In the past 25 years, the concept of organizational culture has gained wide acceptance as a way to understand human systems. From an “open-sytems” perspective, each aspect of organizational culture can be seen as an important environmental condition affecting the system and its subsystems. The examination of organizational culture is also a valuable analytical tool in its own right.
This way of looking at organizations borrows heavily from anthropology and sociology and uses many of the same terms to define the building blocks of culture. Edgar Schein, one of the most prominent theorists of organizational culture, gave the following very general definition:
The culture of a group can now be defined as: A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. (Schein 373-374)
In other words, as groups evolve over time, they face two basic challenges: integrating individuals into an effective whole, and adapting effectively to the external environment in order to survive. As groups find solutions to these problems over time, they engage in a kind of collective learning that creates the set of shared assumptions and beliefs we call “culture.”
Gareth Morgan describes culture as “an active living phenomenon through which people jointly create and recreate the worlds in which they live.” For Morgan, the three basic questions for cultural analysts are:
- 1. What are the shared frames of reference that make organization possible?
- 2. Where do they come from?
- 3. How are they created, communicated, and sustained? (Morgan 141)
Elements of organizational culture may include:
- 1. Stated and unstated values.
- 2. Overt and implicit expectations for member behavior.
- 3. Customs and rituals.
- 4. Stories and myths about the history of the group.
- 5. Shop talk—typical language used in and about the group.
- 6. Climate—the feelings evoked by the way members interact with each other, with outsiders, and with their environment, including the physical space they occupy.
- 7. Metaphors and symbols—may be unconscious but can be found embodied in other cultural elements.
Morgan proposes four essential strengths of the organizational culture approach:
- 1. It focuses attention on the human side of organizational life, and finds significance and learning in even its most mundane aspects (for example, the setup in an empty meeting room).
- 2. It makes clear the importance of creating appropriate systems of shared meaning to help people work together toward desired outcomes.
- 3. It requires members—especially leaders—to acknowledge the impact of their behavior on the organization’s culture. Morgan proposes that people should ask themselves: “What impact am I having on the social construction of reality in my organization?” “What can I do to have a different and more positive impact?”
- 4. It encourages the view that the perceived relationship between an organization and its environment is also affected by the organization’s basic assumptions. Morgan says:We choose and operate in environmental domains according to how we construct conceptions of who we are and what we are trying to do. . . . And we act in relation to those domains through the definitions we impose on them. . . . The beliefs and ideas that organizations hold about who they are, what they are trying to do, and what their environment is like have a much greater tendency to realize themselves than is usually believed. (Morgan 149)
According to Edgar Schein, cultural analysis is especially valuable for dealing with aspects of organizations that seem irrational, frustrating, and intractable. He writes, “The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them” (Schein 375). It is significant that Schein uses the plural “cultures.” Using open-systems concepts, we know that members of a group culture may also belong to subcultures within an organization. Since organizations do have a shared history, there will normally be at least a few values or assumptions common to the system as a whole. But sometimes, as in many orchestra organizations, the subcultures have had different experiences over time, and their group learning has produced very different sets of basic assumptions.
Organization members interpret the behavior and language of others through their own cultural biases. Each member’s (or subsystem’s) set of beliefs, values, and assumptions becomes their unquestioned “reality”; they then perceive behavior inconsistent with their own biases as irrational, or even malevolent. The organizational culture model suggests reinterpreting such conflict as a product of different sets of experiences. Instead of looking at conflict as “right” versus “wrong,” this approach suggests that subsystems examine the assumptions underlying their behavior, honor the experiences and learning that led to those assumptions, and then investigate whether those assumptions still work well in the present.
This is an exemplary application of “double-loop” learning, a term coined by Chris Argyris of National Training Laboratories in Washington, D.C., and now in general use among organizational theorists. In contrast with “single-loop” learning, or the process of solving problems based on an existing set of assumptions, double-loop learning also involves becoming aware of a group’s underlying assumption set and continually inquiring whether it is still useful for the task at hand.
Because culture is so deeply rooted in an organization’s history and collective experience, working to change it requires a major investment of time and resources. Help from a change agent outside the system is often advisable. Without such help, it is difficult for insiders to view their “reality” as something they’ve constructed, and to see meaning in things they normally take for granted. Next time, we will take a look at ways some organization change practitioners have taken on the challenge of culture change in the corporate world, as well as in the orchestra field. Stay tuned!
Gareth Morgan. 1997. Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Edgar Schein. 1993. Organizational Culture and Leadership. In Classics of Organization Theory. Jay Shafritz and J. Steven Ott, eds. 2001. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.
Web Reading List
Highlights of Edgar Schein’s work:
Informative sites by working practitioners:
The Hagberg Consulting Group –
Carter McNamara –