What is organisational culture?

And why does a definition matter?

Organisational culture is a topic that’s been written about for 30 or more years. Michael D Watkins wrote about it in the Harvard Business Review, after a discussion on LinkedIn, asking for definitions of organisational culture. He received over 300 responses — which is thought-provoking in itself. Perhaps one of the most acute points he makes is this:

“Without a reasonable definition (or definitions) of culture, we cannot hope to understand its connections to other key elements of the organization, such as structure and incentive systems. Nor can we develop good approaches to analyzing, preserving and transforming cultures. If we can define what organizational culture is, it gives us a handle on how to diagnose problems and even to design and develop better cultures.”

Definitions matter. Without them, there’s no framework against which to benchmark progress or, indeed, trigger a change. The definition we use is this: “Organisational culture is the way a company gets things done – and the beliefs and assumptions that support those behaviours.”

For us, the two parts of the definition are equally important. You have to be able to understand what the behaviours are in an organisation before you’re in a position to capitalise on them or change them. Conversely, without knowing why they exist, it’s difficult to affect the change or promote the good practices that are already there. To deliver a high-performance culture, we focus first on the organisational culture that’s impacting bottom-line performance – we use Dension methodology to measure your company’s current strength:

  • Mission–Do we know where we are going?
  • Consistency – Do our systems create leverage?
  • Involvement – Are our people aligned and engaged?
  • Adaptability – Are we listening to the marketplace?

Where it’s appropriate, we introduce other influential performance factors: digging deeper into areas such as trust; commitment; CSR; diversity and innovation. In this second Harvard Business Review piece on organisational culture, Carolyn Dewar and Scott Keller talk about taking three steps to achieve a high-performance culture. They quote from a book that Scott co-authored – Beyond Performance: How great organizations build the ultimate competitive advantage:

“Senior executives tend to think about corporate culture as a topic that’s hard to measure and hard to change. As a result, many choose not to invest in it despite all the evidence that, when skilfully managed, culture can be a powerful and enduring source of competitive advantage.”

The three necessary steps are quite straightforward:

  • Step 1: Establish a common understanding of culture and metrics for it
  • Step 2: Focus on the few changes that matter most
  • Step 3: Integrate culture change efforts with business improvement initiatives

Frankly, we couldn’t say it better ourselves. We concur it’s a challenge, although people are more open to conversations about organisational culture than they were, say, five years ago. If you’re willing to share your thoughts on organisational culture, we’d love to hear them