Island culture at the workplace

Many companies are characterized by a corporate structures similar to islands. This is because they are organized by division (marketing, controlling etc), by national or international locations or by product and service offerings (helpdesk, product A, product B etc). This is quite logical in itself, as it clearly demarcates responsibilities and prevents overlapping work and clarifies the structure for employees.

Islands can be found in nearly all companies. This is because most companies are organised in small units that perform a specific set of tasks. Departments, locations and teams form a group with each having their own subculture: a common way of seeing, evaluating and responding to the (working) world.

This is a natural phenomenon: the entire organization is too big, but the ten to twenty people with whom you work intensively on a daily or regular basis and whom you know better - these are the groups to which you belong. This number of people is tangible for the brain. The rest of the company's employees are either, neutrally speaking, "the others" or, less neutrally speaking: "the sycophants of marketing who always promise too much" or "the hairsplitters of accounting".

Group formations or islands fulfil a human need to know, trust and belong to a specific set of people. This works well because it is safe and reliable. The most persistent groups and islands are therefore in the minds of the people and not de facto in the structure of the organization.

While Island cultures come about naturally and institutionally, one must keep in mind that they can also complicate working together, especially when this takes place across groups. It is important to still identify with the company, even if ones day-to-day interactions are limited to a certain group.

In order to promote a healthy island culture, we have collected some tips to achieve a positive working environment within the corporate island culture.

1. You like what you know

As soon as people have regular contact and get to know each other better, trust is created. This happens within groups or islands, but also works between islands.

This can be achieved in many ways: By setting up temporary working groups or project teams with members from different islands. Another way to achieve this is by permanently changing the organisational structure, for example by setting up interdisciplinary groups with a wide ranging on a product or service instead of the islands of marketing and production.

It can also take the form of working lunches or team building activities and training for members from different islands, where they formulate a common mission, set common goals and agree on working methods. And above all: everyone must learn to express their anger. This can be very revealing, because one island often had no idea how others perceived them.

2. Create common interests

The common interest in this case is one level higher than the islands themselves. Those responsible should make it clear that if such a common interest is not achieved, it will ultimately be to the disadvantage of all islands. The consequences must therefore be clear.

As the person responsible, make sure that the employees in the islands always have the common interest and objectives in mind so that they act accordingly, and start to see the benefits of collaborating with other islands on this common goal.

3. External reference and alignment between the groups

Very strong islands are created by the internal reference: Groups take their own values, criteria and goals as a starting point. "We do our work well because it meets our own standards. We want to receive information in our own way, otherwise we don't do anything with it."

The internal reference is based on yourself and on your own group. The benefits of a strong inner culture are based on the work which a well functioning team can achieve. It makes difficult work manageable and perhaps even fun when the entire team comes together to solve an issue. But it also means, that others, colleagues as well as customers, have to adapt to it, which is not always the case.

Contrarily, an en external reference is based on the other person: What is important for this department or person? External reference leads to customer orientation, which is also important for the company.

The question is here: Do the islands see their colleagues from other islands as customers or as competitors? The respective point of view determines the behaviour of the employees. An external reference can be learned in this process. By seeing and above all feeling common interests, by seeing colleagues as customers and supporters, by listening to what they want a reference point external to the group has been introduced which ensures that they work well with other groups, by it within or outwith the company.

To promote this type of a percepctive it is important for teams to pay attention to the similarities with other islands and not to the differences. What are the advantages of adapting to some of the other’s working methods? What are the disadvantages of not doing it? How tangible are these disadvantages or benefits?

A short action programme based on these meta-levels can work wonders, because it promotes understanding and solidarity and grabs the islands where they persist: in people's minds.