The importance of understanding organizational culture
Information Outlook, June, 2005 by Debbie Schachter
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 adhocratic 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?
For example, if the organization's mission is to provide expert customer service, yet the strong hierarchical structure means that employees are not empowered to assist customers by providing creative solutions or don't have the required authority to provide responses or results, there is a disconnect.
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.
Ask the Staff
From interviews and surveys, staff will provide a variety of examples of symbols that reflect particular cultures. For example, symbols that might reflect a clan culture might include: coffee parties, potlucks, Halloween parties, postcards from staff trips, gifts from patrons. Symbols that indicate a hierarchical culture could include procedures manuals, statistics, stability, structure, and insistence on punctuality, accuracy, respect, politeness, privacy, efficiency. From these examples, you can quickly get a sense of the types of symbols you could attribute to our own organization's culture.
As a library manager, it may not be possible for you to change the organization's overarching culture. Understanding the culture, however--especially if you want to adapt your departmental culture to create a more positive culture--is possible. Departmental cultures may differ greatly in organizations, depending on the leaders and the staff within those departments. You may not be able to have an effect on the organization overall, depending on your position in the organization and how large it is, but with work you will be able to make a difference at the library level.
Some ways that you can try to change the organizational culture include reviewing the mission and vision for the library with the staff to ensure that they are accurate. If changes are needed to reflect the reality of what you want to do and what you can do, then do so. For a start, make sure that departmental statements and staff actions reflect the type of culture you want.
For example, to increase the market culture, try increasing the measurements of service activities and have staff involved in developing metrics and outcomes for services (as part of the performance management system, for example).
Reward staff of particular service areas who respond to changes in customer demands through developing new programs or services. To reduce hierarchical culture, for example, begin by empowering staff to provide suggestions and to help implement their new ideas. You should also empower staff to make more decisions for their own areas of expertise.
As the library leader, you should always be aware of your actions and model the behavior you expect of your staff. Ensure that the statements you make are consistent with the values and the symbols of the culture you would like to develop. You may not be able to change the overall organizational culture immediately, but the positive results and positive impact at the departmental level should have some level of spill-over effect onto other departments. Moreover, it will make it a more pleasant culture for you and for your staff to be working in.
Debbie Schachter has a master's degree in library science and a master's degree in business administration. She is the associate executive director of the Jewish Family Service Agency in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she is responsible for financial management, human resources, database and IT systems, and grant application management.
Schachter has more than 15 years' experience in management and supervision, technology planning and support, in a variety of nonprofit and for-profit settings.