Organisational Change Management Volume 1

Framework 34 Assessing Cultural Dimensions

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This framework helps the organisation to identify important cultural assumptions and evaluate the degree to which those assumptions help or hinder some change that the organisation is trying to achieve or make. It is important to understand what the culture of the organisation is and to specify clearly what the change agenda is

The staff will need a framework to think about organisational culture and subcultures, to identify the main artifacts, the espoused values and shared tacit assumptions, etc. It is useful to use an outsider to be facilitator, recorder and, if necessary, "gladfly", reality check and question asker

There are important assumptions that lie behind this framework

"...- culture is a set of shared assumptions; hence, obtaining the initial data in a group setting is more appropriate and valid than conducting individual interviews

- the contextual meaning of cultural assumptions can only be fully understood by the members of the culture; hence, creating a vehicle for their understanding is more important than for the researcher or consultant to obtain that understanding

- not all parts of culture are relevant to any given issue the organisation may be facing; hence, attempting to study an entire culture in all of its facets is not only impractical but also usually inappropriate

- insiders are capable of understanding and making explicit shared tacit assumptions that make up the culture, but they need outsider help in this process. The helper/consultant should therefore operate primarily from a process-consulting model and should avoid, as much as possible, operating as an expert on the content of any given group's culture

- some cultural assumptions will be perceived as helping the organisation to achieve its strategic goals or resolving its current issues, while others will be perceived as constraints or barriers; hence, it is important for the group members to add a process that allows them to sort out cultural assumptions in both of these categories

- changes in organisational practices to solve the problems that initiated the cultural analysis can easily be achieved by building on existing assumptions; that is, the culture-deciphering process often reveals that new practices not only can be derived from existing cultures......

- if changes in the culture are discovered to be necessary, these changes will rarely involve the entire culture; it will almost always be a matter of changing one or two assumptions. Only rarely does the basic paradigm have to be changed; if it does, the organisation faces a multi-year major change process..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

The 10 step cultural assessment process (based on the above assumptions)

1. Obtaining leadership commitment

2. Selecting groups for interviews

3. Selecting an appropriate setting for the group interviews

4. Explaining the purpose of the group meeting

5. A short lecture on how to think about culture

6. Eliciting descriptions of the artifacts

7. Identifying espoused values

8. Identifying shared tacit assumptions

9. Identifying cultural aids and hindrances

10. Reporting assumptions and joint analysis

More details on the 10 steps

1. Obtaining leadership commitment

The leaders of the organisation wanting the change need to answer the following 2 questions

i. why do you want to do this?

ii. what problems are you having that makes you think a cultural analysis is relevant?


"...deciphering cultural assumptions and evaluating their relevance to some organisational purpose must be viewed as a major intervention in the organisation's life and therefore must only be undertaken with the full understanding and consent of the leaders of the organisation..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

2. Selecting groups for interviews

This involves how best to select group representatives of the culture or subcultures. The criteria for selection will usually depend upon the nature of the problem to be solved and perception of the level of trust and openness required. Generally, it is better to have a heterogeneous group, ie a cross-section representing the entire culture, and let the group experience the extent to which certain areas of communication are impacted upon by the presence of others, such as bosses

The participants in the group need to be aware of the change problems being discussed and the reasons for an outsider being involved

3. Selecting an appropriate setting for the group interviews

A suitable venue that allows the group to relax and be comfortable should be chosen

4. Explaining the purpose of the group meeting

The meeting should start with the senior executive stating the purpose of the meeting, ie how the organisational culture is helpful or a hindrance in solving problems or resolving issues; furthermore, he/she should stress that "openness of response" is encouraged

Then the process consultant is introduced and his/her role explained, ie to go through a process that will encourage objective evaluation of the organisation's culture

5. A short lecture on how to think about culture

" is essential for the group to understand that culture manifests itself at the level of artifacts and espoused values, but the goal is to try to decipher the shared tacit assumptions that lie at the lower level......that culture is a learned set of assumptions based on a group's shared history. It is important for the group to understand that what they are about to assess is a product of their own history and that the culture's stability rests on the organisation's past success..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

There are 3 cultural levels, ie artifacts, espoused values and shared tacit assumptions

6. Eliciting descriptions of the artifacts (level 1)

Discussion should be around categories such as dress codes; modes of behaviour in addressing superiors, peers and staff; the physical layout of the workplace; how much time and space are used; what kind of emotions; how people get recognised, ie rewarded or punished; how one gets promotion in the organisation, etc.

Ideally the discussion should be spontaneous and not be directed by the consultant

By listing the artifacts, participants begin to stimulate deeper layers of thinking about what assumptions are behind them

7. Identifying espoused values (level 2)

In the previous step, the question used is "What is going on here?" On the other hand, to elicit espoused values, the question is "Why are you doing what you are doing?" One of the best ways to do this is to discuss the artifacts of most interest to the group and ask them to articulate the reasons they do what they do. There is a need to check for consensus. If someone disagrees with the answer that is being explored, it can be "parked" for future reference. Then the group is encouraged to look at the list of artifacts they have identified and to figure out what values seem to be implied. Sometimes the consultant can make suggestions to advance the discussion

8. Identifying shared tacit assumptions (level 3)

"...that the key to getting at the underlying assumptions is to check whether the espoused values that have been identified really explain all of the artifacts or whether things that have been described as going on have clearly not been explained or are in actual conflict with some of the values articulated..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

This discussions can result in seeing the artifact list differently and to identifying further assumptions

"...assumptions that are important and salient trigger a whole new set of insights and begin to make sense of a whole range of things that previously had not made sense. Often these salient assumptions reconcile what the group may have perceived as value conflicts..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

For example, teamwork may be espoused but individual performance is rewarded

9. Identifying cultural aids and hindrances

Form sub-groups to perform the following tasks

"...(1) spending some time.....refining assumptions and identify other assumptions that may have been missed in a group meeting, and (2) categorising the assumptions according to whether they will aid or hinder the solution of the problem that is being addressed. The groups need to review what the "new way of working" is and how the assumptions identified will help or hinder in getting there..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

It is important to look at cultural assumptions that can help as well as those that can hinder the change required.

"...a successful organisational change probably arises more from identifying assumptions that will aid than from changing assumptions that will hinder, but groups initially had a harder time seeing how culture can be a source of positive help..."

Edgar Schein, 2004

10. Reporting assumptions and joint analysis

This step involves reaching some kind of consensus on what the important shared assumptions are and their impact on what the organisation wants to do. If there is disagreement, then more discussion is required. The role of the process consultant is to raise questions, force clarification, test perceptions, etc so that a clearer picture emerges of a possible set of assumptions that is behind daily perceptions, feelings, thoughts and behaviour.

If there is a high degree of consensus, discussions can start on the implications on the role of shared assumptions in aiding or hindering what the group wants to do. Ideally, focus on the current shared assumptions that will help so that the group's energy goes into strengthening these positive assumptions rather than worrying about overcoming the hindering assumptions. At the same time, the real constraints are identified with discussions around how the culture can manage and overcome these constraints

(source: Edgar Schein, 2004)


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