Dig Deep to Uncover Culture

By Mark N. Clemente Aug 20, 2010
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Most executives think they manage their corporate cultures, but few do. Culture is an intangible but critical element of organizational effectiveness. It is rarely tested or challenged, so it might not be based in reality.

Analyzing and managing culture to improve organizational effectiveness is a continuing process that should evolve as the business grows and adapts to market challenges. To help make culture more tangible, Clemente Communications recently analyzed more than 300 web sites and online information sources to identify examples of corporate culture traits and select the ones most commonly used. This analysis was followed up with a survey of nearly 200 HR leaders in mid-size firms to rank each trait’s importance in maintaining a high-performance culture.

The resulting report, Organizational Archaeology, cites 30 of the most common corporate culture traits. The report provides a road map to unearthing the significance of these cultural traits in a company. Once HR leaders uncover their corporate culture, they can influence it strategically and take a proactive lead in managing it.

Unearthing Artifacts

Culture management starts with identifying a company’s “artifacts,” a term used by Massachusetts Institute of Technology social psychologist Edgar H. Schein to describe organizational culture traits.

Artifacts are the core business activities, management processes and philosophies that characterize how a company does business on a day-to-day basis. They are a combination of factors common to all organizations and unique to each company.

The research at the heart of Organizational Archaeology identifies the most prevalent artifacts of corporate culture. Keep in mind, however, that cultures are different and each has unique artifacts. The process of identifying the artifacts that are specific to a culture involves assessing it in terms of three anthropological concepts:

  • Social culture. This refers to how a group is structured in terms of its members’ roles and responsibilities. It is the study of “class distinctions” and the distribution of power that exists in any human collective from a sociological standpoint.
  • Material culture. This involves examining all the things that people in a group “make” (e.g., their tools and technologies). Material culture also entails studying “patterns of subsistence,” which refer to the ways people work with and support one another in exchanging required goods and services.
  • Ideological culture. This is tied to a group’s values, beliefs and ideals. Ideological culture refers to studying the things people view as important. Moreover, it’s about characterizing the emotional and intellectual guidelines that govern their day-to-day existence and interactions.

All cultures, including corporate cultures, can be studied in terms of their social, material and ideological traits. Start by focusing on the common traits found in all businesses, then identify the artifacts unique to an organization based on social, material and ideological considerations.

Manage Culture in Five Steps

Use the discoveries of artifacts to manage culture:

  • Step 1: Identify common artifacts, as well as those from the standpoint of an organization’s social, material and ideological culture.
  • Step 2: Convene groups of employees—representatives from all levels, functions and locations of the organization—to assess the validity, significance and currency of each artifact. (Try to focus on the top 15 to 20 most important ones.)
  • Step 3: Subject those artifacts to a rigorous assessment of their underlying shared assumptions, values and beliefs.
  • Step 4: Summarize findings and share them with all participants to solicit additional insights and commentary.
  • Step 5: Create a culture management action plan based on enhancing those artifacts that support corporate growth and/or organizational effectiveness and on modifying or correcting those artifacts that might be outdated and hinder a company’s advancement.

Typically, shared assumptions and beliefs originate with an organization’s founders and leaders. Because these beliefs proved successful (otherwise the company wouldn’t exist and the leaders would not be in their positions), often they go unchallenged. However, these assumptions and beliefs might be stuck in the past and might not hold the key to success.

From a training standpoint, group discussions should focus on the beliefs and assumptions underlying each key artifact—all of which should be challenged strongly. From a global standpoint, what worked in the home country operations might not be successful in other locations. Participants should assess how each artifact reflects current ways of doing business and then evaluate objectively what might no longer work.

HR leaders are responsible for ensuring that culture management is a core focus of their companies’ efforts to compete in the global marketplace. Identifying artifacts—and assessing their importance in light of current business objectives and where they operate—represents a workable means of culture management and optimization.

Mark N. Clemente is president of Clemente Communications Group in Glen Rock, N.J., and co-author of Winning at Mergers & Acquisitions: The Guide to Market-Focused Planning and Integration (John Wiley & Sons). For information about the report Organizational Archaeology,e-mail info@clementeonline.com and mention WorldLink.

Permission to repost this article to SHRM Online was granted by WorldLink.

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