Organizational Culture: An Empirically Based Abstraction

Culture as a concept has had a long and checkered history. Laymen have used it as a word to indicate sophistication, as when we say that someone is very “cultured.” Anthropologists have used it to refer to the customs and rituals that societies develop over the course of their history. In the past several decades, some organizational researchers and managers have used it to describe the norms and practices that organizations develop around their handling of people or as the espoused values and credo of an organization. This sometimes confuses the concept of culture with the concept of climate, and confuses culture as what is with culture as what ought to be.

Thus managers speak of developing the “right kind of culture,” a “cul­ture of quality,” or a “culture of customer service,” suggesting that culture has to do with certain values that managers are trying to inculcate in their organizations. Also implied in this usage is the assumption that there are better or worse cultures, stronger or weaker cultures, and that the “right” kind of culture would influence how effective organizations are. In the managerial literature, there is often the implication that having a culture is necessary for effective performance, and that the stronger the culture, the more effective the organization.

Researchers have supported some of these views by reporting findings that certain cultural dimensions do correlate with economic performance, but this research is hard to evaluate because of the many definitions of culture and the variety of indexes of performance that are used (Wilderom, Glunk, and Maslowski, 2000). Consultants and researchers have touted “culture surveys” and have claimed that they can improve organizational performance by helping organizations create certain kinds of cultures, but these claims are often based on a very different definition of culture than the one I will be arguing for here (Denison, 1990; Sackman and Bertelsman, 2006). As we will see, whether or not a culture is “good” or “bad,” “func­tionally effective,” or not, depends not on the culture alone but on the relationship of the culture to the environment in which it exists.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of culture as a concept is that it points us to phenomena that are below the surface, that are powerful in their impact but invisible and to a considerable degree unconscious. Culture cre­ates within us mindsets and frames of reference that Marshak (2006) iden­tified as one of a number of important covert processes. In another sense, culture is to a group what personality or character is to an individual. We can see the behavior that results, but we often cannot see the forces under­neath that cause certain kinds of behavior. Yet, just as our personality and character guide and constrain our behavior, so does culture guide and con­strain the behavior of members of a group through the shared norms that are held in that group.

Culture as a concept is thus an abstraction. If an abstract concept is to be useful to our thinking, it should be observable yet increase our understanding of a set of events that are otherwise mysterious or not well understood. From this point of view, I will argue that we must avoid the superficial models of culture and build on the deeper, more complex anthropological models. Those models refer to a wide range of observable events and underlying forces, as shown in the following list.

  • Observed behavioral regularities when people interact: The language they use, the customs and traditions that evolve, and the rituals they employ in a wide variety of situations (for example, Goffman, 1959, 1967; Jones and others, 1988; Trice and Beyer, 1993; Van Maanen, 1979b).
  • Group norms: The implicit standards and values that evolve in working groups, such as the particular norm of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” that evolved among workers in the Bank Wiring Room in the Hawthorne studies (for example, Homans, 1950; Kilmann and Saxton, 1983).
  • Espoused values: The articulated publicly announced principles and val­ues that the group claims to be trying to achieve, such as “product quality” or “price leadership” (for example, Deal and Kennedy, 1982, 1999).
  • Formal philosophy: The broad policies and ideological principles that guide a group’s actions toward stockholders, employees, customers, and other stakeholders such as the highly publicized “HP Way” of the Hewlett-Packard Co. (for example, Ouchi, 1981; Pascale and Athos, 1981; Packard, 1995).
  • Rules of the game: The implicit, unwritten rules for getting along in the organization, “the ropes” that a newcomer must learn to become an accepted member, “the way we do things around here” (for example, Schein, 1968, 1978; Van Maanen, 1976, 1979b; Ritti and Funkhouser, 1987).
  • Climate: The feeling that is conveyed in a group by the physical layout and the way in which members of the organization interact with each other, with customers, or with other outsiders (for example, Ashkanasy, and others 2000; Schneider, 1990; Tagiuri and Litwin, 1968).
  • Embedded skills: The special competencies displayed by group members in accomplishing certain tasks, the ability to make certain things that get passed on from generation to generation without necessarily being articulated in writing (for example, Argyris and Schon, 1978; Cook and Yanow, 1993; Henderson and Clark, 1990; Peters and Waterman, 1982; Ang and Van Dyne, 2008).
  • Habits of thinking, mental models, and/or linguistic paradigms: The shared cognitive frames that guide the perceptions, thought, and language used by the members of a group and are taught to new members in the early socialization process (for example, Douglas, 1986; Hofstede, 1991, 2001; Van Maanen, 1979b; Senge, Roberts, Ross, Smith, and Kleiner, 1994).
  • Shared meanings: The emergent understandings that are created by group members as they interact with each other (for example, Geertz, 1973; Smircich, 1983; Van Maanen and Barley, 1984; Weick, 1995, Weick and Sutcliffe, 2001; Hatch and Schultz, 2004).
  • “Root metaphors” or integrating symbols: The ways that groups evolve to characterize themselves, which may or may not be appreciated consciously, but that get embodied in buildings, office layouts, and other material artifacts of the group. This level of the culture reflects the emotional and aesthetic response of members as contrasted with the cognitive or evaluative response (for example, Gagliardi, 1990; Hatch, 1990; Pondy, Frost, Morgan, and Dandridge, 1983; Schultz, 1995).
  • Formal rituals and celebrations: The ways in which a group celebrates key events that reflect important values or important “passages” by members such as promotion, completion of important projects, and milestones (Trice and Beyer, 1993, Deal and Kennedy, 1982, 1999).

