This is how the founding Director of the Indian School of Business, the late Dr Sumantra Ghoshal, defined organisational culture in many of his influential articles and books: “It is the smell of the place.” Organisational culture is the all-encompassing, collective behaviour of an organisation, and it is evident in all that the organisation does – right from the colour of drapes in the reception area of the head office, to the negotiations in the boardrooms.
This ‘culture’ permeates to, and is
reciprocally created, by every employee and every process. This is one organisational trait that cannot be classified into a department and yet, is exhibited in each one of them. An academic definition of the concept is “Culture is an observable, powerful force in any organisation. Made up of its members’ shared values, beliefs, symbols, and behaviours, culture guides individual decisions and actions at the unconscious level. As a result, it can have a potent effect on a company’s well being and success.”
CULTURE AND CLIMATE
Some consider culture to be the glue that holds everyone together. Others compare it to a compass providing direction. Operating largely outside of our awareness, culture creates a common ground for the members of the organisation. It reduces uncertainty by offering a language for interpreting events and issues. So an ethics-conscious culture in an organisation will automatically push out business proposals that might potentially harm the environment while a culture of innovation will allow employees to foster personal projects. Conflicts within and without the organisations are dealt with in sync with this culture. Cultural mores provide a sense of order so that everyone knows what is expected. It contributes to a sense of continuity and unity. And it offers a vision around which a company can rally. But an organisation’s culture is not encompassed in its vision or mission statement, not is it hardwired in the HR policy document; these are at best the representatives of the culture – mere symbols. Though culture is intangible, its ubiquity requires that a conscious though is given to maintain and evolve it. The way the organisation decides to treat its employees affects the way the employees treat the organisation. At the observable level, culture is manifested in an organisation’s climate — the behaviours and strategies that can be managed in support of organisational goals. An essential caveat here is that no culture type is better than another. The value is in understanding an organisation or team’s culture and how that culture helps support business goals. Only then can the workspace truly provide the support employees need and vice versa. To give a more concrete view of this intangible called culture, consider the following interactions where the culture manifests itself. The relationship an employee has with their boss and the kind of freedom that they feel with regards to sharing ideas, admitting mistakes, and expecting support. This interaction can be formal, procedural, or casual, and this reveals what the culture of the organisation is. Is it easy for employees to enjoy benefits like leaves and concessions; do the employees seek excellence because of a strong self-drive or because of an impending threat? All these questions are answered by the ‘smell’ of the place.
Anthropologists have spent decades
developing methods for categorising and diagnosing organisational culture. Today, to identify culture, we look for clues in the climate — the people, products, and processes we can observe — as well as the leadership’s espoused values, and perhaps most difficult, the unconscious, underlying assumptions shared by the team.
Numerous theories have been proposed to explain and structure the intangible ‘organisational culture’ in a quest to formalise it and hence create it to the organisation’s benefit. One of the most prominent works has been that of Deal and Kennedy, who in their research classified organisational cultures into four categories. According to their definition, organisational culture is “the way things get done around here”. They created a model based on four
different types of organisations. They each focus on how quickly the organisation receives feedback, the way members are rewarded, and the level of risks taken. The four cultures are:
Work-hard, play-hard culture
Rapid feedback/reward and low risk resulting in: Stress coming from quantity of work rather than uncertainty. High-speed action leads to high-speed recreation. Examples: Restaurants, software companies.
Tough-guy macho culture
Rapid feedback/reward and high risk, resulting in the following: Stress coming from high risk and potential loss/gain of reward. Focus on the present rather than the longer-term future. Examples: police, surgeons, sports.
Slow feedback/reward and low risk, resulting in the following: Low stress, plodding work, comfort, and security. Stress emanates from internal politics and bureaucracy of the system. Focus on security. Examples: banks, insurance companies.
Slow feedback/reward and high risk,
resulting in the following: Stress coming from high risk and delay before knowing if actions have paid off. The long view is taken; much work is put into making sure things happen as planned. Examples:
aircraft makers, oil companies.
This categorisation helps arrive at the
various stimuli the employees and the organisations in general respond to. It is essential to be able to identify and tag the organisational culture to know and predict behaviour in forecasted circumstances and in the process, evolve and equip the organisation to face these challenges. Because each culture type is distinct, the same workspace could not support each one effectively. A collaborative organisation, with its emphasis on teamwork, needs spaces that foster interaction. A more controlled culture thrives on structure and stability, and calls for continuity from space to space. A culture based on competition needs to operate openly and be able to quickly adapt to change. Creative cultures must foster innovation, risk-taking, and individual initiative, with as little structure as necessary. It’s also important to note that within a company, culture is not uniform. Various subcultures will exist in departments or teams — some even contradicting the overall organisation’s culture. All said and done, the smell of the place is something that is the key ingredient that makes large corporations and also brings them down. The ‘right’ smell is a chimera that all chase, but if the chase is well directed, it will leave in its wake a healthy organisation with
satisfied employees and happy customers.