At the surface is the level of artifacts, which includes all the phenomena that you would see, hear, and feel when you encounter a new group with an unfamiliar culture. Artifacts include the visible products of the group, such as the architecture of its physical environment; its language; its technology and products; its artistic creations; its style, as embodied in clothing, manners of address, and emotional displays; its myths and stories told about the organization; its published lists of values; and its observable rituals and ceremonies.
Among these artifacts is the “climate” of the group. Some culture analysts see climate as the equivalent to culture, but it is better thought of as the product of some of the underlying assumptions and is, therefore, a manifestation of the culture. Observed behavior is also an artifact as are the organizational processes by which such behavior is made routine. Structural elements such as charters, formal descriptions of how the organization works, and organization charts also fall into the artifact level.
The most important point to be made about this level of the culture is that it is both easy to observe and very difficult to decipher. The Egyptians and the Mayans both built highly visible pyramids, but the meaning of pyramids in each culture was very different—tombs in one, temples as well as tombs in the other. In other words, observers can describe what they see and feel but cannot reconstruct from that alone what those things mean in the given group. Some culture analysts argue that among the artifacts, you find important symbols that reflect deep assumptions of the culture, but symbols are ambiguous, and you can only test a person’s insight into what something may mean if the person has also experienced the culture at the deeper level of assumptions (Gagliardi, 1990, 1999).
It is especially dangerous to try to infer the deeper assumptions from artifacts alone because a person’s interpretations will inevitably be projections of his or her own feelings and reactions. For example, when you see a very informal, loose organization, you may interpret that as “inefficient” if your own background is based on the assumption that informality means playing around and not working. Or, alternatively, if you see a very formal organization, you may interpret that to be a sign of “l ack of innovative capacity” if your own experience is based on the assumption that formality means bureaucracy and standardization.
If the observer lives in the group long enough, the meanings of artifacts gradually become clear. If, however, you want to achieve this level of understanding more quickly, you must talk to insiders to analyze the espoused values, norms, and rules that provide the day-to-day operating principles by which the members of the group guide their behavior. This kind of inquiry takes you to the next level of cultural analysis.
Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.