three levels of culture

Observing culture

I had some tantalising opportunities to discretely observe organisational culture in action earlier this week, when I was an in-patient for 36 hours.


My bed had a good view of some double doors, leading to another ward. There was quite a lot of equipment in front of the doors. There was also a woven red cloth barrier (not just flimsy police tape) across the space reading "do not enter except in an emergency ". I could see a matching barrier on the far side of the doors.

Schein's "artefact" exhibit one. (For more on Schein, see:…/a-z-of-csr-change-management)

What about the "observable behaviour"?

Staff regularly ducked under both sets of tape to use the doors. According to their uniforms (and lack of them), this was staff of a range of specialisms and levels. I didn't observe any staff doing so in pairs or groups. One looked slightly shamefaced when they caught my eye. No obvious emergencies were underway.

I observed about a dozen staff ducked under the barrier, at least two making the return journey as well, in the 36 hours I was there: some of the time I was asleep, or away from the ward for tests.

Espoused values

The clear "espoused value" was to not use the doors, with exceptions for emergencies.

Lots of staff were prepared to openly (although perhaps not in sight of other staff) disregard the combination of message and barrier. The barrier had not, however, been removed.

Basic underlying assumptions

I didn't get a chance to ask anyone about what was going on, but I have a few ideas. I'd be interested in your ideas and interpretations!

But as Schein himself was eager to stress, the observer is not the best person to interpret the meaning of the artefacts: people from inside the culture are best placed to do so.

Reflecting on a change that happened

Here's a nice exercise you can try, to help people base their thinking about organisational change on real evidence. Running workshop sessions on organisational change is a core part of my contribution to the various programmes run by the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership.  This week, a group of people from one multi-national organisation met in Cambridge to further their own learning on sustainability and organisational responses to it.  My brief was to introduce them to a little theory on organisational change, and help them apply it to their own situation.

Theory is all very well - I love a good model or framework.  But sometimes people struggle to make the links to their experience, or they use descriptive models as if they were instructions.

This exercise gave them time to consider their direct experience of organisational change before the theory was introduced, so that they had rich evidence to draw on when engaging critically with the theory.

Step one - a change that happened

At tables, I asked them to identify a change that has happened in their organisation, of the same scale and significance as they think is needed in relation to sustainable development.  All of the tables looked at some variation of the organisation's response to dramatically changing market conditions (engaging with a different customer base, redundancies).

Step Two - four sets of questions

I then asked the groups to discuss how this change really happened (not how the organisation's change policy manual said it should have happened).  I offered four sets of questions:

  • First inklings e.g. How did you know the change was coming? How did it begin? What happened before that? What happened after that? What changed first?
  •  People e.g. Who were the main characters who helped the change to happen? Who tried to stop it happening? Who was enthusiastic? Who was cynical? Who was worried?
  •  Momentum and confirmation e.g. What happened that provided confirmation that this change really is going to happen, that it’s not just talk? How was momentum maintained? What happened to win over the people who were unhappy?
  • Completion and continuation e.g. Is the change complete, or are things still changing?  How will (did) you know the change is complete?

Step Three - debrief

Discussions at tables went on for about 20 minutes, and then we debriefed in plenary.

I invited people to share surprises.  Some of the surprises included the most senior person in the room realising that decisions made in leadership team meetings were seen as significant and directly influenced the way people did things - before the exercise, he had assumed that people didn't take much notice.

I also invited people to identify the things that confirmed that 'they really mean it', which seems to me to be a key tipping point in change for sustainability.  Some of the evidence that people used to assess whether 'they really mean it' was interesting: the legal department drafting a new type of standard contract to reflect a new type of customer base; different kinds of people being invited to client engagement events.  These 'artifacts' seemed significant and were ways in which the change became formalised and echoed in multiple places.

After the evidence, the theory

When I then introduced Schein's three levels of culture - still one of my favourite bits of organisational theory - the group could really see how this related to change.

Let me know how you get on, if you try this.


A-Z of CSR - change management

A while back, that unstoppable author on CSR Wayne Visser invited me to write an entry on change management for the updated 2010 edition of his A-Z of Corporate Social Responsibility. What a great opportunity!  Not having a very clear picture of the readership, I began by justifying the inclusion of the topic.

Some businesses are very good at CSR. Others find it a struggle or are only just beginning. If you want to improve an organisation, then you want to change it. Sometimes the scale of improvement which environmental champions or others want to see is quite large. So far-reaching organisational change may be desired.

What do we know about how organisations change, and how organisational change can be managed - or catalysed and steered?

The article goes on to contrast ideas about planned organisational change with perspectives which see change as an emergent phenomenon.  It also looks at what changes, when an organisation changes, drawing on Schein's three levels of culture.

And as you'd expect, there are signposts to some practical advice.

What did I miss?

If I'm asked to do an update for a future edition, what changes should I make to the article?

Further reading

You can buy a copy here (NB Amazon don't seem to be able to distinguish this 2010 edition from the previous edition).

I've also posted a slide show which develops some of these thoughts, which you can reach via this blog entry.