What is culture? (Part 2)

THE MAIN POINT (435 words – 87 seconds reading time)

I’ve described culture as what we stand for, what we believe in, and how we do things around here. But what do we look for to recognize or understand our organization’s culture?

First, culture is different from other foundational organizational traits. Here, we’re interested in what culture is and what culture isn’t. You may remember a climate survey in your organization. Climate isn’t culture. In the climate survey, you were asked questions leading to, “How do I fit into the organization in relation to other people?” If you had a culture survey, you would be asked questions leading to, “What do we believe in?” and “What do we stand for?” Different from culture, morale answers the question, “How committed am I to my organization and my associates (shown through enthusiasm, confidence, and loyalty)?” Identity is the underpinning for culture and answers the questions, “What do we do?” and “Who are we?” Finally mission is the purpose of the organization and answers the questions, “Why do we do what we do?” and “Why do we believe what we believe?” Many organizations try to find out what their people think about the organizational traits through questionnaires and surveys, and they usually get into trouble doing so. (But, more about that later.)

Second, culture has artifacts. Artifacts are things we make to represent our culture, for example, our logo or catch phrase (for example, “Quality is Job 1.”). You can look for artifacts and they’ll tell you a lot about the culture. Artifacts include values, such as client focus or personal integrity, that tell you about priorities. All companies profess the values of quality, service, and reliability. You can distinguish your company from other companies by determining which of the three values dominates when there’s a crisis. That’s your company’s central value.

Third, typically we have subcultures and culture gaps. Both are important. The organizational value is the core value. However, groups within the organization have peripheral values equally as important. The core value could be client focus that all subgroups believe in. However, the engineering groups may also believe in quality whereas the information technology groups may also believe in reliability.

The culture gap is the difference between what we have now (the used culture) and what we desire to have (the espoused culture). Culture gaps are necessary for fundamental change; however, culture gaps can present an integrity difficulty (We don’t do what we say.). Consider these typical subcultures in your organization: marketing, accounting, engineering, architecture, project management, production, etc. Do you sense differences in what makes these groups tick? Would you like to be able to understand those differences?


THE FOLLOW UP (646 words – 129 seconds reading time)

Fourth, culture dictates appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a group of people. The roles and rules for behavior are transmitted through the cultural artifacts and are handed down from generation to generation. In your workplace, you may notice how important it is to hand down a value to those who are new to the organization (for example, client focus) and how difficult it is to hand down another value (for example, company loyalty). These examples are influenced by the social environment. The newer generation is more able to pick up on client focus even though society isn’t as dedicated to service as it once was (Consider you local retail store or restaurant.). The newer generation is less able to pick up on company loyalty because the covenant is broken. What’s the covenant? When I entered the workforce many years ago, the covenant was that if I worked hard and did a good job, I’d have a job. Today, they’ll lay you off if they need to; and, given the times, they may have good reason. But, the broken covenant works against company loyalty.

Fifth, because I believe we can diagnose and manage culture, I consider organizational culture with its artifacts to be a management tool. Therefore, we can purposefully change the company culture. This part of management and leadership is difficult. I believe most organizations are in the process of changing their culture to adapt to their changing business environment. For example, because information is so available through the internet and other technologies, all companies are confronted with the issue of information sharing within the organization and among organizations (as in joint ventures). The problem is that business environments seem to change rapidly and capriciously, whereas cultures change with great difficulty over long periods of time.

Sixth, different cultures can be at odds with one another. I’ve mentioned the difference between organizational culture and professional culture. Your work unit or company can be counter-culture. That is, what your work unit or company believes in can be at odds with what the larger organization or industry believes in. Being counter-culture is painful but can be needed for important culture change.

Seventh, to understand culture, we consider two different perspectives: functional and interpretive. In the functional perspective, we identify the functions of the culture and how they make up the culture (for example, how we bring in new employees or how we communicate and reinforce what we believe in). In the interpretive perspective (probably my favorite), we focus on the meaning of cultural artifacts and symbolism. As you know, I’ve taught at Virginia Tech for many years. I’ve seen adults weep at football games when the turkey gobbles. (The turkey is our mascot.) I’ve seen burnt orange and Chicago maroon (school colors) painted vans traveling up and down the highways of Virginia and beyond. Who in their right mind would be proud of being called “Hokie?” These artifacts remind those from this particular culture what they believe in and the totality of their educational experience (and other experiences) at Virginia Tech. Symbols are hugely significant. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Give me a few colored ribbons and I’ll get people to give up their lives for me.”

Eighth, we must look carefully at the used and espoused cultures. This difference is the root of change, for better or worse. This difference is how we manage the culture.

As you consider your organization, what do you observe that tells you about the culture? What do you think and how do you feel about the culture you have? What about the culture that’s espoused? Do you approve of the changes? Who is (and who should) manage your culture? How well do the organization’s beliefs and values align with your personal beliefs and values? How important are the differences to you?