Saturday, 11 February 2012

Can organizational culture be measured?

It is an axiomatic fact that, irrespective of the meaning attached to the idea of “strong organizational culture” and of the effects culture may or may not produce upon individual productivity, a consistent and clear corporate culture enabling employers to inspire integrity, elicit positive feelings about the organizational attributes, support the business values and foster the behaviour considered as appropriate by the employer invariably assumes a remarkable significance.

The cultural aspect is indeed increasingly catching the Academics and business leaders’ interest, insofar as recruitment specialists are growingly prompted by their employers to assess whether candidates actually fit the business culture, before offering these a position in the organization. Individuals who have the technical and managerial capabilities and skills required to properly fill a given role, but who clearly show to be unable to perform and behave in the way an employer is expected these to, whether hired would be likely to experience difficulties over time and to cause problems to the employer, too.

To be able to assess and judge whether other individuals properly fit a business’ culture, the assessors must clearly deeply and thoroughly know and understand it. The concept and content of corporate culture cannot be hence vague, but has to be appropriately and unambiguously developed and formulated.

Why measurement is deemed important
Employers habitually tend to ascribe a fundamental importance to measurement at large. As investments, resources and efforts are invariably directed at the attainment of specific and well predetermined results and may indeed be limited being able to assess the potential return of the invested resources (ROI) becomes particularly significant. Inasmuch as this rule should be applied as a matter of course, its application gains even more importance during the periods of economic slowdown and downturn.


Over the years a number of statements, definitely self-explanatory of the significance traditionally attached to measurement at large, have been indeed formulated: “You cannot manage what you cannot measure” (this quote is attributed to several Authors, but Anon seems to be the person who most likely pronounced it for the first time);”When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it” (Kelvin, 1883).

Despite many activities and phenomena can be measured and expressed in figures, nonetheless, not everything can be immediately and directly be the object of measurement. It is said that there was a sign hanging on Albert Einstein's office wall saying: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."

Defining measurement
Determine, clarify and express organizational culture, that is to say “the way we do things around here”, does not mean that organizational culture can be measured, at least not in the way intended by Kelvin.

The Oxford Dictionary (2006) defines the verb measure as the way to “ascertain the size, amount or degree” of something and as the way to “assess the importance, effect or value” of something. The first definition seems mostly associated with the idea of measurement as intended by Kelvin, whereas the second appears to be relatively more detached from the quantitative feature of a variable. The Cambridge Dictionary (2008), in addition to the definitions provided by the Oxford Dictionary, also defines measure as the way to “evaluate or estimate the nature, ability or quality” of something. Taking into consideration the formulations provided by these authoritative dictionaries, it can be argued that organizational culture can be hardly measured in the sense of ascertain its size, amount and degree. Culture is in fact most likely to appropriately fall in the evaluation and assessment definition range provided by the Oxford Dictionary (in the second definition) and in that provided by the Cambridge Dictionary outlined above. In both of these definitions the qualitative aspect is indeed somewhat of prevailing over the quantitative one.

The measurement of something is habitually associated with the need to compare the effects yielded by two different processes over the same period of time or to assess whether, and eventually to what degree, the same phenomenon has evolved over time. Measurement enables thus employers to assess and determine the rate a specific variable increases or decreases with the passage of time and to make effective comparisons of the internal variables with the equivalents of different companies. Comparing a business turnover and sales volume over a determined period of time against the same data recorded by competitors, for instance, definitely represents a widespread and useful exercise.

Can organisational culture be measured?
It can be indeed hardly contended that beliefs, values, norms, assumptions and practical behaviour can quantitatively be measured. Every organization develops its own culture and since every organization is different from the others also cultures will be. Several studies and investigations have been carried out over the years to identify the main traits and features of the different types of culture existing within the different businesses, with the ultimate aim of defining the main categorizations of organizational culture.
A number of classifications have been indeed arranged over time but, as suggested by Armstrong (2009), those arranged subsequently to that provided by Harrison (1972) actually have much in common with this. The categorization provided by Harrison (1972) identifies four main “organization ideologies”: Power-oriented, People-oriented, Task-oriented and Role-oriented.
The typologies of culture later identified are essentially based on the role played in a business culture by:
- The central power [Power culture - Handy (1981); Power orientation – Williams et al (1989)],
- Rules and procedures [Role culture - Handy (1981); Role orientation – Williams et al (1989)],
- The task carried out by people [Task culture - Handy (1981); Task orientation – Williams et al (1989)] and
- Individuals [Person culture - Handy (1981); People orientation – Williams et al (1989)].
All of the tools developed so far to “measure” culture actually aim at enabling employers to find out into which of the categories taken as a reference their organization’s culture falls. These tools do not hence enable organizations to quantitatively measure culture, but to qualitatively assess within which category their corporate culture falls according to its distinctive features.
Some quantitative approaches have been supposedly developed over the years. Notwithstanding, these systematic methods basically aim at defining scores, ratings or codes describing the cultural qualities of an organization (Jung et al, 2007). Yet, many of these approaches are based on information gathered by means of questionnaires submitted to employees whose feelings, sensations and opinions are actually formed on the basis of the concept and idea of organizational or psychological climate, rather than culture.


