The Many Dimensions of Organization Culture

As I shared in the framing for this series, organization culture can be amorphous: hard to pin down, and difficult to define. That’s a problem. Because culture is often called out as a fundamental barrier to innovation and change.

In this post, we’ll start to see why.

To build a framework for discussion, I delved into the work of Edgar Schein, a pioneer in Organizational Development (“OD”). With several decades of practical case studies under his belt, he brings the voice of experience. While he targets corporations, his conclusions appear valid for large organizations more generally, at least enough to get us thinking.

So let’s jump in.

In The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (1999), Schein outlines 3 levels that I’ll describe as the perceptive dimension for understanding culture. These are categories of what can be learned:

  1. the visible and observable – what you can see (space allocations; the trappings assigned to members; rituals and events; public packaging, including artifacts like marketing press releases and monolithic headquarters buildings, the glossy and glassy facades that project a desired image)
  2. spoken, espoused views – what you’ll be told (stated values)
  3. hidden, tacit, underlying assumptions -what’s invisible to inside and outside observers (this one is considered the deepest and most powerful, being so basic for so long that they’re taken for granted).

We tend to track what we can measure, so often our attempts to describe culture start and stop with the first two items above. But there’s much more to the story.

Schein says culture is a property of a group, reflecting it’s shared beliefs and values. How big is such a group? It turns out all sample sizes are valid. I’ll tag these as the scale dimension to denote size. Schein makes mention of those shown in italics as cultures can flow across boundaries and thus be inherited. Think “Western work ethic” as a good example. But I’ve added some additional groups, to paint a fuller, 21st century picture:

  1. international community (federations of like-minded peoples)
  2. social community (common demographics and beliefs)
  3. national (bound by arbitrary political borders)
  4. local community (bound by common geography)
  5. digital community (bound loosely by connections and some stated common ground or affinity)
  6. corporate organization
  7. teams as stakeholder groups (internal to the organization, with the ability to posses their own sub-cultures)
  8. functional silos (a special case of teams within an organization that form sub-cultures that may resist other elements; while congruent, their cultures may be different, thus creating challenges)

Finally, Schein uses a breakdown that I’ll call the structural dimension of culture, which looks like this:

  1. contextual depth – providing core, foundational meaning of all beliefs and values in the perceptive dimensions.
  2. contextual breadth – exhaustive scope boundaries to this group, including all internal and external relationships
  3. stability – the result of the above factors, describing full social context and creating longevity over time.

According to Schein, then, culture provides an organization with a sense of boundaries, continuity, and predictability, a sense of place and belonging.

What to make of all this?

Culture is clearly complex, with many interacting variables. At any moment, all the dimensions seem to be in play. We know from studying and participating in organizations that the many stakeholders – because they’re human – possess a degree of unpredictable behavior. They are adaptive. Schein warns us not to over-simplify our assumptions or our conclusions. Now, it’s easier to see why.

Perhaps culture exists as a guide to people who are, by nature, apt to struggle with boundaries and conflicting motivations. Some might say it’s an “emergent” property of human systems, created to establish self-perception and normalizing behavior. In a group setting, we must learn what success looks like, learning how to behave to be a surviving member.

In the new world, however, with fast-paced changes and soft boundaries, the comforting mores of culture may be counterproductive.

At a minimum, we can see the basis for resistance to Web 2.0 technologies, which have at their core the ability to change context and group affiliation quickly. Culture is about stability and certainty. No wonder there’s resistance.

So what of the structure and shape of culture?

How will culture function in the hyper-connected 21st century?

[Next up: focus on categories and examples, per the work of Charles Handy. Stay tuned.]


9 thoughts on “The Many Dimensions of Organization Culture

  1. Always appreciate your interesting thoughts on culture Chris.

    Agree, the structure + shape of culture concepts are rapidly transforming in our hyper-connected world. Stability + certainty tend to act as innovation squelchers. People ultimately define + shape + sustain culture. We need to discover new ways of partnering for more rapid + perhaps authentic communication.

    We are searching for context in a large gray space with many unanswered questions. Functional silos may always be present, it’s a matter of understanding human behavior first and then…A large cheers to complex + thought-provoking topics. The conversation has just begun!

  2. I agree with Meghan – thanks for this place for conversation about complex topics. There are many different directions I could go with what you have presented so far – here is what is up for me now:

    Some cultures may seem to be about stability and certainty, and others may appear clearly adaptive – depending on the context, and depending on the vantage point:

    Context: the culture in a highly regulated industry where there is little room for innovation and the pace of change is slow will look very different from the culture in a hotly competitive industry where product cycles are measured in months.

    Vantage point: within an organization, there may be many different cultures in play – folks in payroll may have a more stable and certain feel for what guides their work than those in new product development.

    The speed of change within a culture affects how adaptive we may believe the culture to be AND the speed of change may leave the culture behind – necessitating additional focus on updating the culture. These are aspects I would like to consider in answering “how will culture function in the hyper-connected 21st century” – what causes adaptation, and how do we adapt?

    There is much to explore in the thinking and extended links within this article ( – if an Enterprise 2.0 approach changes “participation, reputation, emergence, transparency, simplicity, agility, and trust” what are the implications for culture change? Similarly, I found Jon Husband’s link ( in the comments to that first article to be informative about the state of OD adaptation to the needs of modern managers. Lots to consider and to do!

  3. Super feedback, guys, thanks.

    Many are beginning to grapple with the implications of “hyper connected” and “accelerated” in the marketplace and within our organizations.

    The traditional pace of culture change (slow, by its nature) will have trouble keeping up.

    In fact, both sets of comments are a perfect segue to my next post on some of Charles Handy’s work, where I’ll introduce different types of culture, and how the conflicting forces of stability and change/adaptation play out.

    I definitely feel like we’re getting traction on this.

    Keep that feedback coming –

  4. Pingback: Culture Fit + Models of Interaction + Pragmatism/Idealism = Progress | TalentCulture

  5. Hello Chris,
    Thank you for your very clear interpretation of Schein’s work. I am working on my thesis proposal in the study of culture, communication, and organizations and this read was very helpful! I will look for you on Twitter and I have tagged your blog. I will return.

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