Organizational Culture: How to Define it, Measure it and Evolve it

The purpose of this discussion was to provide a practical review of corporate culture, knowing that an academic or conceptual look at culture will not increase business results. Participants shared ideas and best practices around defining and measuring organizational culture, and what is being done to evolve it.

Current Corporate Cultures and Challenges

The current cultures of the represented organizations varied widely. One organization has a very integrated culture, hiring for “smart and nice.” Those two words are pervasive in the culture and drive decisions about acceptable behavior in the organization. Another company is focusing intently on branding and actively defining its culture; the trick is in focusing on leading talent and nurturing the corporate culture naturally without making culture an HR “program.”
Other organizations face different challenges. One is facing tremendous growth, shifting from an entrepreneurship to a larger, bureaucratic enterprise and its accompanying slower pace. This company seeks to build a culture of accountability and retain its entrepreneurialism. Another privately held, family-owned organization has grown its European operations, and is now experiencing the cultural implications of multi-country operations. Consequently, its focus on global communications is increasing. Another firm’s executive roles have experienced high turnover. A key challenge is determining how to persuade newly placed executives to have similar expectations regarding human capital initiatives.

Establishing a Healthy Organizational Culture

Participants agreed that in order to establish a healthy organizational culture, sponsorship at the top level of the company is critical. It is a challenging task to create an operational system of culture, but how we talk about culture, and the language used to socialize it are important.

Technical Tools

Participants noted the use of a variety of surveys or assessment processes (employee focus groups) to gauge cultural perceptions. Steve Dion shared an article called “Culture by Default or Design” from Talent Management Magazine. This article’s authors state the importance of cultural alignment or re-engineering of organizational structures and systems to be consistent with the desired culture. Without this step, it’s impossible for members of an organization to walk the talk and be held accountable for desired changes.
The Great Places to Work® model defines culture as “employee-centric” and requiring three essential elements: Trust (in management), Pride (in what you do) and Camaraderie (between co-workers). This simple yet comprehensive model was noted as a good tool to help an organization create common language for defining their culture.
Who Owns Culture? HREE Participants had a variety of opinions and experiences about culture ownership. In one organization, the CEO reads an article or the forward of a book and wants to act on it. However, there is a struggle to operationalize ideas that are often fads of the month which leaders don’t commit to sustain. In another company, executives are driven by numbers and forget how change impacts employees. Another participant is struggling with how its IT area needs to be proactive and support the business, which is contrary to its organizational culture.
On a more positive note, one company is focused on how leaders act everyday to show the company culture, since it deeply believes leadership defines who they are and how they act. There is no special executive parking, actionable items that improve the culture are listed in the employee newsletter, and a “join and learn” theme is pervasive. Leadership understands that its culture is the business, not a stand-alone item.

The Keeper of the Culture

Dion noted that “a company culture is built off of its history”. He suggested that best practice requires moving from thinking of culture as an event, to an ongoing process that includes hiring people based on the company’s cultural values and translating those values into behaviors in the workplace. Several of the participants agreed that the CEO and corporate leadership own the responsibility for culture in their organizations. In one, the leaders are united and set the tone, while in another the CEO’s influence hasn’t been wholly integrated. One global corporation uses its external brand to define itself internally, and uses the same assessments globally to build upon it for consistency. Another global organization is growing its non-U.S. business so quickly, it is learning to identify common elements as a foundation for its culture, while allowing for some local differences.

Measuring Organizational Culture

Because the people closest to the work know the most about it, Dion queried the participants about the checkpoints in their companies that measure organizational culture strength and employee satisfaction. He noted that a governance system should be in place to implement and monitor a cultural change, specifically to Plan, Survey and Action (with 80 percent of the work in Action). Employees should be educated about why they are being surveyed, and accountability from line leaders should be built-in for action and results. Perhaps more importantly, leaders should be trained to drive and execute the plan before surveying employees.
One participant stated that accountability to improve is needed in her workplace; Gallup validated the information they already knew, but nothing is changing because no actionable metrics have been devised. Another company has implemented its plan, but has been postponing an employee survey until the changes are stable, although allowing the results to fall where they may, could be more telling for leadership.
An annual Great Places to Work® survey and internal assessment is used at another corporation, which then creates an action plan to address what the company will do as a result. Communication is a key element of making its cultural expectations clear.
Whether or not the current culture of their workplace was well established and regularly evaluated, the HREE participants agreed that corporate leadership must determine the values that set the tone for its culture and be committed to implementing it companywide.
*C. Edmonds and S. Glaser, “Culture by Default or by Design?” Talent Management, January 2010, 36-39.