Sunday, 26 February 2012

Investigating organizational culture

Organizational culture is increasingly catching the interest of business leaders and HR professionals as well. The widespread, keen interest in this crucially important organizational component is essentially due to the conviction that an in-depth, overarching knowledge and consequent control of organizational culture, for the impact it makes on individual behaviour and performance, can effectually help employers to attain their strategy and objectives.

Since the concept of corporate culture is strictly associated with individual behaviour, shared values and beliefs, assumptions, norms (which are typically unwritten) and artefacts, which are all subject to be differently perceived and interpreted by different individuals,  the investigation of organizational culture definitely represents a difficult feat to perform. Yet, the concept of corporate culture is more often than not confused with that of organizational climate, circumstance which clearly contributes to rend the daunting task even harder.


Since organizational culture has been, currently is and will very likely continue to be the object and focus of many change projects, HR practitioners have attached to the mechanism culture unfolds and the identification of whom and what mostly influences the process considerable importance. More recently, HR practitioners have also showed an avid interest in the development of a structured approach or methodology to be used to assess the type of culture existing within organizations in order to identify what eventually needs to be changed and how.

In terms of organizational culture it would be a pointless exercise trying to determine whether a culture is good, bad, positive or negative (Michaelson, 1989). It would indeed prove to be everything but straightforward also the exercise aiming at assessing whether a determined culture is suitable or otherwise for a determined organization at a precise moment in time. As suggested by Hawkins (1997), such judgement would tend to be “ahistorical, perspectival and short-term” (Jung et al, 2007). By contrast, it may make sense investigating whether a culture is, for instance, “strong.” The circumstance a company culture may be deemed strong, nonetheless, does not imply that it is the most appropriate for the organization, that is, the most suitable for the employer to attain its intended aims and objectives and effectively pursue its strategy. The term strong is indeed used in contraposition to the expression “weak”, which does not relate to the appropriateness or effectiveness of culture, but rather to its level of pervasiveness. The circumstance corporate culture is weak entails that it is not deeply-rooted in the organization, employees might virtually be unaware of its meaning and, what worse, it may be arguably not fully reflected in “the way we do things around here.”

Organizational culture and measurement
A general consensus on the measurability of organizational culture has not yet been reached to date. Some academics and practitioners sustain which organizational culture can actually be the object of measurement, whereas others maintain that it cannot. This clearly is one of those cases in which the confusion over the concepts of corporate culture and organizational climate plays an important role; mix-up which arguably represents the primary cause for the contrasting views.
All of the tools, models and approaches developed thus far to gather the data necessary to “measure” organizational culture basically rely on questionnaires, which are submitted to as many individuals as possible within a business. It is writ large hence that each individual fills the questionnaire according to his/her personal feelings and opinion.

Endogenous environment two-dimensional levels perception
Corporate culture is concerned with the norms, assumptions, values and beliefs which characterize an organization and its environment, that is to say “the way we do things around here”; whereas organizational climate is associated with the way each individual feels and perceives the work environment and the way the activities are performed in the workplace, that is to say “the opinion I have formed of the way we do things around here.” It clearly emerges that as far as the “measurement” process is performed by gathering individual opinions, we clearly are in the realm of organizational climate, rather than in that of organizational culture.


To dispel confusion, James and Jones (1974) considered of paramount importance drawing a clear distinction between the two dimensions existing within an organization, to wit: organizational and individual level and between the attributes typical of each of these dimensions. To clarify the differences existing between these they associated organizational climate with the organizational dimension and attributes and psychological or organizational climate with the individual dimension and attributes.

The introduction of the concept of psychological climate, albeit fairly useful to further stress and highlight the difference existing between the collective and individual views, is not actually adding anything from the conceptual point of view. The idea of psychological climate is indeed conceptually equal to that of organizational climate; the only effect it ensues is the disappearance of the term culture. This terminological distinction was actually later used also by Hellriegel and Slocum (in 1994).


The impact of individual perceptions on organizational culture and climate
The distinction between organizational climate and psychological climate is essentially based on the idea that the latter is the expression of the individual feelings and perceptions, whereas the former essentially exists only whether and eventually when all of the individuals within the same organization or unit express and thus share the same appreciation in terms of psychological or organizational climate (Jones and James, 2004; Joyce and Slocum, 2004). This definition is essentially consistent with the analogy suggested by Schein (2004) according to whom “culture is to a group what personality or character is to an individual.”


