(How) Can We Design Organizational Culture?

If you are interested in the topic of organization culture change join the discussion at the Organization Design Forum's Virtual Learning Series webinar I am facilitating on October 4 from 11am – 12:30 pm Eastern Time. The session is designed to be collaborative, seeking participant input and observations to build the story of culture and design. Get more details by clicking here.

The session discusses the notion that when competitive and other contextual forces require a change in business strategy, business leaders usually turn to organization design for changes in structure and work process. As the power of organizational culture in strategy achievement has become clearer, many business leaders are making "culture change" a priority of organization design, often because they see the organizational culture as limiting what they want to achieve.

In my most recent book Corporate Culture: Getting It Right, I discuss and explore issues surrounding cultural change in organizations. I am of the view that an organization both is and has a culture – two different perspectives highlighted by Lou Gerstner, from 1993 – 2002 Chairman and CEO of IBM :

"Until I came to IBM, I probably would have told you that culture was just one among several important elements in any organization's makeup and success – along with vision, strategy, marketing, financials, and the like. I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just one aspect of the game; it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value."

This quote puts Gerstner straight into the theoretical camp of academic researchers who take a "cognitive or symbolic perspective on the study of organizations". That means they leave "behind the view that a culture is something an organization has, in favor of the view that a culture is something an organization is" and they experience organizations as "networks of subjective meanings or shared frames of reference that organization members share to varying degrees and which, to an external observer, appear to function in a rule-like or grammar-like manner". (Smircich, L. 1983. Concepts of Culture and Organizational Analysis. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28)

The main alternative theoretical camp views culture not as what an organisation "is" but something it "has". This seems to be what Gerstner felt before joining IBM (see the quote above). People with this veiw see culture as a variable that can be identified and relatively easily changed in the same way that a strategy or a marketing approach can be changed.

I take the view that if you want to change organization culture you have to recognize both the 'is' and 'has' factors and remember that

  • Organization culture is not an 'entity' or a 'thing', independent from the business strategy, that can be manipulated by pulling 'levers'
  • An organisation's culture, like a society's culture, changes continuously regardless of any formal or informal efforts to change it.

With this in mind, I argue that six conditions need to be present in order to change a culture.

1. Having clear and well-articulated reasons for changing the culture that are inextricably linked to the business strategy
2. Being able to act on clear and well-articulated principles for delivering the business strategy which are supported by values that are shared, and acted on by those working for the organisation – albeit in different ways in its different parts.
3. Demonstrating the capability to align such matters as language, policies, practices, processes and the physical environment with the principles for delivering the business strategy.
4. Showing overt leadership commitment through deeds as well as words to the desired/required 'way we do things here'.
5. Recognizing what degree of change is possible given the constraints of history, legacy, the business model, resources and so on.
6. Accepting that planned culture change takes years rather than months, and that culture is in any case changing all the time irrespective of any plans to change it.

Even having these six conditions in place is not a guarantee of cultural change success. There are all manner of traps and unintended consequences of missing cultural nuances as you try to redesign the organization to support the desired cultural change. Using a variety of tested tools and techniques for staying alert to these or dealing with them if and when they arise helps mitigate the risks. Learn more by attending the seminar.