What do people really mean when they talk about organisational culture?

5 May 2021
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

Culture is an intangible and abstract concept. Nonetheless, people have tried to develop tools to measure, assess and try to change organisational culture as if it were tangible and concrete. The danger of treating organisational culture in this way is that it reduces the tremendous complexity of an organisation and masks the power relations that shape organisational dynamics.

When CGIAR recently issued a request for proposals for a consultant to undertake a culture assessment, we saw this as an opportunity to continue exploring this crucial issue. OTT has always been concerned with the organisational culture of policy research organisations, but we have never quite addressed it head on.

The request for proposals was part of an ambitious reform to integrate its 14 centres, to move towards a One-CGIAR culture. For an organisation like CGIAR attempting to integrate multiple ‘units’ across geographical regions, we suggest focusing on something that is more tangible: employees’ practice and behaviour, and how that is enabled or constrained by factors inside and outside their particular office or unit.

Culture as an abstract concept

What is culture? Several authors and commentators from various fields including organisational and management theory have tried to define what it is. For instance:

  • Schein suggests that culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group has learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration.
  • Hatch suggests that organisational culture is the ‘way of life in an organisation’.
  • Morgan says organisational culture is a process of reality construction that allows people to see and understand particular events, actions, objects and utterances in distinctive ways.
  • Quinn and Cameron suggest that culture encompasses the taken-for-granted values, underlying assumptions, expectations, collective memories, and definitions present in an organisation, representing ‘how things are around here.’ It reflects the prevailing ideology that people carry inside their heads. It conveys a sense of identity to employees, provides unwritten and often unspoken guidelines for how to get along in the organisation, and it enhances the stability of the social system that they experience.
  • Alvesson defines culture as a frame of reference of beliefs, expressive symbols and values, by means of which individuals define their environment, express their feelings and make judgements

Culture is thus seen as intangible and abstract.

Nevertheless, a number of tools have been developed to measure, assess and then change organisational culture as if it were tangible and concrete.

For instance, Cameron and Quinn developed the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI), which is based on the competing value framework. It identifies two dimensions of culture: (1) stability and control versus flexibility and direction, and (2) internal focus versus external focus, which produces a 2 x 2 matrix, comprising four types of organisational culture: hierarchy, clan, market, and adhocracy.

Conventional organisational development practice suggests that once culture has been diagnosed, employees will be obliged to commit to a new set of values or reaffirm an existing set, as well as demonstrate a suite of required behaviours or new procedures.

However, this approach reduces the complexity of what is at stake when attempting to integrate the work of multiple units, be they programmes, teams or offices especially in large organisations, which may geographically dispersed.

A new framework: enabling and constraining factors

Rather than address culture, we suggest focussing on something more tangible: employees’ practice and behaviours and how that is enabled and constrained by various factors inside and outside their particular unit or office.

Drawing on our experience studying political and policy processes in the Global South, as well as organisations across the world, we developed a framework to help understand employee behaviour and practice. The framework draws on work by Cairney (2016); Green (2016); and Lewis et al (2003) and comprises the following five factors:

  1. Identity and purpose
  2. Key actors and groups and their respective influence, interests and values
  3. Formal and informal ‘rules of the game’
  4. The broader country and regional context
  5. Important ideas which influence employee practices and behaviours.

We elaborate on these in the table below:

Factor Description and questions
Identity and purpose Employees often define themselves by what their purpose is, so what do employees think they are doing? To what extent does the formal purpose differ from what employees are actually doing? What do external stakeholders think the centre is doing and should be doing?
Key groups, actors and their influence, interests and values Employee practices are enabled and constrained by key groups and individuals in (and external to) the organisation (including government agencies and the private sector). Who/which group in/out of the organisation has the greatest influence on employees’ work? Where are they in the hierarchy? What are their primary motivations and values? Are there high-level commitments to equality?
Formal and informal ‘rules of the game’ In an organisation the ‘rules of the game’ shape where and how decisions are made and by whom, whose voice is heard, what level of autonomy employees have, what is rewarded and punished, how conflict and diversity (e.g. national versus international perspectives) are addressed and how mistakes are treated. Informal discriminatory norms and power dynamics can maintain inequality in everyday practices.
Broader country/regional context Organisations are part of broader societal structures and norms, be they around employment law, style of management, deference to authority, prejudice and discrimination and so on, which are in turn embedded in social and political structures of power. For instance, CGIAR centres have to deal with challenges of working in multiple national legal jurisdictions, where some have more strict employment law than others.
Important ideas that influence purpose and how it is approached Ideas or ways of thinking shape what employees do and how they do it and in the case of, for instance, agricultural think tanks this       includes approaches to doing research (e.g. focussing on specific crops and technologies to taking a more systems or holistic approach), to communicating research and to achieving impact (sender receiver approach versus more dialogical approach), to how the organisation is managed (centralised versus decentralised), and to whether the programmes, departments or centres are doing development work or undertaking scientific research.

Moving towards integration

Understanding employee behaviour within each unit of an organisation is a complex endeavour.  Adding to this complexity is how employee dynamics change when they interact with colleagues from other units.

Factors that will shape these interactions include the extent to which dynamics described above are convergent or divergent (especially in relation to geographical and regional context), the role of leaders and managers, the nature of dialogue amongst units, the sort of work they do together and the degree of trust between individuals as well as between units.

As Chris Mowles says, there is no engagement without politics. Given that individuals need each other, there is potential for withholding what others need – a basic manifestation of power. Working together will illicit fears of losing independence, influence, identity and voice.

It is unlikely that a more integrated approach can be designed and imposed by the senior leadership in an organisation. There are no fixed solutions to these sorts of problems.  Any actions that the senior leadership take will result in a combination of the expected, the unexpected and the unwanted – the result of what everyone is doing in their interactions with others. Senior leadership, then, will need to take an experimental, iterative and deliberative approach and place a great emphasis on learning from experience.

Finally, senior leadership can draw on the expertise of external consultants, who, relatively independent from internal politics, can ask searching questions, listen to a wide range of perspectives, help leadership to make sense of the situation, provide them with options to move forward and act as a sounding board during implementation.

What does organisational culture mean to you? Do you have experience trying to understand or change organisational culture? Does this framework resonate with you and your experience? This is a topic we’re keen to explore more, get in touch if you’d like to talk or share your experience with OTT.