Understanding organisational culture

There are lots of things business leaders need to consider when they’re starting a company and keeping it on track. Finances, sales and operational issues are some that first spring to mind; suffice to say ‘business culture’ – or ‘organisational culture’ – probably isn’t one of them, despite its importance, and as we’ll see, its knock-on effect.

Some business leaders and managers may want to dismiss the idea of a business culture as pseudo-science, most likely because of its complexity and difficulty to pin-down, though turning it into a tangible workable factor of the organisation is possible, and often essential.

The term ‘business culture’ is quite broad, but usually includes things like the values and vision of an organisation (i.e. what the organisation wants to achieve, whether that’s profit or otherwise, and also what is considered ethical), the operational language and systems in place at an organisation and also the beliefs and habits of its members. Again, it can sometimes be hard to pin down exactly what the culture is at an organisation, and very often it’s most difficult for people directly involved in it to work this out. It’s often said that culture defines not just what is done in an organisation, but also how it’s done. You might hear people say things like “our company DNA is X”, or “this is how we do things here”, which are often informal ways of referring to this culture, whether the speaker is aware of it or not.

Very often organisations that have the most clear and straightforward cultures are those that had it in mind when they were founded, meaning that newer firms have often accounted for this. Older organisations however will have seen their cultures develop more organically, for better or worse.

A cynical view of a created organisational culture might suggest that it’s simply a vehicle for controlling the behaviour of employees, and whilst this is partly true, the positive effects of a good business culture are much wider-reaching; increased engagement, low staff turnover and progression towards objectives are some of them.

One good (albeit simplified) way to understand the business culture in your own organisation is to take three examples of different workplaces; an online marketing company, a manufacturing company and an accountancy firm. There are likely to be certain roles in all of these organisations that are the same – admin assistant for example – but imagine the different aspects of working in these places. The dress code at the first firm is likely to be casual, the office open plan and the management style more ‘light touch’, compared to a more traditional approach at the manufacturer’s and a more staid set of values at the accountants. The job role in question is the same across the three companies with regards responsibilities and duties, but the experience and way of doing things is likely to be very different. (Note that the observation of things like dress code and office style are suggestive of the organisational culture, as opposed to actually being the organisational culture!)

Organisational culture

What is likely to be the culture at this organisation?

Working out your own organisational culture, working out what you’d ideally want it to look like, and then changing it can all  be very difficult things to do, but the best approach is to start with a set of visions and values that are appropriate (lawyers probably won’t operate well in an informal, casual environment for example) and going from there, whilst avoiding becoming a company that has a widely circulated set of values that are just for show.

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