What's the personality of your franchise?

How does the culture and personality of a company develop, and how can they affect its operations? Tom Albrighton discusses how sociability and solidarity combine to affect the culture of your business

All businesses have certain approaches, beliefs, values and behaviours that are shared by nearly everyone in the organisation, and we can call these the 'culture' of the business. In informal terms, people might refer to it as 'the way we do things around here'. It is what you sense when you walk into a firm's premises for the first time, or the sum total of the perceptions of a business held by those inside and outside it.

The reality of a business's culture is often far removed from what the business says about itself (in its marketing material, perhaps) or even from what its managers believe it to be. It often begins with the character of the business's founder, but can also be deliberately cultivated. Some cultures are fairly run of the mill - most offices feel pretty much the same - but others, like those in the police or teaching professions, are so powerful and distinctive that we can sometimes recognise their members outside their workplaces.

Culture is intangible and not usually open to direct control. While concrete parts of the business such as premises or organisation charts can be changed, culture defies executive will, although they ignore it at their peril. The character of a business can remain constant through expansion, downsizing, relocation, re-engineering, new corporate identities and even changes of personnel. It has to be taken into account whenever any kind of change is planned.

Culture can sometimes be changed indirectly, by altering the things in which it is manifested. These might include social events, the arrangement of workspace, dress code, the language used at work, job titles, meeting styles or anything else. By changing something that represents a key part of the culture, you aim to change the culture itself. An example of this is the fad for holding meetings standing up, which combats a cultural tendency towards 'over-braining' or procrastination, simply by getting rid of some chairs.

Or you could signal a more relaxed management style by relaxing dress codes. Such techniques might work - but each business is different, just as each person is different. Sometimes, the technique completely fails, as when the Post Office's rebirth as 'Consignia' fell flat. Nobody believed that the new identity reflected reality: perceptions of the business were unchanged. Culture experts Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones suggest two dimensions of culture: sociability and solidarity. Sociability relates to friendship, mutual support and the workplace as a 'family', while solidarity covers professionalism, working together and sharing goals. A business with high levels of both is 'networked'. Everyone works closely together and is friendly, but the atmosphere can get a little too close-knit at times. This might be the culture of a lively startup, a dot-com perhaps. With high sociability and low solidarity, the business becomes 'communal' - very friendly and committed, but occasionally inward-looking or unwilling to change.

Small charitable organisations might be prone to this. With low sociability and high solidarity, you get a 'mercenary' culture with a strong task focus but sometimes a lack of co-operation, such as one might find on the trading floor. And finally, with low levels of both sociability and solidarity, culture becomes 'fragmented', with people working largely independently. Universities where academics work on their own research can acquire this culture.

Why bother about culture? Quite simply, because it defines what people believe is possible for a business. If the culture is fragmented, then a new initiative that depends on people working together may fail. Conversely, offering financial performance incentives to individuals in a communal culture will ruffle feathers and possibly offend, whereas the members of a mercenary culture will lap it up.

Earlier we mentioned that organisation charts could easily be changed. This highlights another important aspect of culture: informal networks. Informal networks are the 'company behind the chart'. Behind the official version of a company, as represented in its organisational chart, is the reality of who trusts whom, who talks to whom and who likes whom. Like culture generally, informal networks have a huge impact on what is possible, particularly in times of change. Communications that are 'pumped' through well-connected individuals in the business may reach many more people than those that are introduced at senior level and allowed to 'trickle down'.

As a franchisee, there are a number of implications for you to consider. Your chosen franchise may be a proven goldmine, with unrivalled support networks and a unique new product. But however strong its rational appeal, if you're going to devote your life to it you will have to love it, and the people involved in it too. If you're unfamiliar with the industry, consider whether the prevailing culture is one you'll feel at home in.

Focusing on the franchisor, do you sense that their culture is the right environment for someone like you? Do you appreciate and respond to 'the way they do things around here'? If not, think carefully about the future. Your business will be much more successful if you believe in everything about the franchise, including its values and beliefs, and are happy to replicate them in your own operation. It's probably counterproductive to try and set up a laid-back branch of a franchise that is focused on rapid response and quick delivery - a printing operation, for example. Businesses have personalities just like people, so ask yourself - is it really you?