Culture change practice essay
The following post is an essay researched and written in anticipation of an exam question for the module Organizational Change (later changed to Understanding Organizational Change) in pursuit of the Organizational Psychology Master's qualification within the University of London's International Programmes (Birkbeck College). Excerpts may be used with the citation:
Aylsworth, J. (2009). Evaluation of culture change as a high-risk strategy. (url) Accessed: (Month year).
Exam essay question:
"Compared with other interventions culture change can be an especially high-risk strategy, taking up much time and effort with problematic outcomes. Discuss."
Evaluation of Culture Change
As a High-Risk Strategy
We will consider the issue of culture change as a high-risk strategy, beginning with a brief discussion of what “culture” might mean, followed by an examination of theory and evidence in the context of three issues: 1) Culture change versus other kinds of interventions, 2) High-risk and problematic for whom, and 3) Problematic outcomes for the organization. We will end with the conclusion that culture change is possible, but it’s unlikely to arrive with desired or predictable outcomes.
Although “organizational culture” lacks a universally accepted definition, it has been described in useful ways that help us appreciate the appeal, the difficulties and the risks of trying to change it. Morgan (1997) describes “culture” as “a process of reality construction” that allows people to behave in sensible and meaningful ways. He writes that by recognizing organizational culture (including the more mundane aspects of it) organizations can derive value toward their own empowerment while taking responsibility for their future with an understanding of how they contribute to their own problems.
We introduce two important distinctions among extant definitions of "culture:" 1) Whether beliefs, norms and values (Egan, 1994) exist at the core of culture – or as Hofstede & Neuijen et al., (1990) found, culture is more about shared perceptions of daily practices, and 2) Whether culture can be changed with difficulty (Schein, 1992) or cannot be changed at all.
Regarding this second issue, Peters & Waterman (1982), with their magical culture change approach, present culture change as doable and far less complex than it is. Representing the “honest-grapplers,” Hatch (1997) and Meek (1988) write that culture change happens in generally unpredictable and undesirable ways and that it is not easily manipulated.
#1 Culture Change versus Other Interventions
Citing Weick’s (1985) argument that “culture” and “strategy” are partly overlapping constructs, we take the position that all change initiatives are culture change attempts, a view that is supported by French & Bell’s (1999) assertion that change doesn’t become permanently embedded until the culture changes.
But since “other interventions” needs addressing, we present two approaches that might stand a better chance of success than an explicit attempt to challenge existing culture. The first might be technological or systemic changes that could be accomplished quickly through power-coercive approaches (Chen & Benne, 1969). The second might be initiatives that target specific sub-cultures rather than the collective “cultural mosaic” (Morgan, 1997), which consists of competing value systems, different demographics and occupational groups.
#2 High-Risk and Problematic for Whom
Those who measure culture and culture change. Because most of an organization’s culture is hidden (French & Bell, 1971), serious inquiry should extend beyond the quantitative techniques typically used (Morgan, 1997). Schneider and Srivastava (1998) have suggested a variety of qualitative methods including interviews and projective techniques, and Hofstede & Neuigen’s (1990) six-dimension framework of perceptions of daily practices has also found support. But overall, tools are quite limited.
Employees. For employees, culture change may be a highly emotional process (Bate, 2003) – and one that is as much about controlling their hearts and minds (Willmott, 1993) as it is organizational outcomes. The larger issue is that if “culture concerns social identity and ethics, then meddling" with it threatens "human identity and individual independence" (Davey, 2003).
Organizations. Since the evidence suggests that a high proportion of change efforts end in failure (e.g. Beer & Norhia, 2000, Burnes, 2003) this implies that neither original problems nor hopeful expectations have been successfully addressed, which brings us to our next issue: problematic outcomes.
#3 Problematic Outcomes
Here, we’ll limit our discussion to organizations that try to implement culture change from a hierarchical pyramid perspective (e.g. Leavitt, 2007) – that is, a unitarist perspective which assumes that all organizational parties share the same goals.
If culture change does generally unfold in undesirable and unpredictable ways (e.g. Hatch, 1997), then we could expect problematic outcomes including, 1) Little exploration beyond the surface of hidden culture (Morgan, 1997), 2) More problems instead of hoped-for solutions (Davey, 2003), 3) Employee resistance, resentment and mistrust (Morgan, 1997), 4) Vastly underestimated complexity (Davey, 2003), and 5) As illustrated by Burnes (2006) with the Marconi case study, even the destruction of a company.
However, examining only negative outcomes misses an important part of the bigger picture: How is it that culture change sometimes succeeds?
We turn here to the Oticon case study (Burnes) and believe argue that the CEO successfully turned the company around because he was able to recognize and make the right choices at the right time. He seems to have pulled off Kanter’s (1985) change-master model by carefully studying the organization, its culture and those who comprise it before creating a vision of a possible future, including a deliberate and conscious sense of direction. Heller’s (1990) four levers also come to mind, particularly “economic crisis” and “technology” as supporting the need for change.
We have examined the elusive nature of organizational culture, the issue of “other interventions,” for whom culture change is high-risk and problematic, and as well as problematic organizational outcomes that might occur. Bringing our summary back around to the original question, we return to Morgan (1997) who concluded that culture “is not something that can be mandated, designed or made. It is a living, evolving, self-organizing reality that can be shaped and reshaped but not in an absolute way.”
Exam performance: This memorized practice exam essay was written nearly verbatim under exam conditions in response to the correctly forecast question. It was marked at the distinction level.