.
Victoria Hurth is Associate Professor in Marketing & Sustainable Business and Faculty of Business Lead: Student Satisfaction at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom.
Reach Victoria at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @VictoriaHurth.