HR’s Next Big Challenge: Professionalizing Culture Management

December 21, 2023
December 21, 2023 Jamie Notter


Culture management needs to be professionalized, with things like position descriptions and a culture budget. But the people to do that—HR—often default to a compliance- and administration-based perspective, which can get in the way of good culture management work. Moving forward, we need to build out a more comprehensive function of culture management, while still staying focused on the strategic and employee-centric nature of the work. If you want help, we offer coaching on this.


Perhaps the biggest difference between the work of culture inside organizations and all of the other core business functions (like finance, HR, IT, etc.) is that culture management has not yet been fully professionalized.

Finance, on the other hand, has been professionalized. There are standard positions and job descriptions for doing the work of finance, as well as relatively standard processes and procedures. It has its own budget. It has its own association(s) and professional standards. As a professionalized function, finance is accepted as a regular part of organizational life. It is a given.

Culture management is in the process of becoming professionalized, but it’s not quite there yet. Culture work is still considered optional, and who manages the culture work varies widely from organization to organization, from the CEO down to some individual employees who just want to make their workplace a little better. In many cases, to even suggest culture is being “managed” is a bit of a stretch.

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But I think this is going to change. Culture consistently shows up as one of the C-suite’s top challenges or concerns. They haven’t figured out what to do about it, but they are ready to move. There is an opportunity right now to make some strides in professionalizing culture management, including establishing clear internal roles for the job, creating a culture budget, and getting more disciplined about culture metrics.

There is a challenge, however. HR is the group that is likely to be tasked with culture management, and I am not sure HR is well suited for the work of culture management. That’s not a knock on HR. The challenge here is in the way the HR field has been professionalized. It has learned to focus first on administration, compliance, and protecting the interests of the organization. These are all  important, but also they also happen to be mostly incompatible with the work of culture management.

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Culture management is about creating an environment where people love coming to work, so it focuses squarely on employee needs and interests, not just the organization’s. Culture is not created by forcing compliance, rather it is something people subscribe to and embrace. And culture is not the work of administration—it is strategic. Your culture should be designed specifically around what makes the organization successful, so if you don’t take a strategic approach, you’ll end up with a weak culture.

This means HR needs to lean away from its roots in order to professionalize culture management. I’ve worked with HR leaders who have done this, fully embracing the employee-centric, voluntary, and strategic nature of the work. It’s not impossible for HR to do this job, I’m just saying there is a competing commitment within the HR field that can make it harder. As you work to build out a more professional culture management function in your organization, don’t let that commitment to compliance and administration weaken the work of culture management. (And if you want help, we offer coaching on this.)

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.