What is Culture Assessment? Process

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What is Culture Assessment?

A culture assessment is a process of evaluating a need for cultural change in an organization. The main objective of culture assessment is to achieve sustainable improvement in the productivity and performance of an organization. In other words, culture assessment is a disciplined approach undertaken to perform effective organizational change.

The first step to making changes in a culture is to define compatibility between the employees and the prevailing culture of an organization. This helps an organization to collect employees’ viewpoints on the existing work culture and take suggestions from them on how to improve it.

Apart from this, culture assessment enables an organization to compare the prevailing work culture with what is reflected in its brand message and strategic plans. Any deviation between the two may present a wrong image of the organization in the market.

Culture assessment sheds light on issues that hamper organizational performance. Moreover, it enables organizations to decipher their cultural elements, such as language, religion, values and attitudes, ethics, education, etc. that are relevant to organizational cultural change.

The results of the culture assessment process can help an organization improve the existing work culture and align it with employees.

Following are some questions that are generally needed to be answered before starting the culture assessment process:

  • What is the purpose of conducting a culture assessment?
  • What problems and issues will be assessed in the process?
  • What is the significance of culture assessment for the organization?

Only after finding answers to the aforementioned questions, an organization can start the culture assessment process. Apart from this, an organization should take into consideration the following points before performing an assessment:

  • Culture is dominated by a set of shared values, thus data should be obtained from groups rather than interviewing individuals on a one-to-one basis.

  • Cultural assessment is not possible if employees are unaware of its meaning and significance. Therefore, it should be ensured that the employees of an organization are well aware of the objectives behind the assessment so that the same could be taken forward in the desired manner.

  • It is not necessary that all cultural elements lead to specific issues. Thus, it will be inappropriate to examine the entire culture of an organization in all its facets.

  • There are some cultural elements that are preserved as they contribute to the accomplishment of organizational goals or the resolution of existing issues. On the other hand, there are some elements that may be perceived as constraints or barriers.

    An effective culture assessment process should identify both types of elements in order to ensure accurate results.

Culture assessment mainly aims to bring together different organizational teams and groups; enable these teams and groups to perceive their organizational culture and subcultures and allow them to identify main artifacts, espoused values, and shared tacit assumptions.

A detailed explanation of these assumptions is given in the subsequent sections of the chapter.

In an organization, culture assessment can be performed either by leaders within the organization or external researchers or consultants. Irrespective of whether the process is performed internally or externally, an organization first needs to identify a need for performing a culture assessment.

Culture Assessment Process

According to Edgar Henry Schein, culture assessment is a systematic process, which involves ten steps listed in Figure:

Obtaining Leadership Commitment

The culture assessment process should be undertaken only after obtaining consent from the top management of an organization.

This is because the top management helps leaders or researchers to identify a need for culture assessment and its relevance for the organization by deciphering shared cultural values and beliefs of people.

Not only this, top management supports leaders or researchers to obtain their commitment towards group meetings conducted throughout the culture assessment process.

In the past, many instances have occurred where the culture assessment process failed due to a lack of top management support. For example, Kodak went bankrupt as it could not survive in the rapidly changing digital world.

Many recent studies indicate the failure of leaders at Kodak in assessing cultural elements that led to its downfall. In 1993, Kodak hired George Fisher as the CEO who was considered to be as good as Jack Welch or Lou Gerstner.

There were people within the organization who could foresee the problem but the organizational culture at Kodak did not allow them to voice their opinions. It was required for the new CEO to assess cultural assumptions which he failed to do and ignored the ideas and solutions that could come from people buried under the hierarchy system. When Kodak was set up, it was built on a culture of innovation and change, which the leaders at Kodak changed to a culture of complacency as they grew successful with time.

Selecting Groups for Interviews

The next step in the culture assessment process is to select groups whose members can be interviewed to provide feedback and assumptions for the assessment process.

These groups can be homogenous (by selecting the members of the same department or the same background) or heterogeneous (by choosing members from cross-functional departments). However, there is no fixed size of a group; it can vary from 3 to 30 members. Such groups lead to various sub-cultures prevailing in the organization.

After the selection of groups is completed, it is the leader’s duty to inform the group about the purpose of the meeting. The participants in the culture assessment process should be aware of the issues faced by an organization for which changes in cultural elements are desired.

