USING AI TO UNDERSTAND YOUR CULTURE with Charlie Sull


Audio production by James Ede, Be Heard

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If you are leading a culture-shaping initiative in your organization, I’m sure that you want to be able to know what to focus on to achieve the best possible results in the shortest amount of time. But to identify the right area of focus or to reliably measure your progress, you first need to be able to gauge what your current company culture is really like. And this can be challenging because culture is often elusive, amorphous, and wickedly hard to grasp.


The traditional approach to getting a snapshot of the current culture has long been to implement both qualitative methods (such as interviews, focus groups, ethnographic observation, etc.) and a quantitative assessment (such as surveys and other measurement techniques.) We talked about this on the show in the past when I interviewed the father of organizational culture, Ed Schein and Tim Kuppler from Human Synergistics.

But there are a number of limitations to the traditional approach that often relies on asking predetermined, generic questions. One of the limitations is that we cannot be sure which of these areas are most critical to:

  • Successful strategy execution.
  • Employees’ ability to do their best work.

So, recently, I’ve been looking for ways to enrich our toolboxes as culture change agents and champions and explore new approaches to measuring culture. My today’s guest, Charlie Sull, has been a great help on this quest.

Charlie is is co-founder of CultureX and he and his team developed groundbreaking Natural Language Understanding for HR Tech at MIT. It deploys Natural Language Processing to understand what employees say about their organization and about one another. This new method for assessing and measuring organizational culture through the use of big-data processing enables you to mine “digital traces” of culture in electronic communications, such as emails, Slack messages, or Glassdoor reviews or transcripts of interviews or meetings. It turns out that by studying the language employees use in these communications, we can actually measure what the current culture is and how it influences people’s thoughts and behavior at work.

Episode Highlights
Here are some of the highlights from this interview:

  • The story of how Charlie and his father, Don Sull, stumbled upon the idea of measuring culture using AI while working on a project for the Gates Foundation.
  • Why measuring employees’ answers on a scale from one to five might not always be the best idea if you want to identify what they really need to do their best work, deliver outstanding customer service, or innovate.
  • What got the leaders at the Gates Foundation to say: We could have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of work on running this large culture study by simply asking and analyzing two open-ended questions: “What’s working?” and “What’s not working?”
  • Why traditional surveys tend to mislead you when it comes to identifying what is worth focusing on and fixing in your company culture.
  • The prerequisites to deploy artificial intelligence to gauge what your current culture is at the moment.
  • Why most companies don’t act on free-text data they gather through their employee surveys and how AI can help address it.
  • The correlation between a company’s espoused and lived values.
  • Why a laundry list of values is a recipe for failure and what conversations to have to make your values work for your people and your business.
  • Opportunities and limitations of using NLP and AI to measure culture.

Listen to the interview in the player below or on Apple Podcasts. If you like what you hear, please leave a review, and it may be featured on a future episode.


Audio production by James Ede, Be Heard

Listen on your favorite app
More about Charlie Sull

Charlie has led successful consulting engagements for top teams from around the world around a variety of strategic and cultural issues and published several articles about related research in leading journals. Prior to co-founding CultureX, Charlie co-founded Charles Thames, a boutique advisory firm specializing in strategy execution. Charlie graduated from Harvard College, where he was the President, Business Manager, and Tech Board Founder of the Harvard Lampoon.

Books and resources mentioned in this episode

Culture 500 – the Research

When it Comes to Culture, Does Your company Walk the Talk?

Creativity Inc by Amy Wallace and Ed Catmull & M Steele

Additional resources

CultureBrained Community – a one-of-a-kind virtual community for Heads of People and Culture, founders, and leaders who want to up their culture game.

Scaleup’s Guide to Creating a Culture Playbook

Personal Core Values Discovery Guide

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