Culture and why it matters

This month’s article is from a client of mine, Gabrielle de Wardener: She works at Aimia, a data-driven marketing and analytics company which owns and operates loyalty programmes around the world. In her role as Culture and CSR Director, Gabrielle has introduced innovative and award-winning ways of delivering CSR in a meaningful way, and in this article she shares her approach and its impact.

Culture and why it matters

Although a huge amount is written about corporate culture it’s hard to define it exactly because any culture is made up of so many sub-cultures. My employer, Aimia, is a global company headquartered in Canada – in French-speaking Montreal: North American, but with a twist. Our Canadian operation began as a department within Air Canada – a very different culture from Nectar in the UK, where we started life as a small entrepreneurial, and therefore risk-taking, start-up funded by venture capital.

In a global organisation, culture is influenced by geography and national culture, and by the demographics – age profile, ethnicity, gender and so on – of its employees in each region. It’s shaped by its founder’s story and corporate history and that of its acquisitions, if it has them. This will be overlaid by the different working practices of functional teams (think Finance versus Marketing) and the values and personality of individual team leaders. In a sense we all have our own micro-culture.

Bringing all these cultural strands together in an inclusive but cogent manner is a challenge. We express our culture in a number of ways: by the work we do for clients and how we do it (and who those clients are), by how we communicate with each other and how we talk to one another, by how we treat each other, what we celebrate, how we recognise and reward people, and most importantly by how we behave when the chips are down, either for the company as a whole or for individuals.

All this of course comes down to our values and the extent to which they are truly alive in the business or simply posted on the wall. Central to our values, and in keeping with the aim of our loyalty marketing activity, which revolves around highly personalised communications to customers, is our belief in ‘making business personal’ by treating everyone as an individual.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

One value which has always been important for us is partnership through corporate social responsibility (CSR). It’s very easy to be cynical about CSR in the business world, as the emergence of the term ‘greenwash’ – to denote the unjustified appropriation by companies of environmental virtue – shows. But when it’s done right, and with the right values behind it, I believe CSR can be hugely beneficial.

Since the launch of our Canadian business – the loyalty programme Aeroplan – CSR has been an integral part of the programme. We did this by finding ways to use the ‘currency’ of Aeroplan Miles to help charities and individuals – for example donating miles to charities needing to transport people to places, such as Vets without Borders or Médecins sans Frontières after the Haiti earthquake.

Later, when we brought Aeroplan, Nectar and our other acquired marketing businesses together under one name, we wanted to make sure that the new brand incorporated a strong social, as well as a commercial, purpose. This social purpose needed to go right to the heart of what we do as a business: data-driven marketing and loyalty analytics.

In practice this meant finding ways to use our loyalty understanding to encourage consumers to ‘do the right thing’ – such as Nectar’s Tag your Bag programme with Oxfam which enables Oxfam to obtain the gift aid on all its items donated by Nectar collectors.

Data Philanthropy

Inside the company it means finding ways of using the most precious thing we have – the skills, knowledge and experience of our people – to help charities increase the impact of their work. We realised that we have a unique source of talent in our analysts and so began the development of our skills-based volunteering programme which we call Data Philanthropy.

This is based on the premise that while most charities have a lot of data, they often lack the knowledge or resources to get the most out of it. And given that data holds the key to good, informed decision-making, through analysis and insight, any help that our analysts can give charities in digging out that insight is extremely valuable.

Since we began the programme, which centres on a series of intense one or two-day ‘data swarms’, where our analysts work with charities to mine their data for answers to big questions about their services, we’ve worked with over 50 charities worldwide.

Analysts get to use their skills for social good and test out new software programmes, even design new tools in the process, so it’s a great learning opportunity for them. We often have more junior members of the team present the data swarm findings back to the charities after the swarm, which is a good way to build confidence in presenting and visibility within the team.

Best of all, the charities we work with love it.

“No-one does pro-bono like you do at Aimia – the mix of talent, focus and energy was amazing. The cherry on top was the tool that you’ve built to enable us to develop statically robust control groups”
Mike De Giorgio, CEO of children’s sports charity, Greenhouse Sports

Whilst we’ve won many awards for data philanthropy we’re aware that not everyone at Aimia is an analyst. In keeping with our aim of ‘making business personal’ we try to offer a smorgasbord of interesting options, making it easy for people to volunteer their time. This might be by doing an hour of academic tutoring every week with a child from an underprivileged background, running an employability skills workshop with ex-offenders, helping Médecins sans Frontières to map unchartered parts of the world or helping charities with their donor marketing strategies.

Source: Action for Happiness

We all know about the link between giving and happiness.   No surprises that a culture in which people are actively encouraged and facilitated to give a little slice of their time to working on social causes alongside their regular job is likely to be a stronger one.

I think that’s called employee engagement.

Gabrielle de Wardener
Culture & CSR Director, Aimia

In conclusion

My thanks to Gabrielle for a thought-provoking article. I hope it inspires you to consider how you might optimise the skills and culture of your organisation for its highest purpose.

For further reading, you might find these previous articles useful:

Next month: How to collaborate effectively, including:

  • learning to let go of control
  • influencing people with a different opinion to your own
  • handling difficult conversations

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