All of these concepts and phenomena relate to culture and/or reflect culture in that they deal with things that group members share or hold in common, but none of them can usefully be thought of as the culture of a country, organization, occupation, or group. You might wonder why we need the word culture at all when we have so many other concepts such as norms, values, behavior patterns, rituals, traditions, and so on. However, the word culture adds several other critical elements to the concept of shar­ing. The concept of culture implies structural stability, depth, breadth, and patterning or integration.

1. Structural Stability

Culture implies some level of structural stability in the group. When we say that something is “cultural” we imply that it is not only shared but also sta­ble because it defines the group. After we achieve a sense of group identity, which is a key component of culture, it is our major stabilizing force and will not be given up easily. Culture is something that survives even when some members of the organization depart. Culture is hard to change because group members value stability in that it provides meaning and predictability.

2. Depth

Culture is the deepest, often unconscious part of a group and is therefore less tangible and less visible. From this point of view, most of the categories used to describe culture listed earlier can be thought of as manifestations of culture, but they are not the “essence” of what we mean by culture. Note that when something is more deeply embedded that also lends stability.

3. Breadth

A third characteristic of culture is that after it has developed, it covers all of a group ’s functioning. Culture is pervasive and influences all aspects of how an organization deals with its primary task, its various environments, and its internal operations. Not all groups have cultures in this sense, but the concept connotes that if we refer to “the culture” of a group, we are referring to all of its operations.

4. Patterning or Integration

The fourth characteristic that is implied by the concept of culture and that further lends stability is patterning or integration of the elements into a larger paradigm or “Gestalt” that ties together the various elements and resides at a deeper level. Culture implies that rituals, climate, values, and behaviors tie together into a coherent whole, and this pattern or integration is the essence of what we mean by “culture.” Such patterning or integration ultimately derives from the human need to make our environment as sensible and orderly as we can (Weick, 1995). Disorder or senselessness makes us anxious, so we will work hard to reduce that anxiety by developing a more consistent and predictable view of how things are and how they should be. Thus: “Organizational cul­tures, like other cultures, develop as groups of people struggle to make sense of and cope with their worlds” (Trice and Beyer, 1993, p. 4).

How then should we think about this “essence” of culture, and how should we formally define it? The most useful way to arrive at a definition of something as abstract as culture is to think in dynamic evolutionary terms. If we can understand where culture comes from, how it evolves, then we can grasp something that is abstract, that exists in a group ’s unconscious, yet that has powerful influences on a group’s behavior.

Any social unit that has some kind of shared history will have evolved a culture. The strength of that culture depends on the length of time, the stability of membership of the group, and the emotional intensity of the actual historical experiences they have shared. We all have a common- sense notion of this phenomenon, yet it is difficult to define it abstractly. The formal definition that I propose and will work with builds on this evo­lutionary perspective and argues that the most fundamental characteristic of culture is that it is a product of social learning.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

One thought on “Organizational Culture: An Empirically Based Abstraction

  1. Huey Calzado says:

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