A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News provides a fascinating window into how Facebook educates its rapidly expanding global workforce about the company’s celebrated culture. According to the article, Facebook uses a very high-touch strategy led by “landing teams” of trained HQ staff who parachute into new offices for assignments, which often last at least one year. Their mission: to carry and recreate the distinctive Facebook cultural DNA to the new troops. The landing team use a range of activities and tools to tell their story – including the Facebook “hackathon” event, which is designed to demonstrate the value of risk-taking and collaboration and spread some of that start-up pixie dust. Even the office set up is designed to replicate the look and feel of headquarters. Part of the team’s role includes recruiting new staff. During their assignments these ambassadors are expected to do their regular jobs. That’s an impressive commitment, and a good formula to get the best ambassadors.

This story is interesting on many fronts, not the least of which is the priority placed on ensuring new staff understand and embrace the company’s identity and values across diverse global locations. But perhaps the most important lesson here is the focus on sustained, face-to-face teaching – or call it mentoring. Culture has always been a strange animal for organizations, with the orientation and education work typically shared across a motley mix of teams (notably HR, marketing and internal communications). Often orientation is packaged as one-day firehose of materials and briefings – ranging from legal requirements to cafeteria menus – with culture delegated to some seminal historical documents and reinforced by vague, trite collateral in the facilities. The missing ingredient is often the hallway conversations – usually informal but sometimes led by assigned mentors – that carries the real stories, and implicit norms, that are true representations of the company culture.

The Facebook approach works well on several levels:

  • It focuses on the real culture that staff already live and breathe, not some boardroom aspiration or stale bullet points in an elevator;
  • It uses committed, passionate workers who have a range of jobs, not “trained staff” from support departments who are more likely to use canned materials and messages;
  • It suggests that conveying information on topics like values and mores involves as much show as tell, and more emotion than fact;
  • It rightfully assumes that teaching new staff about culture – and making sure they understand and embrace the values and norms – is not a one-shot deal, but a long-term commitment; and,
  • It recognizes that even in dynamic, innovative global companies like Facebook a shared, coherent cultural experience is important to workplace morale and productivity.

I’ll admit that the Facebook approach may not work for all organizations – who after all have their own distinctive DNA – but it’s worth asking whether more traditional approaches work anymore.