Feedback from the members of different groups is taken through various rounds of discussions and interviews to identify some common cultural assumptions. Senior executives and leaders are generally kept out of the discussion process in order to encourage a fairly open discussion.

Selecting an Appropriate Setting for Group Interviews

The most preferred and appropriate setting for conducting group meetings and interviews is a large comfortable room. The room should be equipped with flip charts so that inputs provided by group members can be highlighted.

Explaining the Purpose of the Meeting

After the selection of groups, it is important that the groups are made aware of the purpose of conducting interviews. A facilitator makes participants understand how they can contribute to the culture assessment process.

The facilitator can be an external counselor or internal employee who has a thorough understanding of the cultural aspects of an organization. Even a leader from another department or function can also lead the culture assessment process if he/she is familiar with the corporate culture and the group interview process for the assessment.

The group should be aware of the main objective of holding interviews, which is to bring group members together to work toward culture assessment. For this, the group members should be provided with a written account of problems that demand culture assessment and change. A clear understanding of problems allows group members to participate in discussions actively.

Delivering a Short Lecture on How to Think About Culture

As per Schein, culture is manifested at three levels of an organization. These three levels are:

  • Cultural artifacts: These are visible elements and processes, such as company logos, structure, dress code, etc.

  • Espoused values: These are consciously developed management practices and values that are reflected in goals, objectives, and policies.

  • Basic underlying assumptions: These are basic shared values of people within a specific corporate culture.

The facilitator should present a short lecture on this Three Level of Cultural Model and ensure that the group members understand the distinction between the three levels.

The members of the group need to understand that culture is established at these three levels and the main goal of the group interview is to interpret assumptions and practices that are embedded in the organizational culture.

Eliciting the Description of Artifacts

After the facilitator provides a short lecture on how to think about culture, he/she informs the group members about the commencement of culture assessment through artifacts. For this, an individual, who has recently joined the organization, can be asked what he/she noticed first when he/she entered the organization. All inputs and feedback given by the individual are written down on the flip charts so that all the inputs remain visible.

The success of group interviews largely depends on the active participation of group members. If they are actively providing information about artifacts, the facilitator can remain passive. However, in case the group members are not showing any interest, the facilitator can ask the members to provide their viewpoints on artifacts, such as dress code, infrastructure, rewards and punishment mechanism, decision-making processes, conflict management, promotions, demotions, and so on.

This step is considered successful only if it produces a long list of artifacts covering all cultural elements that affect group members’ work life. The members of the group are needed to be visually surrounded by the elicit description of their own artifacts to stimulate their thinking about each other’s shared assumptions.

Identifying Espoused Values

Espoused values refer to those ideas or principles that are delivered through organizational policies. The artifacts provide the answer to the question, “what is going on in the organization?” On the other hand, espoused values answer, “why and what an individual is doing in the organization?”

The facilitator selects an artifact and asks the group members to come up with reasons for what they do in the organization. For example, if the members state that work is too formal, then they can be asked reasons for the same by the facilitator.

This results in bringing cultural value statements, such as “We value problem-solving” or “We think that there should be open communication channels” and so on. If there is disagreement on the established values and beliefs, the facilitator tries to explore the reasons for the same. The group is also encouraged to evaluate all the identified artifacts and find out what values seem to be implied for each artifact.

If there are some values that have not been identified by the group, the facilitator might suggest them as possibilities. In doing the same, the facilitator needs to ensure that it is done in the spirit of joint inquiry and not as an expert who is responsible for carrying out the assessment.

Identifying espoused values helps in preparing a list of values that enable the group to identify the shared tacit assumptions.

Identifying Shared Tacit Assumptions

The basis for identifying underlying assumptions is to analyze whether the identified espoused values explain all cultural artifacts or if there are some conflicts or hidden assumptions that are needed to be articulated. It is important to identify such assumptions as they may obstruct espoused values.

For example, a culture assessment was conducted by some group members at Apple Computers in 1991. The group members noted that, in spite of spending a lot of time in planning activities, their plans get affected by urgencies taking place abruptly.

They placed planning on their espoused values list. The group members were surprised to see that in spite of making planning an espoused value, they have been unsuccessful in implementing most of the plans they have made.

After an extensive group discussion, the group members found that they practiced a deeper tacit assumption which was, “Only the present matters.” This was the reason affecting the overall planning made by them. They used to make plans but work on the basis of daily priorities. This approach was affecting their original plans.

