“You will be assimilated.” As anyone who was a fan of Star Trek, The New Generation, is aware, this was the favorite statement of the Borg, the organism that would take over other beings and cause them to lose their identity to become a slave to the larger Borg organism.
Assimilation is a loaded word in the English language. It is often associated in a negative connotation with the loss of one’s identity or historical culture as part of an integration process with a new, larger cultural identity. This negative connotation therefore raises racial and cultural identity concerns at the mere mention of the term, which results in a loss of the positive connotations of assimilation and loss of the perspective that assimilation does not require the loss of individual identity.
In the military, assimilation is an essential part of the initial training experience to allow the integration of young adults into an organization and unit that will be required to work seamlessly under combat conditions, performing difficult tasks that literally may result in death should the unit fail to work together. This assimilation includes training the unassimilated young adults in a common vocabulary, common physical fitness level, common physical and mental skills, common approaches towards problem solving, and common mindset toward difficult tasks. As a result of this assimilation, the young people that join the military have a much higher chance of survival and mission success, which results in the saving of many more lives. The people involved still retain their individual identities, hopes, dreams, interests, loves, and goals, but they also can function more successfully with others towards specific common goals.
In this context, assimilation is not only desirable, but also necessary for the success of the organization. In many companies, assimilation to some degree or another is also necessary for the success of the organization. While employees are encouraged and expected to retain their individualism, there is an expectation that they will all speak a common language (shop talk), have similar and complementary work habits and skills, and be able to work together to a common goal in the face of adversity and competition.
I know at some point some readers will be thinking “This BS. I work at one of these companies and I’m still the same person that I was when I came here. I’m the outsider who always bucks the corporate policies and people respect me for that. I’ll never be part of the ‘system’.” I think the point missed by that attitude is that assimilation doesn’t mean losing one’s individuality. In fact, some organizations thrive on and encourage dissenting points of view to facilitate better decisions by the corporation (I referenced this Critical Thinking methodology in a previous blog). The reality is that if you truly bucked everything the organization does, good or bad, just for the sake of being adverse, you probably would be removed from the organization or excluded from key processes so the organization could continue to function.
How does this relate to the entrepreneur? I know many entrepreneurs who start their companies almost as a rebellion against working in a large company and insist they will never have any processes or bureaucracy. Their idea of a corporate culture is no rules, bureaucracy or formal processes. I had one employee when my company was about 5 people large (we’re at about 140 employees now) who insisted that he would leave if the company ever had more than 12 employees. This can work until a company reaches a certain size (at about 50 people it becomes problematic, at 200 it’s unsustainable), at which point there must be some effort to, yes, assimilate people into the corporate culture. Some entrepreneurs don’t know how, or want to do this, and they often sell their companies or hire a CEO to run the company at this point.
In our company, Sentek Global, we “assimilate” in a variety of ways. First, we start our new employees with a new hire orientation. Second, for new entry level personnel on government projects, we have a “Department of Defense 101” course to provide them with the information and terminology to be successful working with their clients. Third, for anyone in a management role, we have a manager training course where we provide the basics of the common language, skill sets, work habits and expectations for the managers. We also have internal training in cyber security skills and project management skills to ensure a common skill set base. We have other training for managers at bi-weekly meetings. At the executive level, we foster and develop skills in critical thinking, negotiation and leadership. We also have a director-level position dedicated towards employee relations and morale to continually monitor our people to determine their issues and requirements. At the same time, we foster diversity in the company, not just based upon race and gender but diversity in opinions and thought processes. Our executive critical thinking training encourages and requires diverse opinions to be shared and considered to ensure that the organization makes sound business decisions.
As you grow your company, consider the following:
- What do you want your corporate culture to be like?
- If you had tenets for your corporate culture, what would they be?
- How can I hire employees who will support and work towards these tenets?
- What programs, including training programs, should I institute to encourage employees to work towards these tenets?
- What metrics can I incentivize employees to achieve that will encourage them to support these tenets?
Putting careful thought into answering these five questions will be essential towards growing your company from a start up to a viable, thriving institution.