Go BackMain MenuOD TOOLKIT

Solution 8: Changing the organisational culture

Some problems of organisations have to do with the organisational culture: the way in which the organisation, including its stakeholders, use to act and think.

This organisational mental make-up is -more than structure or strategy- the decisive factor in obtaining success.

If the organisational culture is blocking success, the change of culture has to be considered.

When is the organisation's culture a problem?

Organisational culture is a problem when the way in which the organisation usually operates puts obstacles in the way towards achievement.

Some examples:

Organisational culture is not the result of just a decision, but the outcome of a lasting process, in which the attitude, beliefs and behaviour of people are gradually shaped. Organisational culture, even if not objectively effective, is always a logical adaptation to a changed environment. Organisational culture may be compared to coping mechanisms: once effective in one specific situation, but internalised, unconscious familiar, and hardly noticeable for the owner.

That is why change of organisational culture is not easy.

For the 'change agent' (the one who manages the process of change: the leader or manager or an outsider consultant) this entails:

  1. modest aims combined with ambition
  2. understanding the culture of an organization
  3. flexibility in strategy

1) Modest aims and ambition

Modesty is needed because changing the 'personality', i.e. 'the soul' of an organization is very difficult. Nevertheless, the organisation (as its own change agent), or the leader of an organisation as its change agent, or a consultant helping the organisation in its change, each of them has to be ambitious, because if they do not believe in this process of change, who else will?

The change agent has to be modest and ambitious at the same time, and that means stimulating and rewarding activities and persons heading in the desired direction. Punishing people because they do not move quickly enough is not very helpful. Motivating them in a positive way is better. This is done by finding en stimulating the healthy nucleus that exists in every organization.

2) Understanding the culture of the organization

Organizational culture refers to what we call the personality of an organization: if the structure of the organisation is the body: the bone structure, the feeding structure of blood vessels and the communication channels of nervous system, then the personality or soul is the way people deal with one another, the values and beliefs that exist within the organization. Restructuring an organization, in order to achieve a certain goal, often fails or gets stuck because the personality does not change. That is why we focus on the culture of the organization when dealing with change.

Culture is defined as the collective mind-set or 'the software of the mind'. Because it is often difficult to describe what the personality is, the following method can be used to understand the deeper cultural aspects of an organization.

The organisation's culture can be described in terms of Hofstede's 'onion':

Through all these 'layers' one can see glimpses of the hart of the onion: the real values of the organization:

* how does an organizational culture develop?

To understand the culture of an organization and its development, it is important to analyse its 'birth' and history. For example: if an organization is born out of protest against the existing system, the fighting mood can be very strong. However  useful that may have been in the beginning, such a fighting mood can become a hindrance, if the organisation sticks to it, without an actual reason. This requires an attempt to understand the organization within its history and contexts, the traumas that influence the way they deal with external influences or change. Understanding is more useful than getting angry.

So the change agent has to include the following elements in the analysis:

  1. its products: 'what business are we in?' Every branch has its specific 'smells', sounds, characteristics.
  2. its history: like a personality, what are the traumas, life events, happenings, etc. How did the organization react and how does that still influence the way this organization deals with matters?
  3. internal/external interaction (stakeholder's context): threats formed outside will have reactions on the inside.

* how does the culture within an organization sustain itself?

The answer is: by self selection, by selection and by socialisation.

Culture sustains itself through socialization, i.e. 'that is the way we do things around here'.  Here we wear ties. With us we make funny remarks all the time. Here we work like dogs, often 10 hours a day. With us the client is really the king.

* Changing the organisational culture.

3) Flexibility in strategy

Each and every organisation needs a well adapted strategy to be able to change its organisational culture. Tailor-made approaches are necessary: what is effective in this situation with these persons may differ from other situations with other persons.

There are other general key factors for success to identify:

It will be clear that change agents need a broad arsenal of strategies to achieve the change objectives, and that they have to be willing to continuously adjust their strategies to respond to ever-changing relations and circumstances.

*  Espoused values express the genuinely embraced core normative standards of an organisation. An example: on the question: "what is the core value of your organisation?" members of a primary school could answer: "the prime value of our organisation is the intellectual, social and emotional development of the individual child." Such espoused values may come under pressure when external conditions provoke the integrated, less outspoken values. When the school for instance is confronted with a demographic change which could lead to the need to merge with other schools in order to guarantee the best possible education, integrated values show up. Continuity of the own job or being attached to the own team will concur the espoused values. It is difficult to predict which values will come out as the winner.
Beware: espoused valued are no hypocritical values. An organisation needs espoused values as a focal point for future actions.