What is “Organisational Culture” and how can it be changed?

"Organisational culture" as a term has many meanings. I tend to take a social constructivist approach in that I view culture that is co-created daily in the everyday conversations within an organisation. Culture is relatively stable, as the patterns of conversation in an organisation tend to be relatively stable. This is because in their day to day conversations people tend to make meaning of things in particular ways: Having done this, it becomes more likely that they will continue to make similar meaning going forward. The ongoing meaning making process creates creates a pattern of tending to think and act in certain ways and it is in these patterns of meaning making that the culture of the organisation emerges.

The more these patterns of meaning making become the "norm" the less likely the organisation is to be conscious of them. They become taken-for-granted and unquestioned, and they act back to reinforce the accepted meaning making process within the organisation. These socially constructed patterns of shared assumptions and the resultant patterns of thinking and "norms" of behaviour can be useful, as they enable the organization to function by removing the need to make "new" sense or meaning every time that a particular situation is encountered. In this way "codifying" norms of meaning making and behaviour allows for a degree of predictability and the reduction of complexity and uncertainty. However, it can also constrain the organisation from alternate meaning making if it becomes unconsciously "welded" to these processes: The same assumptive patterns that enable those in the organisation to create a sense of shared meaning, thereby allowing them to negotiate their way through the inherent complexity of organisational processes with some kind of predictability and certainty, may also constrain their ability to think and act in other ways.

In this way, organisational culture emerges from the day to day meaning making processes (conversations) in an organisation - both explicit and tacit, and formal and informal. The culture is held in place by these meaning making processes and a change in culture emerges from a change in these meaning making processes. From this perspective, organisational culture can never be mandated or "enforced" by a "vision" from the board or leader. Rather, organisations might attend to the current patterns of meaning making, how they have emerged, the assumptions underpinning them and the purposes and agendas (both implicit and explicit, conscious and unconscious) that they serve. They might notice how established ways of thinking, acting and participating in the organisational conversation constrain individuals - alone and collectively - within their own, socially constructed worlds and prevent them from noticing and engaging with other emerging possibilities. Rather than trying to "change the culture" they might look at developing the capacity of organisational members, especially leaders to participate more effectively in the organisational conversation to allow and "scaffold" new, more adaptive patterns of meaning making to emerge, understanding that the "culture" will be a property of the meaning making rather than defining the meaning making.

  • Nats Druery
    Posted at 18:34h, 13 February

    Thank you! Very relevant and helpful in the current task of changing culture at work…

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