I thought I’d take some time out from some rather serious and quite involved writing that I’m doing to exorcise (exercise?) a minor obsession of mine.

Organisational culture seems to be a buzzword in ITSM circles at the moment, and for good reason. I think its becoming clear to most that the laudable aims of our discipline cannot be achieved without paying attention to the people who work within the sector. Good old homo sapiens, we’re not like microprocessors; we don’t execute a JP NZ 4000H command if certain conditions are met or not met. So the question appears to be, how do we align the mindset of those working in the ITSM enterprise with its stated goals.

The answer to most is simple. Get the culture right.

And here’s the big however, however. Culture is a very slippery concept; both in terms of its definition and operationally. Its appearance as a management buzzword seemed to coincide with the rise of the Asian tiger economies of the late eighties onwards. Management theorists marvelled at the successful way in which these organisations operated and concluded that it had something to do with organisational culture and we in the West should try to emulate it.

Some decades on, a lot of research time has expended on the concept, and many of the the leading theorists are still in disagreement about exactly what organisational culture is. Some say it is the shared understandings present in an organisation, others say it’s the unique way of doing things in any particular work environment. What do you think? Regardless of your answer, spend some time on these two points:

  1. How do you measure or determine a culture at any organisation?
  2. Where’s the evidence to show that any particular (measurable) cultural configuration is related to the outcomes you desire?

Some leading theorists suggest that culture is a deep construct, composed of hidden, underlying assumptions which drive the next level of culture, the values of the organisation. This model suggests that the outward appearances of culture that you and I experience are only a manifestation of the other two less visible phenomena. These theorists suggest that to understand culture one needs to perform detailed ethnographic analyses of the organisation, otherwise one only examines surface level displays which are not helpful for understanding, or in order to facilitate change.

Other leading theorists suggest that the history of cultural research reveals three ideas of culture. Firstly the traditional one which assumes that culture is shared across the organisation. A second, the ‘differentiation’ perspective, describes not single cultures but multiple subcultures in an organisation – for example by hierarchical level (managers versus workers), department (sales versus technical), job role (programmers versus support) gender, or age, or length of industry tenure. I could go on. The third cultural perspective is ‘fragmentation’ which would have that there is no permanent consensus, rather shared values that are based upon individual issues that particular individuals may agree or disagree on.

Also, is culture unique to an organisation? Some argue that there are elements of shared understandings that are industry wide, and in a sector such as ours with contractors and high turnover in certain roles, the correct level of cultural analysis should be the industry and not the organisation. Tell that to your consultant who is trying to sell your organisation a cultural change programme.

So even if you’ve managed to negotiate the above concepts with your view of organisational culture still intact, let’s return to the idea of evaluating the present culture and setting some specific ideal destination culture that you know will deliver those valuable outcomes. How exactly do you move from A to B? As one theorist suggested, organisations are complex social systems and managers can never be in control of all the spurious interactions that occur. He suggested that ‘tinkering’ with culture is dangerous.

Therefore be very wary about tinkering with culture. At best it will simply result in a hefty consultancy bill, at worst you may be landed with a completely unexpected social result. At Cxi, we say far better to think along trichromatic lines instead.

(Originally published in 2011 on the @techpsychsoc blog)

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