Defining organizational culture in order to support learning and change management programs

If you want to change or transform an organization then set about defining organizational culture as according to the research you have about a 1 in 3 chance of being successful. Not brilliant odds you might think but you can stack the “Deck” more in your favour by adopting a systems perspective and thinking about how to influence and facilitate the organizational culture to a more future friendly state. Infact I would go as far to say that many large organizational change projects fail because there is none or little alignment of culture.

If you try and define organizational culture you will come across terms like:

“shared basic assumptions invented, discovered, or developed by a given group”

“collection of values and norms”

“set of shared mental assumptions that guide interpretation and action in organizations”

Culture, often described as "the way we do things around here" in an organization, permeates every aspect of an organizational life (e.g., values, norms, decision-making patterns, behavior, reward systems, and politics).

Transforming an organization's culture is one of the most challenging and rewarding leadership activities an organization can undertake. Culture should be viewed as a system, that when aligned with other systems, can help an organization execute its strategy.

defining organizational culture

There are loads of models defining organizational culture here in my view is one of the most straightforward. By Daniel Deninson (1990)


  • Mission – Is about Strategic Direction Intent, Goals and Objectives and Vision
  • Adaptability – Is about creating Change, Customer Focus and Organizational Learning
  • Involvement – Includes empowerment, Team Orientation and Capability Development
  • Consistency – Concerns Core Values, Agreement, Coordination/Integration
I like Denison’s model as it allows you to define cultures as externally- or internally-focused and as well as flexible versus stable.

More on defining organizational culture here

So if you are planning to create any enterprise wide change you need to focus some attention on the following:

  1. Defining organizational culture
  2. Clarity about the desired culture
  3. Plans are developed to fill the gaps
  4. Including culture change elements in your change plan
Experience has shown that the most significant barriers to achieving lasting and effective organizational change are found in the attitudes and behaviors of the people with the power to make change happen: the leaders, employees and teams within an organization.

Because culture is intertwined with other systems, transforming culture takes a long time. Untangling the drivers of culture is the first step.

Most experts estimate that an organization can achieve culture change in about three to five years. So changing culture should not be attempted lightly but tackle it must if ultimately can derail the strategy

Read more on organizational development here


Defining organizational culture

The following are some research findings by Kotter, Leading Change, 1996

  • Corporate culture can have a significant impact on a firm's long-term economic performance. Firms that emphasized all three constituencies (customers, stockholders, and employees) and leadership at all levels of the organization outperformed other firms.
  • Corporate culture will probably be an even more important factor in determining success or failure of organizations in the next decade. World is changing quickly - adaptive cultures are becoming more important.
  • Corporate cultures that inhibit strong long-term financial performance develop easily and often. Inappropriate cultures emerge over time, while the organization is doing well.
  • Although tough to change, corporate cultures can be made more performance-enhancing. This kind of change is complex, takes time, and requires strong leadership.
  • Strong "cult-like" cultures are present in successful organizations (Collins and Porras, Built to Last, 1994). But, strong corporate cultures do not enhance performance unless they facilitate changing to respond to competitive environments and markets.

In order to achieve sustained results, goals must be linked with the creation of more supportive cultural contexts. The bottom line is that culture influences leader and employee choices and determines the effectiveness of any organizational initiative

Read more on managing organizational change here

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