Why Culture Typologies and Why Not?

When we observe the “natural” world, what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel are potentially overwhelming. By itself, “raw experience ” does not make sense, but our own cultural upbringing has taught us how to make sense of it through conceptual categories that are embedded in our language. What we experience as an infant is a “blooming, buzzing confusion” that is slowly put into order as we learn to discriminate objects such as chairs and tables, mother and father, light and dark and to associate words with those experi­enced objects and events.

By the time we are young adults, we have a complete vocabulary and set of conceptual categories that allow us to discriminate and label most of what we experience. We must not forget, however, that these categories and the language that goes with them are learned within a given culture, and such learning continues as we move into new cultures such as occupations and organizations. The engineer learns new categories and words, as do the doctor, the lawyer, and the manager. The employee going into DEC and the employee going into Ciba-Geigy learn different things.

New concepts become useful if they (1) help to make sense and provide some order out of the observed phenomena, (2) help to define what may be the underlying structure in the phenomena by building a theory of how things work, which, in turn, (3) enables us to predict to some degree how other phe­nomena that may not yet have been observed are going to look. However, in the process of building new categories, we inevitably must become more abstract. As we develop such abstractions, it becomes possible to develop models, typologies, and theories of how things work. The advantage of such typologies and the theories they permit us to postulate is that they attempt to order a great variety of different phenomena. The disadvantage and danger is that they are so abstract that they do not reflect adequately the reality of a given set of phenomena being observed. In this sense, typologies can be use­ful if we are trying to compare many organizations but can be quite useless if we are trying to understand one particular organization.

The typologies and models that we use gradually come to be our view of reality, and this simplifies the daily work of making sense of lived experi­ence. Such simplification is useful in reducing anxiety and conserving men­tal energy. The danger is that we narrow our attention span and become more mindless with respect to what we are observing. Such narrowing can be very useful if we are dealing with phenomena of little consequence. Labeling restaurants or banks as being “command and control” type orga­nizations is okay if we are just occasional customers. However, if it becomes critical in an economic downturn to decide whether or not to continue to keep our money in the particular bank in our neighborhood, the “type” of bank it is may become critical, and we may then need a broader set of dimensions around which to analyze the culture of that particular bank. If we have relied too much on a given typology, we may not have the concep­tual tools to analyze our particular bank.

A third issue in using typologies concerns the question of how we arrive at the abstract label. A number of the culture models we will review gather data by asking employees how they perceive their organization. The percep­tions are then aggregated and combined into a more abstract concept. The concept is often derived from factor analyzing a broad set of questionnaire responses to determine which items hang together and, therefore, suggest a category that hangs together in the employee’s perceptions. Those “factors” are then labeled and described in summary fashion. For example, the label “strategic direction and intent” (Denison, 1990) and the culture score on that dimension is based on combining employee ratings of their own orga­nization on the following items:

  • There is a long-term purpose and direction.
  • Our strategy leads other organizations to change the way they compete in the industry.
  • There is a clear mission that gives meaning and direction to our work.
  • There is a clear strategy for the future.
  • Our strategic direction is unclear to me (reverse scoring).

That final score can be a reliable measure of employee perception and a valid indicator of the degree to which a given set of employees believes that their organization has a strong or weak strategy, but the question remains whether that score can be a measure of culture as defined in this book.

1. Problems in the Use of Surveys

A number of the typologies we will review depend upon employee surveys that are scored in the manner described so we need to ask what are the problems and issues in the use of surveys as culture measures.

  • Not knowing what to ask. If we define culture as covering all of the internal and external dimensions that have been reviewed in the past several chapters, we would need a huge survey to cover all of those pos­sible dimensions. What this means for a particular organization is that basically we would not know what questions to put into the survey.

Unless we did some other form of deciphering first, we would not know which dimensions are salient for the organization and part of their deep cultural “DNA” and which dimensions are basically irrelevant. If we used one of the existing surveys, we would not know whether or not we had picked the right one in terms of what was important in that organization. Each survey would claim to analyze “the culture” or important “dimensions of the culture,” but there would be no a priori way of knowing how to evaluate those claims.

