10x in the Press

Measuring organisational culture – sound thinking or white elephant?

11th December 2019

Business Reporter, Dr George Margrove, Principal Psychologist at 10x Psychology

“Organisational culture” is a popular term used to characterise the collective personality and norms of an organisation, encompassing shared values, habits, beliefs, behaviours, vision, mission, strategy, goals and more.

Other factors that are part of organisational culture are shared organisational history, equality and diversity, customer perceptions, location, products, market position and performance, technology, workforce, dress code, office design, management style, tools and countless others. There are a range of providers who offer services to measure culture, recruit to match your culture, or to support culture change, in what is currently a multi-million-dollar industry.

The power of the concept of culture is that it covers so many wide-ranging, important and disparate concepts that are part of the fabric of an organisation. The problem with this concept is (wait for it) that it covers so many wide-ranging, important and disparate concepts that are part of the fabric of an organisation.

By definition, “culture” is a dense and complex concept informed by many factors. So the question is, can it actually be measured in any meaningful sense? And if so, what business value does this have?

Can culture be measured?

Qualitative or consultant-led culture change programmes can be valuable. There are also a number of academic or industry models designed to classify different organisational cultures. Research shows that such approaches can be useful for broadly categorising organisations, addressing issues, and predicting organisational performance.

Criteria from different models include levels of flexibility, discretion, stability, control, internal or external focus, hierarchy, individualism/collectivism, approach to uncertainty, and even “masculinity” and “femininity”. This usually results in broad organisational types, with different implications and recommendations for action or change.

However, in order to create models of culture in this way, significant compromises must be made. The possible elements of culture are represented in very simple terms, based on a number of discrete pre-selected concepts. Organisations must be viewed in collective terms, where average scores are derived for cultural elements within the organisation or unit.

The problem with this is highlighted by the large (yet incomplete) list of cultural factors outlined above. Existing models don’t account for these, nor the myriad forms of expression in each. Culture is so complex that measuring it using fixed types can only be accurate in the grossest of terms. Such models therefore represent a small slice of culture, which may or may not include factors important to your unique organisation.

So what’s the alternative?

Many organisations find benefit in culture surveys, audits, or culture based-recruitment exercises, and if these are seen as worthwhile there is no need to discontinue them.

However, such metrics are not only limited, they are taken from the perspective of the organisation rather than the employee, who may find such concepts as abstract or personally irrelevant. Instead there has been a move towards more tangible employee-centric measurement, such as employee experience surveys, which focus on perceptions of and emotional connections to jobs, conditions, colleagues and environment.

Indeed, such experiences are likely to be tangible manifestations of an underlying culture. However, these are much more visible and practical to try to change, and are a more realistic route to underpin an overall cultural-change programme.

So rather than thinking about measuring your entire culture – complex, organic, and ephemeral that it is – a useful mantra could be “measure what matters and what can be measured.”

At 10x Psychology this is what we do. We design measures based on the strongest scientific foundations, in ways that are robust, reliable and, most importantly, tangible and visible to employees and organisations.

Namely, rather than abstract cultural states, we look at performance, potential, talent, personality, ability, diversity, organisational values, employee experience, resilience, and employee wellbeing, but all the while using the latest machine learning techniques to treat individuals, teams, divisions, and organisations as unique.

So, measure your culture in more tangible ways that are relevant, and don’t hire for cultural fit. Hire for ability, ethics, values, personality, potential, and diversity, including things that do not currently fit in your current culture. If you do that, along with understanding and investing in organisational wellbeing, your culture should take care of itself.

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