Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Does anyone care about organizational culture?

Organizational culture. What is it? Why is it important? What is happening to yours right now?

These are big questions to ponder. If you don't understand the culture of your own organization and recognize the signs of what it is then you increase the risk of failing. Understanding an organizations' culture and using it as a guide is necessary to developing an appropriate plan for implementing desired changes. Those changes are happening all the time. They may big as an agency wide reorganization or as small as new seating arrangements. They are happening and how you implement them can either enhance the organization or cause harm.

If you don't know the true nature of your own organizational culture you may risk alienating partners, struggle with poor implementation of desired changes and even end up damaging the relationships, products or services that you deliver to your clients.

I've heard senior management at several organizations pay lip service to understanding their own organizational culture. They either believe that the espoused values in their own literature are absolutely true, don't care because they suffer from severe case of hubris and ego or haven't taken the time to understand what they have built around them. This is dangerous, especially if your espoused values are all about providing an environment that cares about its' employees. Often times a candidate for a job is interviewing a company as much as the company is interviewing them for fit. A lack of understanding of your organizational culture will prevent you from properly managing expectations for new employees.

So what can you do?

There are three basic ways to start understanding the culture of your organization:

1. Espoused Values - what is the organization saying about itself? Check out all literature, press releases, books, videos and websites where the organization makes statements about what it is, what it values, why it exists and whom it serves.

2. Visible Artifacts - What can you see around the organization? Artifacts are some of the most visible expressions of the culture. These may be in the architecture and office decor, organizational charts, seating arrangements, personal appearance standards, the organizational processes and structures, and the rituals, symbols and celebrations. Other artifacts of culture are found in logos, brochures, company slogans, and titles. All of these artifacts communicate and reinforce the culture embraced by an organization.

3. Shared Tacit Understanding - Understanding this level requires getting at the heart of what the organizations' history, values, beliefs and assumptions really are. Not just what is espoused, but what is. These are beliefs and values that gradually tend to become shared and taken for granted. What are people really saying about the organization? Check out employee blogs, message boards, talk to individuals in the trenches, read between the lines. There is a truth about the organization that is not written in any literature. Here are few questions to ask yourself to start understanding the shared tacit beliefs of your organization:

* What 10 words would you use to describe your company?
* Around here what is really important?
* Who gets promoted?
* What behaviors get rewarded?
* Who fits in and who doesn't?

As you are going through these steps you may find distinct sub-cultures within your organization. This is not unusual for organizations that are large in size or have multiple offices and disciplines. Having separate and distinct cultures within your organization is not necessarily a bad thing. It may in fact be what makes your organization great. The key is to find out where you stand and pay attention to these signs and symbols as you grow, move or change over time.

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