Entropy, Time’s Arrow and Cultural shifts

I have been reading the book “Management from the Masters” by Morgan Witzel where he has looked through history at what he terms Universal “laws” (not necessarily in the scientific or legal sense) but statements that are almost inviolate in real life. His attempt is to link these scientific and behavioral laws to managment. As I read through the book I realizes that a number of these “laws” could help to understand why organizations struggle to cope with employee retention and the need for employee engagement. This is hopefully the first in a series of articles around these “laws”. (I am henceforth going to drop the quotes around the word “laws” to save myself some work!)

The very first law that Witzel talks about is called the Law of Entropy (or Time’s Arrow). As everyone knows, entropy keeps increasing with time or so the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us. In other words order always gives way to disorder and chaos. The astronomer Arthur Eddington in 1927 described this as Time’s Arrow. The essential premise is that time always moves in one direction (and although modern quantum physics might offer some contradictory opinions), and, as Omar Khaiyam says in the Rubaiyat,

The moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

So time moves on things, both living and inorganic, why even the universe, keeps decaying. What is true for the universe is obviously true for orgnizations as well. Organizations we know can be thought of living creatures with the executive head and the employees making up other parts of the body. Organizational culture is a unique blend of the people and processes that exist within the organization. However like all entities, abstract or otherwise, culture tends to decay with time, unless carefully nurtured. While it is perhaps impossible to stop the decay of anything, let alone culture, successful organizations overcome this challenge by being alert to signs of decay and by reimagining and renewing their organizational culture.

In Rejuvenating the Mature Business, Charles Baden-Fuller and John Stopford show that injections of fresh energy in the form of capital, technology, creative brainpower or imagination can help organizations grow. What is true for the overall organization is also true for organizational culture.
This doesn’t mean that the old culture in some way “comes back” (given that Time’s arrow is pretty unforgiving) but what does come out of it is a new organizational culture that uniquely fits the current time and environment. Such a cultural change is a tectonic shift and requires deep commitment from the leadership. A leadership that pays lip service to the idea of a cultural change will soon find itself and the organization from a difficult to extricate quagmire.

Culture can be renewed and rejuvenated and it is only a living, breathing, rejuvenated organizational culture that can ensure that employees are engaged. A recent example of such a culture change in an organization is that undertaken by Vishal Sikka at Infosys. Mr. Sikka took a somewhat moribund, traditional IT services organizational culture and redefined it to fit his vision of a forward thinking, new-age, agile and millenial friendly organization. It began with seemingly simple changes such as dispensing with ties for the workforce and then moved towards simplifying processes for maternity-leave extensions and involving employees in the decision-making process. Clearly, by redifining the culture, Infosys is mitigating the effects of entropy while keeping it aligned to long term strategic goals. Other organizations would do well to learn from their experience.