Our modern life is ruled by algorithms. While almost all of them are invisible to you and I, we interact with them every day. Searching on Google involves an algorithm. The ATM machine uses algorithms. Credit card purchases use algorithms. Your Google Map and SatNav uses an algorithm to determine the best route, whether walking, driving or taking the bus. Even deciding whether to go shopping in the morning or afternoon uses a mental algorithm.
So, what is an algorithm? According to Wikipedia, “an algorithm is a procedure or formula for solving a problem. The word derives from the name of the mathematician, Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was part of the royal court in Baghdad and who lived from about 780 to 850. Al-Khwarizmi’s work is the likely source for the word algebra as well.”
An algorithm is a list of rules to follow in order to solve a problem. In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm usually means a small procedure that solves a recurrent problem. In the case of whether to go shopping in the morning or not, we use multiple “unconscious” rules and preferences, such as “I hate morning shopping” or “I like to get shopping done early so the rest of my day is free”, and many others.
And since algorithms are so ubiquitous in modern life, there is a very active educational movement to teach children about algorithms and how to write computer code. The BBC now has a children’s website for learning computer coding and building algorithms, called BBC Bitesize. And of course, Khan Academy has a whole series of presentations on algorithms.
One of the most complex algorithms is used to teach a computer to play chess against
Grand Masters, with each move preceded by thousands of possible options, built-in rules and examples of past games, all programmed in and used to help solve the problem of: “What is my next best move in order to eventually win the game?”
And on 11 May 1997, IBM’s computer named Deep Blue defeated Chess Grand Master Garry Kasparov.
Algorithms and Corporate Culture
A very useful way to better understand corporate culture within your organisation is to see it as a collection of “cultural algorithms”, each one understood by those in the company to be “the way we do things around here”. We know that corporate culture is the collection of habitual behaviours used routinely (either consciously or out of habit) to help solve business problems, guide interactions with peers and other departments and customers. Trying to describe behaviours is difficult, but putting them into the language of algorithms tends to make them easier to understand.
In other words, a “cultural algorithm” is a standard set of actions and reactions, like:
When A happens, we habitually do B. or
When A happens, we habitually do B, because doing B gets a (mostly positive) result (C), while doing something different may get a mostly negative result (D).
Most cultural algorithms are built into the social DNA of the company and new employees quickly learn that to fit in and be a “part of the group or department”, their behaviour needs to follow the various internal cultural algorithms. It’s not that people change their values or basic beliefs, but social pressure to fit in and belong is strong and most quickly assimilate the various cultural algorithms. They adopt the required behaviours implied by the “cultural algorithms”.
Here are some of the more obvious cultural algorithms that, if you can complete the equation, will help you better understand your unique corporate culture, and subcultures:
- When we see an employee behaving differently from our company values, we usually …
- When we suspect that there is a suspicious business activity going on in our department, we usually …
- When we suspect that there is a suspicious business activity going on in another department, we normally …
- When we see a customer looking lost or confused, we usually ….
- When a rude customer complains about something, we normally …..
While managers and executives hope that these situations will be responded to rationally and based on the company values, that is not always the case. Customers get ignored because management is more interested in stock levels being checked repeatedly. Complaining customers get confronted with “company policy says” rather than “let’s see if we can find a solution” because exceptions to company policy are seen as negative by upper management.
These and a thousand others are habitual cultural algorithms, and they may not follow company values or rational guidelines.
If you don’t understand your corporate culture, then you don’t really understand your business.
Written and Posted by: John R. Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid
John also writes thriller novels!