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Can the organization’s culture determine whether it is innovative or not?

Before you can consider this question it is best to try and describe the elements that comprise an organization’s culture.  This is important because many change management specialists that are hired to improve an organization’s culture fail.

Even though the chairperson and the board of directors of an organization have resolved that their organization needs to improve the way a company encourages creativity, ideas and innovation whether individually or by teams it does not guarantee success. This also applies even when they hire the best change mangement specialists available to implement an Innovation Programme and offer employees monetary incentives for important ideas.  It seems incredible that this can be the case, but it is true that an organization’s culture is very powerful and it has intrigued academics.  Here is what a leading writer on organizational culture with Wikipedia had to say about it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_culture


[edit] Edgar Schein

Edgar Schein,[7] an MIT Sloan School of Management professor, defines organizational culture as:

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems“.

According to Schein, culture is the most difficult organizational attribute to change, outlasting organizational products, services, founders and leadership and all other physical attributes of the organization. His organizational model illuminates culture from the standpoint of the observer, described by three cognitive levels of organizational culture.

At the first and most cursory level of Schein’s model is organizational attributes that can be seen, felt and heard by the uninitiated observer. Included are the facilities, offices, furnishings, visible awards and recognition, the way that its members dress, and how each person visibly interacts with each other and with organizational outsiders.

The next level deals with the professed culture of an organization’s members. At this level, company slogans, mission statements and other operational creeds are often expressed, and local and personal values are widely expressed within the organization. Organizational behavior at this level usually can be studied by interviewing the organization’s membership and using questionnaires to gather attitudes about organizational membership.

At the third and deepest level, the organization’s tacit assumptions are found. These are the elements of culture that are unseen and not cognitively identified in everyday interactions between organizational members. Additionally, these are the elements of culture which are often taboo to discuss inside the organization. Many of these ‘unspoken rules‘ exist without the conscious knowledge of the membership. Those with sufficient experience to understand this deepest level of organizational culture usually become acclimatized to its attributes over time, thus reinforcing the invisibility of their existence. Surveys and casual interviews with organizational members cannot draw out these attributes–rather much more in-depth means is required to first identify then understand organizational culture at this level. Notably, culture at this level is the underlying and driving element often missed by organizational behaviorists.

Using Schein’s model, understanding paradoxical organizational behaviors becomes more apparent. For instance, an organization can profess highly aesthetic and moral standards at the second level of Schein’s model while simultaneously displaying curiously opposing behavior at the third and deepest level of culture. Superficially, organizational rewards can imply one organizational norm but at the deepest level imply something completely different. This insight offers an understanding of the difficulty that organizational newcomers have in assimilating organizational culture and why it takes time to become acclimatized. It also explains why organizational change agents usually fail to achieve their goals: underlying tacit cultural norms are generally not understood before would-be change agents begin their actions. Merely understanding culture at the deepest level may be insufficient to institute cultural change because the dynamics of interpersonal relationships (often under threatening conditions) are added to the dynamics of organizational culture while attempts are made to institute desired change.


Yes, Edgar Schein’s is right, organization culture can be amazingly powerful and stop critical innovation and reform.  It can extend to an entire industry and can remain unchallenged until some disaster forces the issues to be confronted and addressed. However, the culture of a company or even an industry can be managed so that the participants willingly become involved in innovation and reform and this can be a powerful force for change.


In the next post I will look at Innovation Management

Jack Taggerty

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