What makes culture tick?

My last blog offered little practical help for the woman asked to ‘Change Culture’! The flexible labour markets of today’s world of work may reduce the difficulty of changing an organisation’s culture, because workers don’t have lifetime commitments to one organisation, but culture is still described as something ‘habitual’. It is time to explore this intriguing question further.

Hofstede suggests that organisational culture will ‘be partly predetermined by nationality, industry, task, and market and partly related to organisational variables such as structure and control systems, and partly unique products of idiosyncratic features such as the organisation’s history or the personality of its founder’.

Let’s look at each of these. The first group are external factors and the list given above could easily be extended. Government policy may have a powerful influence over what is valued, as may politics, religion, the state of the economy, media perspectives and fashion. Clearly if you are a KM believer, then changes in management theories such as the growth of KM as a discipline will also influence organisational cultures. The range of external pressure is important where external knowledge sharing is an essential component of KM, particularly in the age of social media. It makes sense to avoid viewing organisational culture as if it exists in an imaginary bubble.

One external factor likely to influence culture are the links staff may have to their own professional groups. So it can be questioned: does the culture of an accounts department reflects their professional background, rather than the culture of the rest of the organisation? Does organisational culture trump the differences between an accountant and a PR expert? Or will their specialisms set the cultural agenda? This suggests the idea of sub-cultures, where one team can have a culture that differs noticeably from others. Any KM specialist will want to consider subcultures before they leap in to make changes!

Or will class be a vital influence? Some authors claim managers, technical staff and manual labour have more in common with their own class of employees, than with an all embracing organisational culture. A variation of this is the idea of a professional subculture among those with high education, or an admin subculture or a customer facing subculture, where the nature of the qualifications and job orientation form the cultural setting.

This would suggest the culture change agent should consider the sector of her organisation. Do voluntary organisations, public bodies and corporations have differences that outweigh other factors? As we follow this route, there seem to be more questions than answers.

Internal factors will link to the external ones in complex ways, but obvious candidates for cultural importance would be the quality and focus of leadership, the levels of hierarchy, frequency of change, and levels of trust, fear etc. Leadership involves not just the formal top dogs, but also other influencers, perhaps powerful via a trade union, or through informal links, gossip and friendship groups or alliances. The quality of formal communications, mission statements and vision may compete against some of these informal ties. There are plenty of examples of organisations that change with growth and success. Google looks to be a prime example of this in our time.

The last group – the idiosyncratic features – will need a local view to tease out. Founders, religious links, historical triumphs or tragedies, local ‘folk-law’ can all set the tone for the internal culture, closely associated to the size, success and length of existence of the organisation.

For an international organisation this analysis suggests there are plenty of possible factors to juggle with! No wonder the simple instruction; ‘change the culture’ raised ironic eyebrows.

And in case anyone was still hopeful of a handy global recipe for culture change, Hofstede avers: ‘whereas national cultures differed primarily in their values, organisational cultures turned out to differ mainly in their practices’. And therefore there is: ‘strong evidence that global solutions to organisational and management problems do not exist’

Alas, practical levers for our hopeful culture changer have to wait for a later blog…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s