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Do You Have ONE or Multiple Organisational Cultures?

Stephen Billing, August 19, 2009


In my last post I took my first hesitant step at questioning whether there is such a thing as organisational culture. In this post, I will assume there is such a thing as organisational culture, but I argue that if there is such a thing as organisational culture, then organisations do not have ONE culture, but many.

It is rather common to assume that organisations are coherent, and that all organisational members share a similar kind of values. When you consider the likes of an insurance company, with its actuaries busy calculating risk tables, and sales people busy talking up the benefits of various policies, it does not take much to appreciate that in fact there are multiple groups in organisations and they do not share the same values necessarily. (more…)


Is There Such a Thing as Organisational Culture?

Stephen Billing, August 17, 2009

In which I make hesitant steps to grapple with the concept of organisational culture. I want to conclude that there is no such thing as organisational culture. Can I succeed?

Although I started out back in the 90s believing in the construct of company culture as a way of explaining common themes of behaviour in organisations, now I am not so sure.

It seems to me that many people in an organisation interact with one another and these myriad interactions make up the organisation.  Tools, buildings, assets and property are utilised in the service of these interactions. These interactions are characterised by themes that are familiar, perhaps repetitive and perhaps even stuck, such as great new ideas coming from brainstorming meetings, or consistent bagging of management – these are both examples of themes emerging from multiple interactions. (more…)


Four Dimensions of Change

Stephen Billing, July 26, 2009

Four dimensions of change that are considered in the mainstream literature on change.

According to Alvesson and Sveningsson’s excellent new book Changing Organizational Culture, key dimensions of change that are common in the literature include:

  1. The scale of change
  2. The sources of change
  3. The content of change
  4. The politics of change

The Scale of Change

Change is often characterised in terms of two extremes as revolutionary or evolutionary. Revolutionary change refers to changes that affect several aspects of the organisation simultaneously, such as culture, resources, performance management systems, strategy, technology, market positioning. Evolutionary change refers to operational change that affects part of the organisation within existing strategy and resources.

The following scales are also used to characterise organisational change:

  • revolutionary vs evolutionary
  • discontinuous vs continuous
  • episodic vs continuing flow
  • transformational vs transactional
  • strategic vs operational
  • total system vs local option

Alvesson and Sveningsson point out that these labels and distinctions often mean roughly the same. (more…)


Six Characteristics of the Corporate Culture Construct

Stephen Billing, July 24, 2009

In which I seek to shed some light on the early history of organisational culture so that we can see where our ideas about the problematic concept of culture have come from.

Changing your organisation is often thought of as meaning changing organisational culture. The term "organizational cultures" first was used by Pettigrew in 1979 in an article titled "On Studying Organizational Cultures" in the scholarly journal Administrative Science Quarterly.

To me it is quite significant that he used the plural, denoting that there are many cultures within an organisation. It is a more recent thing to talk about an organisation as having one culture only (a "corporate culture"). I think it is more accurate to think of there being multiple cultures within an organisation, as there are many groups that people in your organisation belong to, and people are included and excluded from these groups as they are in all social groupings. (more…)


Disembodied Employee Engagement

Stephen Billing, October 25, 2008

Chris Rodgers on his blog Informal Coalitions  has picked up on my criticism of the employee engagement industry.

Interestingly he has criticised ”disembodied" culture change programmes and I am struck by his insight that employee engagement is similarly disembodied from the "everyday experience of organizational practice and performance." When he talks about the disembodiment of culture change, he is meaning the way that it is common to treat culture as a thing that is separate from everyday interaction, a thing that is a separate building block of performance that can be managed independently of daily conversation.

The measurement of employee engagement by means of surveys leads to engagement being thought of as a thing independent of human interaction, that can be objectively measured and managed.

To my way of thinking, employee engagement refers only to human interaction and is not something outside of people in organisations interacting with each other. By definition it cannot be outside human interaction. And because we are human beings, we cannot stand outside of human interaction. Managers cannot stand outside of their interactions with their employees and measure them objectively.

So the notion of measuring employee engagement is of doubtful value, particularly if it results in people taking their eye off their results and their interactions with others.

Chris Rodgers suggests that instead, "the ‘real’ engagement task for leaders is twofold:

  • Helping individuals to make sense of everyday events and emerging challenges in the context of their local interactions; and, in the light of this, to take action in ways that contribute to the achievement of local organizational objectives.
  • Doing so in ways that also resonate with individuals’ own aspirations and personal agendas." 

Organisational Change Occurs in the White Space

Stephen Billing, September 6, 2008

HR will give you advice about compliance and avoiding risk. The HR industry has become, like the legal profession, an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. By the time you need them, it’s too late. At best HR advice might help prevent you from getting in to court. The problem is that this does not help you raise the bar, it does not help you to improve your organisation’s performance, it does not help you change the culture. It merely helps you avoid being in court.

HR is concerned with the formal lines of communication in the organisation. HR advice follows the organisation chart. What I mean by this is that in the HR world, communication happens in cascades. It trickles down from the managers to the staff through channels that follow the formal reporting lines of the organisation chart.

And in the world of HR and corporate communications, "communication" has come to mean "key messages" that the powerful people want to give to the less powerful people. The key messages are delivered through the formal channels of communication. These key messages are usually about the more powerful people wanting the less powerful people to do things differently. If the less powerful people question this, it is called "resistance."

And yet it is also common knowledge that the informal networks of communication are so important that they can destroy even the best-executed planned communications programme. The grapevine can destroy or subvert initiatives from head office. These informal networks inhabit the white space of the organisation chart.

As a CEO or manager of an organisation undergoing change, I think you must make sure your change initiatives take account of the white space in the organisation chart. In times of change you should be considering the informal communication networks in your organisation as well as the formal reporting lines.

The question is how to do this. I have found engaging in two way conversations rather than one way presentations to be the best way. The danger is that things will go out of your control if you truly engage with them. Don’t worry about that. After all, you never were in control any way. Right?

Comments welcomed.