After identifying this deep shared assumption, the group members at Apple checked whether other artifacts also confirmed the same thought. The group also found that members do various informal activities, such as parties on weekends, celebrations on a product launch or birthdays, recreational tours, etc.

The value they espoused through these activities was that employees enjoyed spending time together. However, on rigorous analysis, they found another tacit assumption attached to it. According to this assumption, “Business is not only about making money; it can and should be fun as well.”

Once this tacit assumption was determined, it led to the discovery of another deep assumption that was true for the group, “Business is not only about making money, it should encourage socialization significantly.”

Tacit assumptions provide new insight into the culture, which make sense of the things that were previously not so clear. However, many a time, these assumptions create conflicts with espoused values.

For example, an insurance company figured out an important espoused value, “Become more creative and innovative and take more risks as and when the marketplace environment changes.”

However, during the cultural assessment, the group members found that there was very little innovation taking place. They assessed the situation and identified that throughout the history of the company they had operated on two tacit assumptions:

  • People put in their best efforts when they are provided with clear rules and guidelines to cover and face all situations.

  • People prefer immediate feedback and do not adhere to rules until there is strict punishment for violating rules.

The group members identified that these above-stated assumptions were controlling and driving their behavior far more than the much-needed espoused values of innovation and risk-taking. As the tacit assumptions are deciphered, the consultant should put them down on the flip chart.

Identifying Cultural Aids and Hindrances

In order to identify cultural aids and hindrances, a facilitator should make sub-groups of 15-20 members. The main objective of making sub-groups is to determine whether sub-cultures were identified in the large group exercise or not.

For instance, if during large group discussions, it has been found that there are many different types of sub-cultures like functional, geographic, occupational, or hierarchical, the facilitator can make subgroups that reflect those differences. Each subgroup further discovers its own tacit assumption set. If the facilitator is able to achieve consensus in the large group on the various identified assumptions, random sub-groups can be formed.

After forming sub-groups, the facilitator encourages the group members to sort out the identified assumptions as to whether they will help or hinder the cultural change process. The group then needs to establish a consensus on a ‘new way of working’ and ascertain how these assumptions will help or hinder in achieving this new way.

Reporting Assumptions and Joint Analysis

The main objective of this step is to achieve some kind of consensus on the important cultural assumptions and their significance in achieving organizational effectiveness. This step starts when the sub-groups present their own analysis to the large group.

In the case of consensus, the facilitator can discuss the implications of these assumptions. However, if there are variations and disagreements, the facilitator asks the group members to undertake some more inquiries.

For example, the group may agree that there are strong sub-cultural differences in the organization, which are needed to be taken into account. There may also be a case where the group may think that there are certain assumptions with a high level of disagreements, which are required to be re-examined deeply so that they can be resolved.

Another possibility is that the group may identify the absence of tacit assumptions for various espoused values. In each of these cases, the facilitator plays a major role in establishing a clear picture of the possible assumptions that drive the group’s day-to-day activities, feelings, thoughts, and behavior.

The consultant can raise questions, ask for clarification, test perceptions, etc. to achieve the aforesaid objective of determining the shared assumptions.

Once there is consensus on the shared assumption, the group needs to put their efforts into strengthening the positive assumptions instead of thinking of ways to overcome the constraining assumptions. After these positive and real assumptions are determined, the group members need to analyze various ways in which they can manage organizational culture.

Schein’s ten steps approach to changing organizational culture helps in producing data related to culture. This data can be used by leaders for carrying out the cultural change process. Once the difference in the organization’s current and desired culture is recognized, the organization can have a precise understanding of how to establish the desired culture and achieve strategic goals.

The process of culture assessment should be carried out periodically to diagnose the progress of cultural change initiatives and the outcome should be set as the benchmark for the next culture assessment.

Article Source
  • Robbins, S., DeCenzo, D., & Coulter, M. (2011). Fundamentals of management. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson.

  • Robbins, S., Millett, B., & Waters-Marsh, T. (2004). Organisational behaviour. Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

  • Schein, E. (1985). Organisational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

  • Suri, R., Chhabra, T., Verma, S., & Sharma, P. (2007). International encyclopaedia of organisational behaviour. New Delhi, India: Pentagon Press

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