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An Organization has Cultures
by Robert F. Smith

Scientists with whale fossil.



Two senior women on the beach.

Much as a country or a region of the world can be said to have a culture, with recognizable characteristics, an organization has a culture.

If it has functional specialist groups and different geographic locations, each of them will have its own culture that is a sub-culture of the whole - influenced by the whole and influencing the whole. The principle holds true for even further sub-groupings.

An organization's people are the "keepers of the culture." They also can be "molders of the culture."

What are the dimensions of a culture? How can one be described? Culture is the implicit, informal, potent system of "norms" in an enterprise. It is assessed best in terms of actual behaviors of real people.

"Culture gaps" exist in varying degrees between these actual behaviors and the behaviors desired by the organization's members. The latter desired behaviors would reflect the values explicitly adopted by the enterprise.

Even informally, culture starts with values that show through what people do...like the conversational observation, "Around here you count on people to keep their commitments."

Culture has to do with how we do things in our group and sub-groups. For example:

  1. How we listen and talk to one another.
  2. How we behave at meetings.
  3. How we confront problems.
  4. How we reach decisions.
  5. How we reward and punish.

Culture surfaces as an organization's personality. For example, are we relaxed and open or are we up-tight and secretive. Do we give credit to others, accept blame when it's ours to accept...or are we self-centered and defensive.

Are there myths that we enjoy perpetuating as color elements in our culture?

As an organization, are we leaders or followers? Are we agile and adaptive or are we set in our ways and slow to modify as outside circumstances demand change.

This is not all there is to culture. But hopefully it is a start to understanding how we can describe the one we have in order to determine the characteristics of the one we want.

Strategies & Teams, Inc. • Robert F. Smith • San Diego, California • July 2001

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