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Best organisational culture definitions

Memory Nguwi

Continued from last week

l Dr Elliott Jaques (1951) defines organisational culture as follows “the culture of the factory is its customary and traditional way of thinking and doing of things, which is shared to a greater or lesser degree by all its members, and which new members must learn, and at least partially accept, to be accepted into service in the firm”.

The keywords here are that organisational culture is a customary and traditional way of thinking and doing things. It is shared by all its members again underpinning that fact that it is a group phenomenon. Interesting to note in this definition of organisational culture is that new members must learn and partially accept that this is the way things are done here or else they will not be accepted into the organisation.

This definition dovetails with how Edgar Schein defines organisational culture. An interesting lesson here is that it is very likely that any attempt to change organisational culture by focusing on a few individuals may not succeed, as the group need to have some form of consensus on the group mode of thinking and doing things.

l Ravasi and Schultz (2006) define organisational culture as “a set of shared assumptions that guide behaviours”. This definition of organisational culture implies that these assumptions are shared by a group and forms the foundation of that group’s behaviour. The fact that this definition takes this as a group phenomenon, means new members will need to be taught the new way of doing things.

l In her book Organisational culture change, Marcella Brema(2012) defines organisational culture as “ it’s how we do things around here”. She further indicates that culture can be observed: “when you enter a building, you get a glimpse of corporate culture right away from what you see — how the office looks and what people are doing”. She, however, acknowledges that the above definition of organisational culture is simplistic as it is hard to observe because “culture is not visible from the outside right away”. This definition of organisational culture acknowledges that what drives what you see as characterisation of organisational culture at the surface does not reflect the true culture of the organisation. The author goes to say, “Culture is not just how we do things around here. The other part of culture is under the water’s surface and that is how we think and feel about what we are doing here. Why are we doing these things in this particular way.” This author acknowledges that organisational culture has a component that is hidden, that drives the behaviour of those living in that organisational culture.

l Cameron and Quinn look at organisational culture differently. They see organisational culture as characterised by the organisation falling into one or more of the four quadrants. The first one is Clan culture quadrant, which focuses on doing things together. The second one is the hierarchy culture which focuses on doing things right.

The third one is the adhocracy culture which focuses on doing things first. The fourth and final one is a market culture which focuses on doing things first.

Organisations according to the authors can fall into any one of these cultures and sometimes they can have a bit of all the four cultures but there will be one dominant organisational culture.

l Scholtz (1987) defines organisational culture through the identification of five culture types; stable, reactive, anticipating, exploring and creative. This definition of organisational culture is more behavioural. As an example, if the organisational culture is reactive it means it lacks pre-planning in the way people in the organisation deal with the challenges they face. This definition has high face validity, as many people are likely to find a connection and meaning when describing organisational culture using this approach. It does not talk about the underlying beliefs or the fact that organisational culture is a product of shared learning experience.

l O’Reilly, Chatman and Caldwell (1991) look at seven core characteristics of organisational culture. These are innovation and risk-taking, attention to detail, outcome orientation, people orientation, team orientation aggressiveness and stability. This definition of organisational culture takes a behavioural approach to organisational culture. For example, if the organisation’s culture is people-oriented, it means the focus is that goals and outcomes of the organisation will be achieved through prioritising people and people practices.

In conclusion, I would like to emphasise again that no organisation will be able to achieve organisational culture transformation without understanding what organisational culture is. A clear definition of organisational culture gives clarity to the process of organisational culture transformation. As an example, for those that decide to take the definition to include underlying assumptions and beliefs the culture change journey will dig beneath the surface to understand what drives the behaviour of the different cultural groups.

This process of organisational culture transformation is unlikely to be achieved through assessing culture through questionnaires. This process would likely need deeper analysis such as focus group discussions.

If you decide to take the behavioural approach the journey on organisational culture change is likely to focus on the surface, on observable behaviour.

Whichever approach you decide to take as you go through your organisational culture change programme it must be anchored on your understanding of what organisational culture is.

Nguwi is an occupational psychologist, data scientist, speaker and managing consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and HR consulting firm. https://www.linkedin.com/in/memorynguwi/ Phone +263 24 248 1 946-48/ 2290 0276, cell number +263 772 356 361 or e-mail: mnguwi@ipcconsultants.com or visit ipcconsultants.com.

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