(Images: AAP/David Mariuz)

Culture, someone once said early this century, eats strategy for breakfast. Could have been — maybe should have been — someone at the ABC. In that 90-year institution, organisational culture is deep-rooted. It mutates and evolves slowly. While it drives creative excellence, it’s bitten large chunks out of plenty of management strategies for change along the way. 

The way this culture has been absorbed and understood over generations drives a division among ABC staff between a constituency of change and a constituency of resistance, both equally confident that they speak for the institution’s key values. It’s a fissure that runs between and within divisions and programs, separates friends and confounds management. It’s a fight embraced by the keenest of ABC friends and supporters.

The result? Any change, any dispute over content, risks becoming highly charged, quickly morphing to the existential. 

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The ABC talks a lot about culture — its own and that of other people. Where other organisations have human resources, the ABC has “people and culture”, whose job, according to the annual report, is to direct and embed the “behaviours and attitudes employees commit to in delivering the Investing in Audiences strategy”.

The problem for the ABC — like plenty of other creative organisations — is the culture they want, even the culture they think they have, may not be the culture that captures “the way we do things around here”.

The official principles that guide workforce values? “Straight Talking. People Focused. Accountable. Open and Transparent.” All very public sector boiler-plate. These workplace culture values pop up through the ABC’s annual report as explainers for the internal day-to-day activities: “a culture of accountability and integrity” in managing money, “a strong culture of privacy” and “a positive risk culture”.

That all sounds great. All organisations need this sort of soft infrastructure. But it’s not what anyone means when they talk about the ABC’s culture. That deep undercurrent that carries the organisation is found less in the words written down by “people and culture” and more in the aggregation of the unspoken rules of custom and practice. 

Those unwritten rules reflect the corporation’s own deep history — how it got here, how it’s managed challenges in the past, mixed with the practices of similar public broadcasters (still, usually the BBC) and the craft sensibilities of excellence and autonomy.

Being unwritten, they are readily contested around the understanding of the legislated charter — section 6 of the ABC Act that lays out in parliamentary legalese the functions of the organisation.

They’re captured simply in the first of the ABC values: “We are ABC.”  Simple. And loaded.

For many of the ABC’s employees, there’s three additional unwritten words: “…and you’re not!” The values of excellence and independence, the integrity of the respective crafts, are as much — if not more — owned by the corporation’s creative workers than by the corporation itself. 

These unwritten words mean it can take a while for outsiders to become insiders, even for externally-appointed managing directors. It can take time for staff (and supporters) to accept that they, too, are ABC. Some never get there (good afternoon, Michelle Guthrie!)

On the other hand, “culturally aligning” the diverse workforce within the ABC — jimmying them into a “we are ABC” box and hoping they’re all facing the same direction like toy soldiers —  has been the holy grail for successive generations of ABC managers and boards.

An eagerness to use low-cost and insecure employment to get initiatives off the ground — such as occurred with News 24 — can also entrench a fear among pre-existing employees that change is less about digital innovation and more about having a less empowered staff and undermining the ABC as the remaining destination media employer of secure work.

The internal charter wars also shape expectations about how the ABC will manage its always fraught relationship with government. The charter, after all, is meant to be the guarantee of ABC independence. Surely, “we are ABC” means standing up to all complaints, all the time?

For management, it’s a more sensible strategy of picking the fights you have to win. Otherwise, when your major complainant is also your funder, a win over content can quickly end up as a loss on the bottom line, charter or no.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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