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The importance of understanding organizational culture

When I was an MBA student, as part of a management course I had the opportunity to conduct a “culture assessment” at the organization where I was working. The organization was somewhat new to me–I had been hired as a senior manager only a year before–and the ability to quantify and analyze the organizational culture was a new concept to me.

As an employee in any type of organization can attest, organizational culture is as prevalent and as varied as individuals themselves. Organizational culture is enduring and complex, and may have both a positive and a negative effect on the staff and the workplace. In many ways culture will determine the survival of an organization over the long term, especially in volatile industries.

Cultures that can be a liability to an organization include those that create barriers to change, create barriers to diversity or barriers to mergers and acquisitions. (Stephen P. Robbins. Organizational Behavior, 8th ed., 602-603.)

Understanding the organizational culture can help you to understand why change does not take place, or why a project fails. It will also help you to determine where to strive to make changes to the culture.

As managers and library leaders, why do we need to get a sense of the prevailing organizational culture? It is essential to understand the organizational culture if you want to make changes to how work is done, what type of work is being done, or at the broadest level, to affect the organization’s standing in its industry. Understanding the culture and, as required, changing it, can mean the difference between attracting and retaining good employees and driving away the best employees with an environment that doesn’t encourage, challenge, or reward them.

The organizational culture assessment that I participated in didn’t provide any surprises regarding the existing culture–most people with any level of sensitivity can get a sense of what type of culture is prevalent in an organization. What was surprising were the results from the survey to determine what type of culture staff would prefer to see the organization develop.

As background, the organization had just gone through a major change. The executive director had departed after 20 years; there had been a period of several months with an acting ED followed by a new, external ED appointment. The assessment took place only a month after the new ED was in position.

Types of Culture

The assessment we used to assess the organization’s culture used questions that sought to determine and enumerate such organizational traits as symbols (such as images, things, events), organizational-espoused values and beliefs (for example, the mission statement, constitution, espoused goals of the ED, slogans). Then the espoused beliefs and values were compared with the symbols and culture identified through the written survey and staff interviews.

The written survey asked staff to answer questions related to the current culture and then asked how they would like to see the culture change. Responses were tabulated to determine which type of culture existed among the four metrics of organizational culture: hierarchy, adhocracy, clan, and market.

The hierarchy aspect of an organization refers to how structured, inflexible, and process-driven an organization is in the way it operates. At the opposite end of the scale, adhocracy refers to how flexible, informal, innovative, and dynamic an organization is. A clan culture supports a very friendly and social environment in which to work, while a market culture is often found in organizations that are results-oriented and sales-driven.

The assessment determined that the existing culture was very hierarchical and quite clannish. The staff also indicated, through the anonymous written survey, that they would prefer the culture to be more autocratic and less hierarchical, while at the same time being slightly more market culture and clannish. This showed the positive and optimistic view of the staff towards change.

The process I used for assessing the culture involved conducting group employee interviews and written staff surveys, followed by analysis of the information. Staff responded to a series of prompts and questions regarding organizational symbols, organizational-espoused values, and beliefs. These responses were analyzed, creating a pattern showing comparisons between espoused belief/values (in the form of phrases or statements) with their associated symbols (both positive and negative), and related culture types (hierarchy, adhocracy, clan, and market).

 For a new leader or manager, understanding the organizational culture that is in place is essential for success in providing direction, especially when the direction is different from what has come before. Are staff willing and eager to take on new challenges and to follow a new direction, or will they provide passive or active resistance to any changes? What is important to people today, based on their view of where the organization is and where it should be? Where are there disconnects between espoused values, such as the mission statement, and the over symbols and culture type?

The organization that I surveyed was eager to see positive change and the time was right for providing impetus to staff to follow a new path. The assessment can reveal the opposite, however, which is just as valuable to managers or library leaders. If there is resistance to change, if the espoused values of the organization don’t match with the staff perceptions and prevailing culture, you must try to change the culture or change the objectives and mission to reflect reality.

Author: Debbie Schachter has a master’s degree in library science and a master’s degree in business administration.

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