  • Employees may not be motivated to be honest. Employees are always encouraged to be frank and honest in their answers, usually supple­mented by the assurance that their answers will be kept completely confidential. The fact that such assurances need to be given in the first place implies that our original assumption is that employees would not be open if their answers were known. Because culture is a living real­ity, we ought to use a method that allows people to be open. Too many questions in the surveys require evaluations and judgments that cause employees to be careful in how they answer.
  • Employees may not understand the questions or interpret them dif­ferently. “There is a clear strategy for the future” presumes that the employees have similar definitions of the word “strategy.” If we cannot make this assumption, then amalgamating their answers does not make sense. It is therefore very difficult to infer a “shared” concept from indi­vidual responses.
  • What is measured may be accurate but superficial. It is difficult to get at the deeper levels of a culture from paper and pencil perceptions. Culture is an intrinsically shared phenomenon that only manifests itself in interaction, so whatever dimensions are measured by the survey are bound to be superficial.
  • The sample of employees surveyed may not be representative of the key culture carriers. Most survey administrators assume that if they have done a careful job of sampling and testing their sample against total organizational demographics, that they can validly describe the whole based on the sample. This logic may not work for culture because the driving forces in a culture can be the executive subculture, and, as Martin has pointed out, the culture may be fragmented and differentiated around many subcultures that the survey would have no way of identifying statistically. With qualitative knowledge of the orga­nization based on observation and group interviews, we could identify certain groups and test for survey differences, but we would need the prior knowledge.
  • The profile of dimensions does not reveal their interaction or pat­terning into a total system. The survey reports are often presented as profiles or as scores on the spokes of a wheel to give an impression of an integrated measure, but the deep interactions of assumptions about dimensions such as “the nature of truth” and how that was related in DEC to the egalitarian and conflictive style of decision making will not reveal itself.
  • The impact of taking the survey will have unknown consequences some of which may be undesirable or destructive. Answering ques­tions forces employees to think about categories that may never have occurred to them and to make value judgments in areas that are con­troversial. Not only are individuals influenced in this way, but if they share value judgments such as discovering that they are each very cyni­cal about the leadership of the organization, negative group attitudes can be built up that will damage the organization’s ability to function. Furthermore, expectations are set up in employees that once manage­ment gets the results, they will take action to improve areas in which employees voiced complaints. If management does not respond, morale can go down, and management may not know why this happened.

2. When to Use Surveys

Having identified some of the problems with surveys as measures of a par­ticular organization’ s culture, there are, nevertheless, times when surveys might be useful and appropriate, as described in the following list.

  • Determining whether particular dimensions of culture are system­atically related to some element of performance. To that end, we want to study a large number of cultures and need a way of compar­ing them on just those dimensions and on their performance. Doing full ethnographic studies is either impractical or too expensive, so we settle for an operational definition of the abstract dimension we want to measure and design a standardized interview, observational check­list, or survey to get a rating or score on each organization. These scores can then be correlated with various other performance measures across many organizations (Corlett and Pearson, 2003; Denison, 1990; Denison and Mishra, 1995; Cooke and Szumal, 1993).
  • Giving a particular organization a profile of itself to stimulate a deeper analysis of the culture of that organization. The assumption here is that the scores on the dimensions measured are presented as “how the employees perceive this organization” not as an absolute measure of the culture. These perceptions can then become a stimulus for further work on improving organizational performance. To facilitate such improve­ment, the surveys ask not only “how you perceive your organization in the present” but also “how would you like your organization to be in the future.” In terms of the preceding example, employees might indicate on the Strategic Intent dimension that they have a low score in the pres­ent and would like their organization to be higher on this dimension. When using surveys in this way, it is important to follow up the cultural deciphering with other methods and not to assume that the given profile is the culture.
  • Comparing organizations to each other on selected dimensions as preparation for mergers, acquisitions, and joint ventures. This can be useful if we have some idea of the dimensions that need to be com­pared and if we can assume that the employees will willingly take the survey and answer honestly.
  • Testing whether certain subcultures that we suspect to be present can be objectively differentiated and defined in terms of preselected dimensions that a survey can identify. If we suspect that the engineer­ing subculture and the operator subculture have different assumptions along the lines described in the “Three Generic Subcultures” section of Chapter Four, we can design a survey to check this out, provided we can get valid samples and assuming that we are getting honest answers.
  • Educating employees about certain important dimensions that man­agement wants to work on. For example, if the future performance of the organization depends on consensus and commitment to a certain strategy, the survey questions reviewed previously can become a vehicle both for testing present perceptions and for launching change programs around building commitment to the strategy.

In each of these cases, the principle applies that we should think care­fully whether or not giving the survey will have possible negative conse­quences and involve the relevant parties in making the decision on whether or not to go ahead. Having provided this background, we can now look at several typologies that are based on theoretical categories and “measured” with survey data.

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

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