Organizational culture can to some degree produce detrimental effects on employee creativity whether individuals feel that they cannot behave as they would prefer to. For fear to breach the corporate culture rules in fact individuals may refrain to perform their activities differently from the way the others do. The acceptability of individual behaviour clearly depends on the circumstances, but it cannot be excluded that especially sub-cultures and unit-level cultures could in some instances deaden individual creativity.


This phenomenon is conceptually similar to the groupthink syndrome. Its main symptom is represented by an individual fear to express his/her personal and genuine opinion when this is openly different from that expressed and supported by the other group or unit members. Under such circumstances an individual, to avert that his/her different view may be considered inappropriate and consequently rejected by the other group members, habitually prefers not to disclose his real idea and tends not only to accept, but also to support opinions which are even sensibly different from his real one. It is similarly possible that individuals within a group behave and accept to behave in a way that they would not actually support for fear that behaving or proposing to the other group members to behave differently may be rejected by the other group members. This individual behaviour could be indeed named “groupbehave” syndrome.

This invariably depends on the circumstances, on the consequences that a different behaviour might produce and on the type of behaviour exhibited by employees, but since the groupbehave syndrome may prove to be remarkably detrimental to individual performance, and consequently to that of the group these belong to, employers should pay extra attention to the side effects that culture, but even more noticeably sub-cultures and unit-cultures may potentially have.

Investigating the available tools
In order to assess and investigate organizational culture employers can have recourse to a considerable number of tools based on different methodological approaches and research designs. All of these entail individuals to fill in a prearranged questionnaire, activity which these perform on the basis of the perceptions and impression they form of the work environment and the practices implemented within it (Jung et al, 2007).

An extensive investigation conducted by Jung et al (2007) into the methods used to assess and measure organizational climate revealed that were used as many as seventy different approaches. The Authors, nonetheless, very prudently defined these tools as “instruments for culture exploration” (Jung et al, 2007).

Nearly all of these methods are based on the Q methodology, Likert scaling and ipsative approach. Individual feedback is essentially collected by means of questionnaires containing a set of statements. Employees rate each statement according to a scale, usually from 1 to 5, indicating the extent of their agreement or disagreement about the content of each item.

As contended by Jung et al (2007), the instruments employed to investigate organizational culture are habitually “varied and complex”, exactly as organizational culture is and none of these instruments can possibly be considered ideal in that this clearly depends on the different circumstances, the context of the research, its main aim and the available resources. Yet, the majority of the tools identified by Jung et al (2007) showed to be more suitable to investigate some particular aspects of culture, rather than others so that in many cases it would ideally be more appropriate having recourse to a combination of some of these, rather than to a sole tool only.

The correct approach
Organizational culture has traditionally been the object of qualitative assessment and only more recently, most likely by virtue of the consultancy background of many of the most influential Authors on the subject, a growing attention has been paid to the quantitative aspect (Jung et al, 2007).


