What is corporate culture? A great question and one that has multiple, sometimes conflicting, answers. Despite most people being somewhat vague on how to actually define corporate culture, it’s still one of the top topics asked about at interviews (by both candidates and hiring managers). The reason for this is, most likely, that even though we might not all be in possession of a structured, scientific description of culture, we all, as people, have a sense that we want to know what it feels like to work in a particular organisation. 

There are many popular models of corporate or organisational culture commonly used today. The Deal & Kennedy model defines 4 types of culture in a matrix of low/high risk and fast/slow feedback. Geert Hofstede – most well-known for his work on national culture – used the same indicators to try and describe organisational culture; power-distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity, individualism, long vs short term orientation and indulgence. 

These models have been in service for so long because, on some level, they feel intuitively right – but perhaps a little bit in the same way that astrological star signs seem to describe individuals. Sensibly, all things considered, it doesn’t seem plausible that four different culture types or six factors would be enough to explain what it really feels like to be on the receiving end of an entire organisation.

One model which goes a little further (and which I have used with some success in modelling corporate culture) is that of The Cultural Web (Johnson and Scholes, 1992). It is very often set aside when looking for ways to describe culture as its benefit is also its curse. It goes a little deeper into the factors which combine to shape culture but of course, with increased granularity comes increased complexity and many people find it cumbersome to work with. That being said, the elements they have chosen to form what they term the ‘cultural paradigm’ are, in my humble opinion, the closest to catching all the variables which can influence The Way Things Are Done Around Here.

As can been seen in the model here, The Cultural Web takes into account many aspects ignored in other models but which can be really important to how it feels on the inside of an organisation. The stories which are told can be legacies both good and bad, can be responsible for stirring inspiration or stirring up fear. The rituals and routines give one a sense of how things are actually done and how often these are reviewed for purpose fit and organisational structures give us an idea, for example, of how hierarchical, traditional or otherwise the organisation might be. All great stuff. However, the holy grail in this model for me, is the fact that they take power structures (both formal and informal) into account. Who really holds the power and influence in an organisation is not always as it may seem written down in an org chart. Perhaps the culture is not driven from the top down, or even from the bottom up. The way power flows in an organisation is often at the crux of the prevailing culture.

While it may be true that The Cultural Web is perhaps one of the most complete academic models in circulation, I was always left with the feeling that firstly, perhaps it hadn’t gone quite far enough and secondly, there had to be an easier way to work with these variables so that we could not just model culture but figure out what impact it actually had on performance in the organisation.

That’s why, in our most recent work at Leading Brains, we’ve included cultural measurements as part of the Limitless Brains talent solution. Things become clear when you consider organisational culture as the personalityof the business. This makes further sense when thinking about the impactof culture – why do organisations behave in certain ways and can we predict and/or change it?

Since organisations are a function of the people who work in them and work on them, it follows that they have traits which can be described similarly to an individual personality and values, strengths and behaviours which are function of these traits and the current external forces or circumstances on the organisation. In our measure of culture, we start with a view on these external circumstances first – which lifestyle stage in the business currently in? For example, is it younger, more entrepreneurial or mature and highly structured. This lets us see what the current challenges are to continued growth and what needs to be overcome to move into the next growth phase.

We also include measures of what is valued by the organisation and what is rewarded by the organisation both in terms of performance and behaviours. This allows us to slice up cultural data in lots of different ways and begin to predict, among other things, how an organisation will behave in certain circumstances, which teams and people will thrive in the prevailing culture, which aspects are prohibiting and which are cultivating performance and what traits are going to be useful or required going forward in the life cycle.

Sounds useful? You might want to check out how it all hangs together with team and individual personality, dynamics and performance in the Limitless Brains talent solution www.limitless-brains.com. Understanding your corporate culture is an important first step in all aspects of people management and development from which kind of individuals are attracted to work there, who will survive or thrive and how learning and development will best land and be taken up within your organisation. It’s also the very first step in being able to deliberately shape culture rather than letting it happen by accident, and while some accidental cultures turn out to be penicillin – some turn out to be anthrax. I know which one I’d rather work with…

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