Best definitions of organisational culture

Memory Nguwi

I HAVE put together information that will help you understand organisational culture definition in detail. When you define organisational culture properly, organisational culture change becomes even easy.

Various scholars and top authors have defined organisational culture based on their theories and experience and I am sharing some the definitions of organisational culture here.

This understanding will help you as you go through the process of organisational culture change. Without an understanding of organisational culture, most of the organisational culture change efforts fail. I have researched about organisational culture by looking at the top scholars on organisational culture and picked the best definitions.

“Corporate culture means different things to different people. There are more than 50 distinct definitions in the academic literature, including the stories employees tell to interpret events, organisational rituals, and corporate symbols. The official culture statements we studied, in contrast, display a striking consistency in how they define corporate culture.” Donald Sull, Stefano Turconi and Charles Sull (2020)
What is organisational culture?

Hofstede (1991) defines organisational culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes a member of one group from another”. It is evident from this definition that organisational culture is a shared group phenomenon that results from how a group interacts with its environment. The keywords in this definition are that it is the “collective programming of the mind”. If you take literally from the software side, once software has been programmed, to change it you would need to update the software through programming again. This means that in essence organisational culture according to Hofstede represents instructions and commands installed in the minds of the people. The instructions are equally shared by all group members? Organisational culture is a group phenomenon, once a group has been programmed, the only way to change the culture of the organisation is for you to uninstall the current programme and put in another programme or upgrade the current programme. Even from a software point of view, that is not an easy task. The definition implies that different cultural groups can have different programmes which make them different. The other key takeaway from this definition of organisational culture is that organisational culture cannot be present in one person and one person cannot represent organisational culture. People from the same organisational culture group are likely to show similar behaviour patterns as they deal with day to day challenges of life. This definition of organisational culture allows organisations to study and understand group behaviour and to maximise that behaviour for the benefit of the organisation. According to Hofstede, you can take organisational culture as “software of the mind”.

Edgar Schein (2004) defines organisational culture as “the pattern of shared basic assumptions — invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration — that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems”. In this definition of organisational culture, the key theme is that organisational culture is a group phenomenon. It is a product of shared experience by a group of people as they try to cope with the challenges in their environment. What is interesting in this definition is that organisational culture can be taught to new members as a “ way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems”. For those involved in organisational culture change, the best way to transform the culture of the organisation is to remember that organisational culture can be taught to new members of the organisation. This implies that if you want to change the organisational culture you can have a plan that teaches old members your preferred organisational culture. Although not easy, the underlying principle in this is that when teaching people the new and preferred organisational culture, it must be shared experience by a group of people for it to stick.

S Chris Edmonds defines organisational culture as follows: “Culture is all about how people treat each other — how leaders treat their teams and peers, how employees treat each other, and how people treat customers and vendors. It’s about relationships and respect.” This definition of organisational culture focuses on how people interact within an organisational setting. These people include employees and other stakeholders. The emphasis is on relationship and respect that these people show to each other as they interact. The focus in this definition of organisational culture is building productive relationships centred on respect. Unlike the first two definitions of organisation culture, this definition focuses on the role played by the leadership in shaping organisational culture. Specifically, it looks at leaders as role models in the way they treat teams, peers and other key stakeholders. The assumption is that if leaders do this well exhibiting the types of behaviour they want to promote, it should stick on the rest of the organisational members.

To be continued next week.

Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker and managing consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and HR consulting firm. — or visit

One thought on “Best definitions of organisational culture”

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