Corporate culture can thus more suitably be the object of assessment, rather than of measurement. As maintained by Armstrong (2009), it is practically impossible measuring organizational culture since it is basically concerned with “subjective beliefs and unconscious assumptions … behavioural norms and artefacts.”
As discussed earlier, the exercise of measuring specific forces within an organization has a considerable importance at comparison level. The question, nonetheless, is whether it would actually make any sense the exercise of quantitatively, provided it could actually be possible, but also qualitatively comparing the culture of one organization with that of another. It would definitely make no sense claiming that the culture of an organization is “better” than that developed within a different firm in that it would essentially mean assuming that, in terms of culture, the one-size-fits-all approach could be effectually applied. It would rather make good sense saying that an organization has a culture enabling it to more easily attain its intended objectives and aims. As regards corporate culture it can be thus hardly supported the effectiveness of the best practice approach in that the best fit is clearly the only suitable one.


The importance of understanding culture
A completely different matter is properly assessing and understanding the culture existing within an organization, which is in many ways influenced by the national culture of the country in which the business operates. Businessmen are aware of the importance of that and that not being fully aware and knowledgeable of local cultures can seriously jeopardize the positive outcome of trade negotiations. Business leaders trying to expand their operations in China in the 1990s, for instance, were well-aware of the importance which the local culture plays in business, but the importance of local culture is by no means a typical Chinese issue. Hofstede (2007), for example, underscored the different meaning a handshake has in Middle Eastern and Western countries, US included. In Western countries a handshake means that an agreement has been reached and that both parties can start working together. In Middle Eastern countries a handshake means that “serious negotiations” have started, which is clearly different from assuming that an agreement has actually been reached.
Knowing how people behave within a circle and the impact national culture may have on individual behaviour is of paramount importance in that this knowledge can clearly help individuals to “be more effective when interacting with people” in foreign countries, but also when interacting with people of different organizations within the same country (Hofstede, 2007).

Identifying who influences and who is influenced by culture
Assessing the type of culture existing within an organization is clearly a sorely useful exercise. The mere knowledge of the current state of play, overlooking the process culture has been shaped and developed, is nonetheless likely to reveal utterly insufficient  as well as it is likely to reveal detrimental neglecting the significance of the role played by the actors who have mainly contributed to its reinforcement and stabilization over time. A further analysis is thus necessary, especially whether employers should make plans to implement a cultural change hereafter. This analysis should aim at enabling employers identifying the most influential people within their organizations, that is, the individuals whose involvement and full support during the implementation of change would reveal to be genuinely precious.
Hofstede (2012) claims that “corporate cultures are made by managers” are influenced by managers and can be consequently changed only by managers. It is not indeed clear whether the Author assumes that organizational culture is an exclusively managerial accountability by virtue of the formal power this attributes to the role of managers or just because he considers management and leadership strictly combined the one with the other.

With some exceptions, individuals at large are not habitually predisposed to behave in a particular way just by reason of coercion; it could hardly be contended that this being the case organizational culture would spontaneously be embraced by employees. Yet, it should not be underestimated the role played by informal leaders, for the influence they are able to exert over the other individuals and thus over culture. Informal leaders are those individuals who, albeit not having been formally devolved any management accountability, are followed by others who impulsively and naturally behave in the way they do.


Managers clearly play a considerable role in developing and changing organizational culture, but it cannot be assumed that managers can shape and, the moment arrived, change an organization’s culture alone. It is indeed for this reason that change to be successfully implemented, especially whether involving cultural change, needs the involvement and support of all the stakeholders, target groups, unions and ultimately of all the individuals concerned (Longo, 2011).


