Oil tankers and speedboats: what a difference a culture makes

9 January 2018

Will Howarth

Will Howarth

Account Director

What makes an organisational culture? How can I avoid the “Sunday night blues”? And what do oil tankers and speedboats have to do with working at large or small organisations? Will Howarth, Account Director at Bluefin, explores different organisational cultures and the impact on employees. 

Can I ask for a show of hands: who has already broken their New Year’s resolution? After the festivities over Christmas it seems like everyone is resolving to “be healthier” or “give up something”. Alongside these classics “get a new job” is becoming more popular. If you are one of the millions who will be thinking about joining a new company in 2018, you might want to think about oil tankers and speedboats.

It’s all about the culture

To say that company culture is vital to employee happiness and productivity is nothing new (see Hofstede 1980, Deal and Kennedy 1982, Schein 1992, and many more academics far more qualified than I am). If you like what you do then you are more likely to want to succeed and perform at a high level. What makes a culture varies from place to place, but in my experience, I believe successful cultures have 3 main qualities:


Fig 1. A pyramid model Abraham Maslow would be proud of

At a very fundamental level, culture should support your employees, ensuring that they feel safe and secure in their roles. With that accomplished your culture should provide employees with empowerment to be better, faster, stronger and more productive. Consequently, you create community: likeminded people who share similar values which help reinforce the culture. 
However, culture is not one-size-fits-all: different people are drawn to different values. Having the right cultural fit between employee and organisation can be the difference between waking up excited to go to work or the infamous ‘Sunday Night Blues’. Most of us have probably felt the ‘Sunday Night Blues’on occasion but consistently feeling like this can impact employee productivity.

Oil tankers and speedboats

For us to all be happy, engaged employees, we need to be in a culture that we can feel supported and empowered with a like-minded community alongside us. Organisational cultures vary though. Oil tankers are famously some of the largest ships at sea - transporting millions of barrels of oil and supporting the infrastructure of nations. However, they are also very difficult to steer if you want to change course. Speedboats, on the other hand, are agile and responsive but do not have the same scale or capabilities. 

In my career, I’ve worked with very large, established consulting organisations as well as generally smaller more entrepreneurial businesses, including Bluefin. These are my oil tankers and speedboats. Both types of organisation (and there is a scale in between) have been very enjoyable to work for and both have many advantages that anyone looking to change their job should bear in mind if they want to work in a culture that excites and fulfils them.

Oil tanker organisations pride themselves on a solid and reputable track record of delivery, based on a long history of working in a consistent way. Working in these organisations is a very secure and safe experience as you can continue delivering according to the proven practices from prior engagements, alongside company policies to support your professional growth. Due to the scale of projects, you often deliver as part of a team which provides you with additional support, with the ability to specialise or step out of your comfort zone if you wish to.

However, the sheer size of the organisation means that employees generally adapt to the culture (including ways of communication, working practices and levels of red tape and bureaucracy) to be successful. Speedboats on the other hand are often more agile, with the ability to change direction far more easily, all with significant influence from the Captain (in this case the employee).

Staff are often thrust into the forefront of activities which means that you are both accountable for success and for failure. However, this responsibility also comes with a significant amount of autonomy and trust to do the right thing. Processes are usually more flexible due to less reliance on pre-established ways of working and employees also have greater ability to influence the culture across the organisation. 

What is best? 

Now that is a question that I am not qualified to answer. Your preference between a highly agile, entrepreneurial culture and a well-defined, large corporate one is exactly that: your own. However, I would recommend that you don’t place yourself in a box, no matter what stage you are at in your career; explore the possibilities and benefits each have to offer.

You might strike it lucky where you can have the best of both worlds, working for part of an organisation which has all the cultural benefits of a more boutique operation (e.g. Bluefin), whilst having the scale and investment of its “mothership” (e.g. our parent company, Mindtree).  Moving employers  is not as onerous a task as it used to be and you could find a culture that reignites your passion in the workplace. After all, who doesn’t love a ride on a speedboat?”

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About the author

Will Howarth

Account Director

Bluefin and SAP S/4HANA - welcome to the one horse race

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