DEFINING YOUR ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE

Brenda Kinnear President, Kinnear & Associates.

According to Wikipedia, an elevator pitch, speech, or statement is a short summary used to quickly and simply define a person, profession, product, service, organization or event and its value proposition.    The notion is that in the thirty second to two minutes span of an elevator ride, it should be possible to succinctly articulate a compelling pitch which conveys your value proposition and intrigues the listener sufficiently to want to know more. 

Rehearsing your elevator pitch is not an uncommon practice.  Ask any anxious job candidate what they do with the two minutes they have at their disposal while riding the elevator enroute to a job interview and they are very likely tell you that they are practicing their pitch.

That said, if you were asked by a fellow passenger during that brief elevator ride to describe your organization's culture, what would that message sound like?

Defining your organization's culture is not an easy thing to do.  While you may be physically present in your workplace every day, your organization's culture, is not something that you typically concern yourself with as you go about dealing with the business of the day.   

Within public and not-for-profit sectors, an organization's culture is immensely important particularly for job seekers who may feel that alignment with the organization's mission is essential to them in order to ensure a good fit.   This is not to say that individuals seeking opportunities within the private sector are not looking for the same kind of "fit" it may however be less important when the company'smission boils down to the bottom line.

When organizations successfully articulate their culture, they do a far better job of establishing HR policies, procedures and systems which reflect the organization's core values and purpose and ensure alignment with the overall corporate strategy.

In 2006, Peter Drucker coined the term "culture eats strategy for breakfast" which was said in relation to the then Ford Motor Company president, Mark Fields who stressed the importance of a supporting culture when you want to implement a change process within your organization.   The point that Drucker was trying to make is that culture prevails over strategy.  In general terms, organizational culture is about individuals and the way that they behave within their workplaces and includes such things as unwritten rules, employer expectations etc whereas organizational strategy, concerns itself with where the organization is going and how it's going to get there.  Simply put, it is people that make the difference.

According to Business Directory.com, an organization's culture is defined "as the values and behaviours that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of the organization. 

It includes an organization's expectations, experiences, philosophy, and values that hold it together, and is expressed in its self-image, inner workings, interactions with the outside world and future expectations.  It is based on shared attitudes, beliefs, customs and written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time and are considered valid"

Other significant factors which shape an organization's culture are:

  • Leadership and management style -collaborative and participatory or top down
  • Mission of the organization - the extent to which one feels alignment with the mission
  • Diversity of staff -includes cultural, racial, experiential and personal values and beliefs
  • Titles - the reliance on titles
  • Interpersonal relationships- formal versus informal interactions, highly structured versus less structured, personal versus impersonal relationships
  • Reporting structure -hierarchy
  • Work environment - common spaces for people to gather such as kitchens and lunch rooms;    cubicles versus open work spaces
  • Social rituals - include acknowledgments and celebrations both formal and informal

There are both formal and informal ways an organization can assess their culture;

  • Conduct a workplace walk-about and observe the physical indicators of culture.  For example:
  • What do the interactions between people both formal and informal look like?   Are you able to discern a tone or flavour or any level of emotion in the interactions?
  • What kinds of things are posted on bulletin boards, appear on desks or are posted on walls?
  • Are there common spaces within the workplace?  Do people use the space and if so, are people sitting together or apart?
  • Where are the offices located?   Are office doors typically open or closed?
  • What does the workspace look like?   Are people sitting in separate cubicles or are they working in an open space?
  • How do people communicate - email, face-to-face or meetings.  If by email what is the tone?

Conduct small group interviews with employees using a series of indirect questions such as:

  • What do you like most about the organization?
  • If given the opportunity what one thing would you change about the organization?
  • If someone asked you what it was like to work there what words would you use to describe the organization?
  • What type of person is likely to be successful within the organization?
  • What keeps you here?

Utilizing a more formal approach, Quality of Work Life or Culture Surveys will elicit some significant information regarding the culture of your organization.  Organizations may choose to design their own surveys and in that case can target specific areas and garner some pretty significant and relevant data for their organization.  Off the shelf surveys are also available which while efficient may be expensive and the questions may not to overly relevant for your organization.

Whether you choose to use all or one of the approaches above, the process will yield some good information for your organization and will either confirm that you are doing some things right or inform you of the need for an organizational change process.  

Conducting a culture survey is indeed a valuable exercise which at the very least will ready you for that 2 minute elevator statement.