Organizational culture

One size does not fit all.

March 8, 2018 - Author: David S. Rowley, Michigan State University Extension

What is organizational culture and how does it influence the respective organization? Professor Edgar Schein of the MIT Sloan School of Management provided that organizational culture is "a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that worked well enough to be considered valid.” Such a culture concept will include socialization and behavior and how the group may evolve. What is the groups rationale and how does it adapt are also important questions to be considered. Organizational culture will revolve around norms of the group as well as the group’s values, rules and behaviors. Culture is, therefore, a learned experience.

Professor Scott D. N. Cook of San Jose State University and Professor Dvora Yanow of California State University offered the concept of how to learn called the cognitive perspective. While "individuals do indeed learn within the context of organizations ... it follows that to discuss cognitive organizational leaning, one must first show how, in the capacity to learn, organizations are like individuals." Perceptions of and within an organization can be learned. Groups may certainly learn a specific behavior. Organizational learning is, therefore, a multi-faceted street. Certainly, the culture of an organization gives rise to a set of behaviors; however, the role of the individual within the organization may certainly change the culture of the group over time.

"Cultures are dynamic entities; they naturally give rise to all kinds of incremental changes" opined Professor Harrison Trice of Cornell University and Professor Janice Beyer of the University of Texas. What types of change, the amount of change, who is impacted, the length of time for the change and its over-all impact upon the individual and organization are part of the focus.

Multicultural organizations with diversity creates an interesting challenge. University of Michigan’s Professor Taylor Cox defines diversity as, "the variation of social and cultural identities among people existing together in a defined employment or market setting." This does create a paradox in the sense that the basic premise of organizational culture has been to develop uniformity of structure and belief within organizations. While Professor Cox argues, "diversity can add value to an organization" by improving such things as problem solving, creativity and flexibility, he also notes, “diversity can reduce the effectiveness of communication and increase conflict among workers."

The most important point to take away from the discussion of organizational culture is that a clear definition that everyone agrees on does not exist. Further, many of the discussions of organizational culture fail to take into account the internal and external environment in which the organization exists. If the organization being studied is a for profit company, a non-profit corporation or a unit of government, then the base culture will be different if, for no other reason, due to the nature of the reason the entity exists in the first place. While some basic principles will be the same, there is little evidence in the literature of organizational culture to support a view of comprehensive understanding of the variations of organizations. While the opinion has been expressed that government should be run like a business, an in-depth review demonstrations that the goals and objectives are just not the same. While a type or style of culture may work for one organization, the same type or style may not work for another.

Culture changes can come from the top down. However, they may also come from the bottom up. Other changes may be a total blend of hierarchy with consensus. Is one right and one wrong? Certainly not. The bottom line, to use a business metaphor, is that it all depends on the individual group and how this specific group defines culture as well as how the group operates in its own environment. In short, the group must undergo a complete internal review to discover itself before it ever begins a discussion of organizational culture.

Tags: business, business development, government, leadership, msu extension, public policy


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