13 Pages, Grade: A1 = 1,0
2. Changing Organisational Culture?
2.1 Definition of Organisational Culture
2.2 Can culture be changed?
2.2.1 Culture is resistant to change
2.2.2 Culture can be systematically changed
2.3 The cycle of cultural evolution
Table of figures
Figure 1: Levels of organisational culture
Figure 2: Sources of change resistance
Figure 3: Guiding principles of culture management
Figure 4: The cycle of cultural evolution
‘Organisational culture is highly resistant to change.’ (Morley et al. 1998). Discuss
Organisational culture is nowadays considered as a crucial factor that strongly influences the performance of organisations. From a manager’s point of view cultural aspects therefore move into the centre of attention (Ogbonna and Harris 1998: 273). Because of its specific features organisational cultures tend to have a persisting character. Nevertheless its systematic change is one of the most relevant topics within the field of change management. This essay therefore discusses the question whether organisational culture is resistant to change or not.
Starting with a working definition based on Schein’s (1992) model of organisational culture, this essay examines the possibilities of changing organisational culture and the barriers that aggravate change. The essay integrates both, the pragmatist and the purist perspective and gives therefore a balanced analysis of the question. Examples will link theory with practice and support the arguments that have been put forth. The conclusion finally summarizes the implications that have been made and states the author’s opinion towards the initial question.
In order to analyse the possibilities for changing organisational culture the object of investigation first must be clarified (Section 2.1). The next paragraph (Section 2.2) looks at the two dominant different theoretical perspectives – pragmatism and purism – and examines the logic of their arguments by looking at some practical examples. The focus lies thereby on the question if organisational cultural can change at all and if this change can be managed or not. Section 2.3 describes a third perspective that strikes a balance between the two extreme positions. Based on the cycle of cultural evolution proposed by Dyer (1985) it will be shown that cultural change can be initiated and supported by the management but the actual process and the outcome are very difficult to influence.
The definition of culture in general and organisational culture in particular is subject to lively discussions within the scientific debate. In the context of change management there are many different perspectives on organisational culture that highlight different aspects. One of the best known definitions is the model of organisational culture proposed by Edgar Schein (1992). The essay takes this model of organisational culture as a starting point for the further examination because it is the most appropriate for the examined question.
According to Schein organisational culture is build up of three different levels. The core of organisational culture can be described as a set of basic assumptions that guide the perception and the action of an organisation. These assumptions are mostly invisible and unconscious. The members of the organisation take them for granted and do normally not question them as they are present in the organisation for a long time. The mid-level of organisational culture consists of so-called espoused values which are commonly shared by the members of the organisation. These values or beliefs are nevertheless still invisible to a high degree. Some companies try therefore to create a formal mission statement or a corporate philosophy to concretise these unwritten behavioural directives (Schreyögg 2003: 628). These mostly unconscious and invisible values and assumptions find their expression in the top level of organisational culture. This surface level consists of artifacts and builds the visible embodiment of an organisation’s culture. Artifacts can take a multitude of different forms such as corporate language or style of clothes, stories or tales about the company and celebrations and traditions. It must be stated that these three levels do not stand separate to each other but are interdependent. Each of the three different levels and the relationship between them is necessary to understand organisational culture in its entirety.
Figure 1 illustrates these levels and gives a brief description of the respective characteristics.
illustration not visible in this excerpt
Figure 1: Levels of organisational culture (According to Schein 1992: 17)
It is obvious that changes on the surface level of artifacts can be achieved more easily than changes on the lower levels of the espoused values and the underlying basic assumptions (Brown 1998: 163). This differentiation between these three different levels of organisation culture with different characteristics therefore has to be taken into consideration when looking at the possibilities to change organisational culture within the next paragraphs.
Within the scientific debate about organisational culture there are two main theoretical perspectives which are diametrically opposed to one another (Willmott 1993: 520; Schreyögg 2003: 644). They both address the same question: ‘Can the culture of a company be actively manipulated to produce the ‘ideal’ organisation?’ (McAleese and Hargie 2004: 158). On the one hand there are the cultural purists who see organisational culture as a given condition which can not be changed systematically by the management. According to this, the culture of an organisation is an organic structure that is withdrawing from any attempt of planned change. On the other hand there are the cultural pragmatists or functionalists which understand the well directed modification of a company’s culture as a way to improve the business performance. Pragmatists are therefore open-minded towards cultural change programmes and even try to give instructions of how cultural change can be managed successfully.
As shown above in section 2.1 one of the main characteristics of organisational culture is its implicit character. Most of the constituent elements of the culture are not visible and often even unconscious which complicate the identification of the current dominant cultural pattern within the organisation. This fact can be seen as the basic problem of culture management within organisations. As you do nott know exactly how the existing culture looks like you do not know what you want to change. The deeper rooted the culture is in the heads and minds of the employees and in everyday life within the organisation the more difficult it is to identify the core values and assumptions and to finally influence them in a specific way (Brown 1998: 163). It is of no avail to alter only the surface level of culture such as the visible or written behavioural norms without paying attention to the underlying basic assumptions and values. This bottom-level of organisational culture is the most important factor to consider to ensure the success and the stability of cultural change but at the same time the most difficult to manipulate.
On the other hand there are a number of organisational as well as individual sources of resistance which can be generally applied to all change management topics but are relevant particularly for the discussion about organisational culture. At the side of the organisational sources of resistance the phenomenon of ‘structural inertia’ (Hannah and Freeman 1984) is probably the most important one. The structure of an organisation is build to maintain stability over time and is therefore naturally reluctant to change of any kind. The individual sources of resistance are rooted within the nature of the human being. People generally experience what Moorhead and Griffin (1989: 712) call the ‘fear of the unknown’. As a result employees are more likely to stick with the status quo and stay with their traditional habits instead of taking the risk to change their current situation and to move into an uncertain future. Security aspects play a crucial role within this context. People want to maintain their position and power and they are afraid that they could be worse off after the change.
 There are many other well established definitions of organisational culture such as Hofstede’s (1991) which can not be taken into account in this essay.
 See Schein (1992), Morley et al. (2004) or Schreyögg (2003) for more information about the structure of organisational culture as it can not be described here in every detail.
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