Many of these Authors, nevertheless, apparently overlook the importance of making a clear distinction between organizational culture and organizational climate. Jung et al (2007) stress the circumstance that the qualitative approach has traditionally been associated with culture assessment, whereas the quantitative approach with the measurement of climate. Denison (1990), one of the developer of a quantitative measurement method, that is to say the Denison Organizational Culture Scale, possibly aware of the contradiction caused by the application of a quantitative measurement approach to something that for its nature is not quantitatively measurable, maintains that the distinction between the two realms is so blurred that they have become virtually impossible to differentiate (Jung et al, 2007). This might indeed sound as an admission of the circumstance that organizational culture cannot be qualitatively measured.
Despite quantitative approaches to culture measurement are widely acknowledged and considered as valuable tools (it always depends on which the intended objectives of the investigation are), significant differences between the concept of organizational culture and organizational climate indeed still remain (Glendon and Stanton, 2000; Scott, 2003; Mannion et al, 2003 and West and Spendlove, 2006).
Since climate is concerned with individual perceptions, opinions and feelings about organizational behaviour, policies and practices and the method adopted to attain the business objectives (Hoy, 1990; Sleutel, 2000; Baltes et al, 2003), this could be to some degree considered as a “subsection” of organizational culture (Bell, 2003), or rather, as the sum of an indefinite number of subsections of organizational culture, which are as many as the different impressions individuals composing an organization form of the work environment.
Nonetheless, it is writ large that all of the instruments developed to measure culture are based on the information given by individuals, who provide their feedback according to their personal opinions and impressions and that in many instances can also be affected by bias and their temporary state of mind. These perceptions, opinions and impressions are clearly relevant to climate assessments, but not to culture quantitative investigations. 
Can organizational culture be controlled?
It could be averred that culture represents the “as it should be”, whereas climate expresses the “how it is perceived to be” and consequently the “how it actually is” (meaning by “it” the work environment).
The collective perception of the work environment basically represents an organization culture, which may or may not coincide with that fostered by the company founder and management; whereas individual perception of the work environment represents climate. This collective perception, notwithstanding, cannot be measured. Can hence be maintained, as suggested by James and Jones (2004) and Joyce and Slocum (2004), that the sum of all of the individuals’ perceptions can determine and define the collective corporate culture?
Nearly everybody within an organization contributes to the development of an organization’s culture, albeit not to the same degree and not making the same impact. Despite this process is or should essentially be a natural process, a company founder and an organization management are in a position to manipulate, influence and try and control the process. It is mainly up to the employer to decide how “things need to be done around the organization”, but it cannot be denied that over time an employer could find it preferable to investigate new ways of doing things. That is why sometimes employers do prefer to fill management position and executive roles recruiting from the external environment, just to bring fresh air within their organization. Organizational culture is about the behaviour employers and managers strive to foster and endorse within organizations and climate represents the way individuals perceive the result and effect produced by that activity. It is an axiomatic fact that climate is not concerned with a process, but rather with the impression individuals form on the basis of the organizational culture fostered by the employer.
Despite the remarkable impact and effects the behaviour of informal leaders might have on organizational culture, it is unlikely that the general behaviour, which influences the pursuance of the business strategy, may be exclusively affected by individuals who do not have any formal responsibility; unless the behaviour these exhibit coincides with that fostered by the employer. Differently, it could hardly be argued that organizational culture can be “dictated” by the shop floor.
Almost everybody essentially contributes to shape organizational culture, but individual contribution has to favour and not jeopardise the pursuance of the intended organizational strategy. As long as people behave in a way which is contributing to the enhancement of internal processes and procedures, although differently than supposed by the management, employers will certainly be happy and satisfied. An employer would hardly hesitate for a nanosecond before hiring someone from the external environment, whether this person could effectually contribute to the attainment of the organizational objectives.
The moment an attitude like, for instance, complacency should prevail it is very likely that an employer would promptly decide to take control and appropriate action accordingly. Every so often change management procedures are triggered in a bid to change a corporate culture when, no matter who mainly contributed to establish it, culture is proving to be counterproductive for the healthy development of an organization. When events spin out of control, employers invariably stand out and take the lead.

The additional option
To be as objective as possible, the assessment of organizational culture should be preferably carried out by individuals coming from the external environment; capable and able to analyse artefacts, norms, practices and employee behaviour and to determine the type of culture prevailing in an organization. Only an external specialist can be immune from bias and prejudice. The observation of real life and of how activities are performed and events unfolds in an organization; the analysis of the way individuals behave, of the organizational environment, atmosphere and mood would definitely prove to be much more useful than the feedback obtained by means of written questionnaires to which employees may pay lip service. This is not clearly an easy process, but the observation of individual behaviour, rather than the assessment of the opinions provided by employees on the basis of preset questionnaires and statements could certainly enable the assessors to produce more valuable, reliable outcomes.
Employers should be fully knowledgeable of all of these implications and need to have crystal clear ideas of what they aim at ascertain and determining when deciding to investigate and assess their business culture. This is indeed of paramount importance to identify which tool or combination of tools is the most suitable and appropriate for the exploration.
Longo, R., (2012), Investigating organisational culture, HR Professionals, Milan, [online].