Organisational Culture Tool: Basic Models And Analysis

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Summary

Organisational culture has traditionally been defined as collective behaviour and norms in an organisation that have formed over time through experience and the interpretation of it. The culture of an organisation is a kind of normative orientation for its members that ultimately holds the system together. Therefore, there is mostly a conscious side to it, a part that can be described by its members as: ‘That’s the way we do things here!’ or ‘These are our values and working principles’. On the other hand, there is generally also a sub-conscious side to behaviour patterns or ways of interpreting certain situations that members take for granted and are rarely aware of. These aspects of an organisational culture might be discernible to outsiders or not.

As organisational culture significantly affects the morale and engagement of the organisation’s members, it is generally seen as a key contributor to an organisation’s performance.

This tool is meant to be used to turn people’s focus inwards on their own organisation. It will help explore how synchronised are the espoused organisational values, such as those found in a vision and mission, with any collective behaviour patterns which members might explicitly highlight. An inconsistency between explicit values and what manifests in daily interactions at the work place can be a source of discontent and stress for members. If members similarly perceive a coherence in values, it tends to strengthen identification with an organisation’s goals and the overall level of engagement.

The overall approach of this tool is to compare explicit values, as mentioned in key documents or communication output, with observations and deeper insights from interviews on how values are manifested in everyday organisational life. Two models can then be used to conceptualise and describe the organisational culture.

As with any model, this work will not end with a representation of reality, but will serve as a tool to start conversations, compare views and perspectives and elicit discussions and visions about possible directions for future development.

Goal/Learning Objective/Expected Output

Raising the awareness of a team about the different elements that form the fabric of their organisational culture. Providing images and practices that encourage conversation about dissonances arising from perceived conflicts between actual ways of doing things and declared values. Helping to develop measures to increase consistency in values.

Way/level of dealing with subject at stake

Reflective work in exploring personal values and collective behaviour patterns; at the same time a strong focus on relationship building when facilitating exchange within a team about the perceived culture and the desired direction of culture change.

Application in moderation cycle

Divergence (inviting different perspectives) to emergence (deep insights that come up as part of the process) through to convergence (drawing conclusions on envisaged culture and measures to support it).

Duration

Half day to several days.

Group Size

Small to mid-sized groups. For larger groups it is suggested to split up into subgroups and either divide tasks or compare different findings.

Level of difficulty

Difficult

Facilitator

Support by an external facilitator is recommended as talking about one’s own organisational culture can be quite difficult and sensitive at times.

Materials needed

  • Flipchart paper
  • Markers
  • Possibly facilitation cards

Additional resources

Process description

Generally introduce the concept of organisational culture.

Collect key documents or communication outputs such as the vision, mission, statements on the website, organisational profiles or sets of guidelines: all to be scanned for explicitly mentioned values.

Introduce the ‘iceberg’ and ‘onion’ models. The iceberg model illustrates the idea that there are more visible and less visible elements of an organisational culture. It also emphasises the fact that the less visible elements by far surpass those elements that are more visible. This model can be used to generally introduce the concept of organisational culture.

The Onion Model again provides a framework for developing hypotheses regarding the actual culture of an organisation and how it has been formed. It is therefore used to conduct a culture analysis. The different layers of the onion are:

  • Visible surface, such as the physical environment, codes and practices.
  • Norms, rules, stated values.
  • Myths, individual histories, heroes, stories.
  • Core beliefs and values (what do we think about the world; how do we look at people and how they interact?)

The team collects information and data regarding all different levels. The fourth level of core beliefs, however, is difficult to directly observe or explore. Generally, the aim is to draw conclusions or come up with hypotheses that in turn can be crosschecked with other members of the organisation or with outsiders who know the organisation well.

NB. The Onion model presented here is actually a combination of the Hofstede Onion Model and the Edgar Schein model on organisational culture.

Information and data gathering needs to be thoroughly planned for:

  • How can we observe elements of the visible surface that tell us something about the culture of an organisation, what tells us about the culture of an organisation? This can include the overall layout of an office, the interior design, the way people greet each other, what clothes they wear, what atmosphere we sense when we walk into an office etc.
  • In order to dig deeper to the next levels, short interviews could be conducted with other representatives of the organisation not directly involved in this exercise, such as the founder, members of the Board, interns, administrative staff or external partners. The aim is to find out what explicit values and cultural traits members of the organisation highlight, but also collect data that point to customs, practices and the values behind them. It’s essential here to include a variety of different perspectives (organisation members representing different hierarchies, functional groups or length of engagement) and to consider what is needed to create a trustful environment.
  • In developing guidelines for interview questions, key values that have been identified during the first step of this exercise are used. Observable indicators should be derived as comparison, such as: Communication patterns and feedback culture, the level of self-initiative, organisation and autonomy, decision-making patterns, practices for on- boarding new people, working hours (flexibility, level of over-time) etc.

The analysis of the collected data should look at three areas: a descriptive part (this is what we observed); hypotheses about the underwater parts of the iceberg or the inner elements of the onion; areas where possible discrepancies between declared and lived values have been found. It is important to stress here, that these hypotheses are always interpretations because organisational culture is a theoretical concept that can only be described based on personal perceptions. There is no objective form and description of organisational culture. Hence, in the end the concept of organisational culture serves to share and compare views, perceptions and experiences and provide a language to talk about often intangible phenomena.

The results of this analysis need to be presented and discussed with the overall organisation team in order to get feedback and validate what has been found.

The final step is to discuss how the organisation wants to deal with those areas where it was felt that declared values and actual behaviour patterns actually deviate from each other.

The guiding question here is what can be changed to achieve more coherence between those values that we deeply care about and the ways in which we interact and function in the organisation.

The analysis of the collected data should look at three areas: a descriptive part (this is what we observed); hypotheses about the underwater parts of the iceberg or the inner elements of the onion; areas where possible discrepancies between declared and lived values have been found. It is important to stress here, that these hypotheses are always interpretations because organisational culture is a theoretical concept that can only be described based on personal perceptions. There is no objective form and description of organisational culture. Hence, in the end the concept of organisational culture serves to share and compare views, perceptions and experiences and provide a language to talk about often intangible phenomena.

The results of this analysis need to be presented and discussed with the overall organisation team in order to get feedback and validate what has been found.

The final step is to discuss how the organisation wants to deal with those areas where it was felt that declared values and actual behaviour patterns actually deviate from each other. The guiding question here is what can be changed to achieve more coherence between those values that we deeply care about and the ways in which we interact and function in the organisation.

A side-note: Changing elements of organisational culture is not an easy endeavour. The famous monkey-banana experiment (which is a hypothetical experiment) is an illustration of how behaviour patterns form over time and are not being scrutinised or challenged any more.

However, core beliefs that guide collective behaviour can also be changed over time by allowing new and different experiences to take root.

Options for modification

Basic options are that a team more or less independently conducts a culture analysis of its own organisation. The facilitator supports the design and implementation of the process as well as contributes to the analysis of the findings by bringing in a fresh external perspective. If the organisation has a long history, and behaviour patterns are seen as having become already deeply entrenched, or if a team is inexperienced in raising and discussing sensitive issues then the role of the facilitator might need to be more pronounced in supporting (or even conducting) some of the interview work. In the case of the later the role of the facilitator is also to focus strongly on mirroring back what he/she sees as implicit values and patterns.

Debriefing options

The debriefing of this exercise should focus on two things:

  • how participants experienced the process and the exchange within the team and with the leadership about different observations and perspectives;
  • and what happened within the team as a consequence of starting the conversation about lived values and patterns of interaction.

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