03 March 2006

Deep Thinking on Organizational Culture and Effectiveness

Thinking out loud about organizational effectiveness, part 3. Part 1 deals with espoused, in-use, and what I call effect-ive theories. Part 2 discusses and extends the competing values framework for organizational effectiveness. This post focuses on organizational culture. Warning: this, too, is a long post.

Most people will acknowledge the existence of the elusive notion of organizational culture, that highly subjective characteristic that sociologically distinguishes one organization from another, especially when both exist within a relatively common context. Culture is often used to refer to the various idiosyncrasies adopted by the members of a collaborative endeavour that may encompass everything from dress code, through behaviour at meetings, to who makes the next pot of coffee. Edgar Schein, writing [access to Scholars Portal required] in the journal, American Psychologist, in 1990, describes culture as
what a group learns over a period of time as that group solves its problems of survival in an external environment and its problems of internal integration. Such learning is simultaneously a behavioural, cognitive, and an emotional process.
He goes on to provide a definition:
Culture can now be defined as (a) a pattern of basic assumptions, (b) invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, (c) as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, (d) that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore (e) is to be taught to new members as the (f) correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. [I added the letter separations.]

Culture is manifest in observable artefacts, values, and underlying assumptions – a researcher could, for example, pay attention to formal artefacts, such as mission or value statements and policy guidelines, as well as performance evaluation criteria, activity reporting cycles, the nature of social events, the way in which emails are signed off, and the arrangement of offices (and/or cubicles). When interpreted relative to the dual grounds of espoused theories and theories-in-use, values that are the precursors to culture can be discovered. Values that have “withstood the test of time” and are no longer questioned comprise the underlying assumptions of culture. These can be especially strong if, for example, the organizational learning that contributed to the development of those values was “traumatic … which leads to the group counterpart of what would be repression in the individual,” according to Schein.

Cultural values and affective behaviours are passed from generation to generation of organization members through repeated behaviours modelled by leaders and other “old-timers” in their responses to critical situations. These become embedded among the membership via noting what leaders pay attention to, measure, and control; role modelling in “normal” or ordinary circumstances; demonstrable reward and punishment criteria; and hiring, firing and promotion criteria. Additionally, cultural values are communicated and learned through persistent organizational myths and legends that exemplify normative behaviours, attitudes, and values; physical organization of office environments and daily interactions; and organizational semiotics and linguistics – the affective buzzwords, slang, and in-jokes.

Taking apart Schein’s definition, I can begin to apply a slightly critical lens to some of the issues raised therein that especially impinge on the relationship between organizational culture and organizational effectiveness. Schein says that organizational culture is
  • a set of basic assumptions;
  • invented, discovered, and developed;
  • by a group;
So far, so good. The next two items specifically capture the fundamental tension that, in my view, characterize the basic problem that the construct of organizational effectiveness intends to solve. Organizational culture arises from the dual, paradoxical challenge of
  • coping with external adaptation;
  • and internal integration;
This, for example reflects the internal-external focus axis in Quinn & Rohrbaugh’s Competing Values Model of Organizational Effectiveness. The final three aspects of Schein’s definition provide the problematics that arise from the inherent tensions. The learned, cultural assumptions, and behavioural and attitudinal affectations that result,
  • work “well enough” to be considered valid (according to whom? Who might not agree with the assessment of validity? What happens to those dissenters?);
  • to be taught to new members (through what means? What happens if they resist? How do people negotiate inner conflicts between organizational and personally-held, extra-organizational values?);
  • as the correct way to think, feel, and perceive in relation to problems (in other words, imposed normative responses, attitudes, and behaviours that may be very local, and inconsistent with those of the greater society).
When decomposed in this way, it becomes clear that Schein’s definition is particularly applicable to traditional organizations that exist, more or less, as relatively closed, culturally-independent societies with distinct barriers between themselves and the “outside world.” While there is nothing that prevents members from introducing outside values into an organization’s cultural fabric (indeed, I would agree that the immediate societal environment plays a large role in the initial establishment of an indigenous organizational culture), the process of adaptive enculturation that Schein describes, as well as many people’s lived experience of cultural change – as experienced when moving from company to company, or perhaps more dramatically seen when two culturally distinct companies merge – generally tends to preclude such infiltration.

I would contend that throughout the 20th century, each era of dominant management thinking provides the primary ground within which certain cultural adaptations are considered acceptable and others are not. These would reflect the baseline of dominant organizational values active at the given time. In other words, values that emerge from collective experience and resultant learned responses in the context of any given organization are based on the dominant theory or paradigm of the day that attempts to explain and prescribe appropriate responses (that might include behaviours, but not exclusively) to challenges of external environment and internal integration. Conversely, a change in paradigm, of necessity, renders a change in the contextual ground within which culture and values have meaning, and hence, introduce perturbations in the collective perception of what responses work “well enough,” thereby challenging the existing culture in an otherwise relatively stable organization. The notion of the existence of a “correct way” to think, feel, and perceive for instance, is similarly called into question in the context of today’s emergent form, namely, a continually evolving enterprise, or among enterprises that exist in a continually evolving and unstable environment. This is perhaps especially true under UCaPP (ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate) conditions that are characterized by Castells’s (1996) “network enterprise”: the static notion of Schein’s organizational culture must necessarily break down.

The corollary to this reflects one of the basic problems of organizational change itself. Any vestigial remnants of cultural artefacts from an earlier era may – and likely would – impede adoption and assimilation of cultural influences and precursors from the more contemporary paradigm. This is why, for example, alignment between espoused and in-use theories may be consistent, but not effective. In turn, the type of anti-environment constructed via environmental perception – that, in turn, feeds effective theory – enables managers to discover obsolesced cultural artefacts lurking within their organizations. Such awareness would enable them to effect a transformation into an effective organization that is cognizant of its effects in the greater society, defining itself “in relation,” as an interdependent, rather than independent, entity.

  • Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Quinn, R., & Rohrbaugh, J. (1983). A spatial model of effectiveness criteria: towards a competing values approach to organizational analysis. Management Science, 29(3), 363-373.
  • Schein, E. H. (1990). Organizational Culture. American Psychologist, 45(2), 109-119.

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