15 March 2006

Organizational Culture and Organizational Effectiveness

This is the next installment in what has become an online seminar in organizational effectiveness. For the previous installments, you can find the links in the category post on Organizational Effectiveness, and the Future of Organizations.

Picking up on the previous conversation, Schein summarizes the relationship among artefacts, behavioural manifestations in response to internal and external circumstances, and the contextual assumptive grounds that create meaning, in his definition of culture:
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. (Schein, 1990, p. 111)

Separating the various clauses in Schein’s definition enables a more careful probing of the specific dynamics that enact the emergence of an organizational culture. From the first two clauses it is clear that culture is a tacit, non-explicit, emergent phenomenon that is, nonetheless, actively constructed by a group. The fact that Schein chooses to define it as patterns of assumptions – that subsequently manifest as responsive behaviours – suggests that much of said construction may occur reflexively, in the absence of active awareness or overt, reflective consideration. Moreover, as a reflexive construction that may occur below the threshold of consequential awareness, the emergence of these patterns of assumptions might not be consistent with espoused intentions, let alone what Argyris and Schön (1974) might characterize as espoused theory – a line of thought to which I will return.

The reflexive learning that coalesces patterns of assumptions is done in response to “problems of external adaptation and internal integration” (1990, p. 111), consistent with Quinn and Rohrbaugh’s (1983) focus axis. That the learning is done in response to problems suggests that, as a matter of practical experience, cultural learning may be unavoidably contextualized by collective and cumulative expediency. In other words, the solutions from which underlying assumptions are tacitly extracted have worked “well enough,” according to some dominant subgroup that considers the solutions valid. A critical perspective would necessarily question the mechanisms whereby dissenting voices on the validity of the extracted assumptions would systemically be prevented from being heard, and more important, prevented from incorporating alternative patterns into the emerging cultural construct. Such critical probing would undoubtedly reveal more of the hidden ground of the culture, and its constructive processes.

The means through which these newly developed or discovered assumptions are taught to new members also reveals much about the indigenous, extant organizational culture. Clearly, according to Schein’s final clause, it is normative responses, attitudes and behaviours that are being taught. The teaching is effected through whatever learning mechanisms have been previously found to have “worked well enough to be considered valid” (1990, p. 111). Again from a critical ground, I am moved to query what constitutes working “well enough.” Is there a mechanism to challenge the ultimate validity of pattern assumptions that might result in indirect, unexpected, or unintended outcomes that may be sufficiently removed in time, space, or both to be causally connected to the prior learning? The all-too-common cliché of “unintended consequences” – so prevalent as to be colloquially referred to as a “law”– suggests that such a feedback mechanism is widely lacking.

Traditional organizations often exist as relatively closed, culturally-independent societies with distinct barriers between themselves and the so-called outside world. For such organizations, the expedient construction of emergent cultural assumptions, in the general absence of active awareness of temporal or geographical outcomes and effects is, to say the least, highly problematic. Indeed, what would be more useful is a means of feedforward, or anticipatory environmental perception, embedded in the experience of cultural learning.

Almost every author from whom I am drawing for this investigation speaks of organizational effectiveness in terms of values, or underlying assumptions, or adaptations to internal and external influences, or combinations thereof. I would suggest that Schein’s conception of culture that directly addresses these terms offers a useful connection – a shorthand, if you will – for the contextual grounding within which an organization’s specific construct of effectiveness can be understood. Further, I propose that the unique evolution of a given organization’s culture – even within a common societal context – makes empirical comparisons of effectiveness among organizations a study not in relative goal attainment (for instance), but rather a proxy for the comparative investigation of cultural assumptions, values and processes through which adaptive enculturation occurs. Such an approach to understanding the relationship between organizational culture and organizational effectiveness explains why, for example, Quinn and Rohrbaugh’s competing values framework is such a useful diagnostic tool to gain insight into the nature and characteristics of an organization. One can easily see how it could be used to compare nominally similar organizations for difficult-to-observe differences in their respective values grounds, or how two distinct organizations with common origins (say, the result of divestitures or spin-offs) have come to differ over time.

What this means is that organizational effectiveness is actually a detector of sorts for corporate culture, essentially demonstrating what the company actually values, that, in turn, leads to espoused theory vs. theory-in-use. How organizational effectiveness is constructed, and the processes that lead to that construction, reveal much. On the other hand, when organizational effectiveness reporting becomes routine – essentially a cliché – unawareness sets in once again, permitting divergence between an expediently changing theory-in-use and a rote-repeated espoused theory. What’s more is that what I’m calling effect-ive theory – the held conceptions concerning the intended effects within the greater environment – never hold espoused theory to account because there is no corporate mechanism to do so (save radical intervention, at least at the moment). Now, I’m approaching the ability to build a plan for research, to discover effect-ive organizations, and ultimately, characteristics of the organization of the future.

Over time, I will be looking for participant organizations, hopefully representing a wide variety of sectors of society, worldwide. If you are a member of an organization (and especially if you are a decision-making member) that might be interested in participating and benefiting from the insights you may achieve (I’m a big believer in action research), drop me a line so that I can remember you when the time comes.

  • Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice: increasing professional effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 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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Anonymous said...

[This is being posted by Mark on behalf of the person who chose to email comments and remain anonymous.]

"The means through which these newly developed or discovered assumptions are taught to new members"

“Taught” is an important word here. When a person is newly hired by a corporation, presumably their manager “teaches” them how things are done around that company. But in the cases of mergers & acquisitions, suddenly the mergees find them part of a larger organization where clearly things are done differently, and there is no one to “teach” them how to do things. There is no [observable] formal process of “teaching” the culture.

Schein assumes teaching takes place. That may not be the case. A newly-hired person also may flounder as they do things differently from the norm because no one was kind enough to mentor him/her and teach him/her how things are customarily done.

[Other comments that are specific to the person's situation, and would identify the person, have been omitted. - MF]

Mark Federman said...

Thanks for your comment, anonymous. While you may be correct that typically no formal learning is done, there is, nonetheless, informal learning that occurs, based on patterned behaviours, role-modelling, trial-and-error, and positive/negative reinforcement relative to "correct/incorrect" normative behaviours.

This, too, is part of the culture; "sink or swim" is one way of learning, although not the most pleasant, I will grant you.

In particular, if there is a stark difference in the mechanisms of organizational learning between two companies that merge (or especially in the case of one company acquiring another) there will be considerable disorientation among members of one of the companies, namely the one whose previously learned patterns are being disrupted.

The other thing to say is that one company cannot "touch" another company without being touched itself. Even in a "sink or swim" learning environment, a new swimmer may be able to begin a process of change in which old-timers might finally realize that offering swimming lessons are a good idea.