Laura Roelofs  

Organizational Culture

Laura Roelofs
April 30, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

If you have read the about us area of this website, you know that our roots are with an organization that was founded by Paul R. Judy in 1994—the Symphony Orchestra Institute. As a successful businessman with a keen interest in music and symphony orchestras, Mr. Judy created the SOI with the particularly interest and dedication to improve the effectiveness of symphony orchestra organizations. His interest in organizational change led him to commission Laura Roelofs to write a series of eight articles for the web version of the SOI journal Harmony. The articles describe various approaches to understanding and implementing organization change.

Today Polyphonic begins presenting this series again, and will publish one article every two weeks. But to start us off, and since seven years have elapsed since Laura published the first article on the subject, we asked her to bring us up to date with recent trends in the field.

- Ramon Ricker

Organizational Culture

In the past 25 years, the concept of organizational culture has gained wide acceptance as a way to understand human systems. From an "open-sytems" perspective, each aspect of organizational culture can be seen as an important environmental condition affecting the system and its subsystems. The examination of organizational culture is also a valuable analytical tool in its own right.

This way of looking at organizations borrows heavily from anthropology and sociology and uses many of the same terms to define the building blocks of culture. Edgar Schein, one of the most prominent theorists of organizational culture, gave the following very general definition:

The culture of a group can now be defined 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 to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. (Schein 373-374)

In other words, as groups evolve over time, they face two basic challenges: integrating individuals into an effective whole, and adapting effectively to the external environment in order to survive. As groups find solutions to these problems over time, they engage in a kind of collective learning that creates the set of shared assumptions and beliefs we call "culture."

Gareth Morgan describes culture as "an active living phenomenon through which people jointly create and recreate the worlds in which they live." For Morgan, the three basic questions for cultural analysts are:

  • What are the shared frames of reference that make organization possible?
  • Where do they come from?
  • How are they created, communicated, and sustained? (Morgan 141)

Elements of organizational culture may include:

  • Stated and unstated values.
  • Overt and implicit expectations for member behavior.
  • Customs and rituals.
  • Stories and myths about the history of the group.
  • Shop talk—typical language used in and about the group.
  • Climate—the feelings evoked by the way members interact with each other, with outsiders, and with their environment, including the physical space they occupy.
  • Metaphors and symbols—may be unconscious but can be found embodied in other cultural elements.

Morgan proposes four essential strengths of the organizational culture approach:

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