Despite the largest part of the employees contributes to influence the type of culture developed and reinforced over time within an organization, each of them exercises a different degree of influence. Within every organization there are in fact individuals exerting a strong influence upon culture, who are not necessarily managers and others whose influence is weaker. There are indeed also individuals who do not influence by any means others and let alone culture.

Whittington and Dewar (2009) claim that the larger the number of tremendous influencers an organization has, the stronger and more pervasive the culture developed within it. The Authors also identify the existence of a quantitative link between organizations’ size and number of strong influencers: the larger the organization, the greater the number of strong influencers. This assumption can actually be regarded as debatable in that it would support the idea that strong influencers proliferate only where there is a large number of people, which might possibly be statistically sound but which does not necessarily imply that a company may count on the number of strong influencers it requires. The adequate number of powerful influencers should in fact also be reasonable vis-à-vis the total number of employees. Yet, quantity does neither necessary entail nor ensures quality.

According to the Whittington and Dewar (2009) size-number rate tenet, smaller organizations should have weaker cultures in that “when there are few people in the organization … then it’s likely the organizational culture will also be weak, lacking consistency and pervasiveness.” In contrast, it could be argued that in small organizations, thanks to the reduced number of individuals working within it, the founders could find it easier to foster and endorse the values and beliefs which these want to underpin their concern’s culture. Yet, this depends on the visibility which strong influencers have or otherwise within a business. In some extremely large organizational contexts, for instance, the presence of strong leaders might risk going unnoticed or noticed by just a very few employees.


Individuals not only contribute to influence culture but are in turn influenced by this; also in this case it is possible to distinguish between people who are heavily influenced, slightly influenced or not influenced by any means by culture (Whittington and Dewar, 2009). The degree an individual influences or is influenced may change over time and by virtue of the ever changing circumstances, but for employers identifying the strong leaders and the individuals who exert the highest degree of influence upon culture is clearly of paramount importance. Whether strong influencers are actually willing to actively collaborate with the employer, these can clearly help organizations to successfully control culture and to more smoothly implement cultural change when required.


Within a business can coexist at a time individuals who positively and negatively influence organizational culture (Whittington and Dewar, 2009). In general, negatively influence culture individuals who behave, foster and endorse a conduct inconsistent with the organizational values and beliefs and whose actions essentially aim at preventing employers to effectually endorse and attain integrity.


Despite employers should not completely neglect the role played by the individuals who have a limited and weak power to influence their peers, these should mostly concentrate and focus their attention and efforts on the behaviour and activities carried out by strong influencers, especially those who openly and strongly influence organizational culture negatively.

Identifying strong influencers within an organization is particularly significant for employers in that these can reveal to be valuable allies or fierce enemies during the implementation of cultural change. The accurate observation of the behaviour exhibited by strong influencers can also help employers to assess and identify the behaviour which can be considered as negative and positive within the organization and, to some extent, to even better asses and categorize organizational culture.


Organizational culture cannot be quantitatively be measured
Culture does not indeed represent an organizational feature subject to quantitative measurement, but rather a characteristic which can be qualitatively assessed and differently categorized. Whether an employer identifies the existence of a direct line of sight between culture and performance, this may consider assessing the effects yielded by culture on the organizational performance. Notwithstanding, this form of assessment should not be intended as a quantitative approach to measure culture.


The main responsibility to shape, foster and control corporate culture should invariably rest with a company executives and managers. Whether the behaviour and the way employees approach the working activities within the business are not considered appropriate by the employer, this occurrence does not emerge as a quantitative gap, but rather as a qualitative divergence between the employer’s intended aim and the real reality. The employer was meant to go towards a well-identified direction, whereas the business is proceeding towards a different one. The existence of this undesirable gap, notwithstanding, does not emerge from the comparison of two different numerical data, but from the observation of individual behaviour and the way activities are performed within the business.


The idea of strong culture refers to a culture supporting the employer in the attainment of its intended objectives, but this is not and cannot be translated into something immediately measurable. Many other factors do contribute to the level of performance attained by an organization so that this cannot be solely ascribed to corporate culture. Doing this could be tantamount to the case of assigning an individual a personal objective whose attainment is practically depending on several different variables and measuring the individual performance only on the basis of that assignment. It would definitely represent a sorely inappropriate and unreliable approach to performance appraisal.

Organizational culture definitely constitutes the basis on which organizational success builds up, but thinking that this can be actually considered the object of quantitative measurement can just account for employers risk losing sight of the right link existing between the identified objectives and the most appropriate and suitable way to attain these. 

Longo, R., (2012), Can organisational culture be measured?, HR Professionals, Milan, [online].