If you want to spark vigorous debate, start a conversation about organizational culture. While there is universal agreement that (1) exists, and (2) that it plays a crucial role in shaping behavior in organizations, there is little consensus on what organizational culture really is, no matter how it influences behavior and if anything, leaders can change.
This is a problem, because without a reasonable definition (or definitions) of culture, we cannot hope to understand its connections with other key elements of the organization, such as structure and incentive systems. Nor can we develop good approaches to analyze, preserve and transform cultures. If we can define what organizational culture is, it gives us control over how to diagnose problems and even to design and develop better cultures.
Starting on May 1, 2013, I facilitated a discussion around this question on LinkedIn. The more than 300 responses included rich and varied perspectives and opinions on organizational culture, its meaning and importance. I include several distinctive views below, illustrated by direct quotes from the LinkedIn discussion thread, and then offer my own synthesis of these views. (There were often multiple posts with similar themes, so these are just early picks; unfortunately it was not possible to recognize everyone who made helpful contributions.)
“Culture is how organizations ‘do things’.” – Robbie Katanga
Culture is consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations. Aristotle said, “We are what we repeat.” This vision elevates repeated behavior or habits as the core of the culture and de-emphasizes what people feel, think, or believe. It also focuses our attention on the forces that shape behavior in organizations, thus highlighting an important question: are all these forces (including structure, processes, and incentives) “culture” or is culture simply behavioral outcomes?
“In large part, culture is a product of compensation.” – Alec Haverstick
Culture is powerfully shaped by incentives. The best predictor of what people are going to do is what they are encouraged to do. By incentives, we mean here the entire set of incentives – monetary rewards, non-monetary rewards such as status, recognition and advancement, and penalties – to which members of the organization are subject. But where do the incentives come from? As in the definition above, there are potential chicken and egg problems. Are behavioral patterns the product of incentives, or have incentives been shaped in fundamental ways by beliefs and values that underpin the culture?
“Organizational culture defines a shared shared description of an organization from within.” – Bruce Perron
Culture is a process of “making sense” in organizations. The formulation of the senses has been defined as “a collaborative process of creating shared consciousness and understanding from the perspectives of different individuals and varied interests.” Note that this moves the definition of culture beyond behavioral patterns in the realm of joint beliefs and interpretations of “what is.” He says that a crucial purpose of culture is to help orient its members to “reality” in ways that provide a basis for alignment of purpose and shared action.
“Organizational culture is the sum of the values and rituals that serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.” – Richard Perrin
Culture is a bearer of meaning. Cultures not only provide a shared vision of “What is” but also “why is it.” In this point of view, culture is about “the history” in which the people of the organization are integrated, and the values and rituals that reinforce that narrative. It also focuses attention on the importance of symbols and the need to understand them – including the peculiar languages used in organizations – to understand culture.
“Organizational culture is civilization in the workplace.” – Alan Adler
Culture is a system of social control. Here the focus is on the role of culture in promoting and reinforcing the “right” to think and behave, and sanctioning “bad” thinking and behaving. The key to this definition of culture is the idea of behavioral “norms” that must be upheld, and the associated social sanctions imposed on those who do not “stay on the lines.” This vision also focuses attention on how the evolution of the organization shaped the culture. Thus, how have current regulations promoted the survival of the organization in the past? Note: Implicit in this evolutionary view is the idea that established cultures can become impediments to survival when there are substantial environmental changes.
“L to culture is the system immune to the organization . ” – Michael Watkins
“Organizational culture [is shaped by] the core culture of the society in which we live, although with greater emphasis on certain parts of it.” – Elizabeth Skringar
“On top of that, it simplifies the situation in large organizations to assume that there is only one culture … and it is risky for new leaders to ignore subcultures.” – Rolf Winkler