September 22, 2010

Do you really understand your organization's culture?

Culture change is frequently identified as the the intervention needed to improve the performance of an organization. The word "culture",  however, is used gingerly and there remains much debate and controversy regarding the best way to fully understand the culture of an organization.

Ed Schein presents a simple yet illuminating perspective on organizational culture.  According to Schein (2004) understanding one's culture requires understanding on 3 different levels :
  • Artifacts---The most superficial level, which encompasses the visible structures and processes;
  • Espoused Beliefs & Values-- An organization's strategies, goals and philosophies, and;
  • Underlying Assumptions-- the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts & feelings.
The real difficulty lies in getting beyond the first two levels to the deeper, underlying assumptions, which is necessary for ensuring significant, lasting change.

One issue that frequently arises is the tendency to see culture only from the perspective of the top leadership within an organization. Senior leaders indeed have a significant impact on a company's strategic direction, climate and performance; however, culture encompasses all aspects of an organization including the views and perspectives of diverse individuals and subgroups, and it is, in fact, usually quite complex, dynamic and difficult to fully comprehend.

Cultural change may indeed be needed within your company for accomplishing your goals and ensuring top level performance and sustainability.  However, the first step toward change is always gaining a clear understanding of the  issues at hand, and that may just be trickier than you think.
Schein, E. H. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership (3rd ed.).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.