July 31 2012

What is Organizational Culture?

I have had a few conversations recently where the culture question has come up. Now I am not talking diversity, ethnic representation or the arts. I am talking about the culture of an organization. But what is that?

We talk about "the way things are done around here" or "the typical employee" and they all come down to culture of an organization. In fact both those phrases are really good insights into the organizations culture.

I see organizational culture as the way you would answer these 3 questions. How do people interact here? What do they do here? Why do they do it. I'm sure there are many variants on this but to assess culture or even just frame it you have to understand the political, social and environmental influences that address these questions as well.

Now I sound like I'm about to launch into some great thesis - I promise you I will not! Let's look at those question within this framework and you will better see what I mean.

How do people interact? This talks to communications (pun intended), learning, leadership and general managerial styles. Now to assess the culture the political element will address the powers and influencing areas, the social will address the nature of the content and the environmental considers where it happens. So identifying who and from which roles communications are agreed, where the most exchange of information takes place and the way it takes place. Think about the comparison of a formal managerial meeting with an agenda and the general banter of FaceBook friends. Both are interactions but starkly different ones.

What do they do here? A double edged sword in my experience. One reflects the conversation that goes something like "do you know John? What does he actually do here?" as the conversation holders then attempt to work out John's position and responsibilities. The flip side is the challenge to the organization that says ABC Inc. Have 20000 employees... But what do they do? The first part reflects the need to have clearly understandable and transparent purpose. Knowing how the business purpose is reflected in every job. It can also be a reflection of old and dying organizations who have people stuck in jobs that either they can't move from or the business cannot validate properly. The second element discusses the lack of identity, potentially brand presence, of an organization. Consider that some businesses become so large and diverse their culture is multifaceted. This can project an unclear miss-match of ideals and values and the cultural conundrum here is to see the wood for the trees.

Why do they do it? This is a natural progression from the previous question. It's not just clarity of what is done but why it is done. This is about motive, desire and need. Very much based in emotions the why question asks the observer to determine the purpose to an activity. Is it for the achievement of business goals? Is it for the betterment of other workers? Will it make the business better? All very positive reasoning and reflectors of content and positive culture. However the motive may be to undermine others, sabotage deliverables and instill attitudes of fear, division and power through such uncertainty being leveraged. Not nice cultural development.

But when we know what a culture is or we can describe it, what does this provide? For me it is about understanding the people so you know how to work with them in making a change happen. That applies equally across all organizational levels too.

My next blog will look at some of the tools and techniques for defining culture that I use and find beneficial in trying to find a way through all this.

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