Cultural models reflect this complexity. The well-known cultural web developed by Johnson and Scholes provides one illustration. The web is made up of a number of elements:
- The events and stories that people talk about
- The rituals and routines that show what is important and what‘sanctioned’ behaviour is
- The symbols, from the organisation’s brand and buildings to the language that people use
- Who has real power – to keep the status quo or make improvements
- What controls are in place – both measurement and reward systems
- The formal organisational structure – showing both who and what is important
To make it worse, few organisations have a single culture. Subcultures proliferate – forming for reasons as varied as the requirement for an R&D division to work in a particular way to make its contribution, to the different basic assumptions that contribute to the world view of people from varying national cultures in a multi-national organisation.
So is change possible? Yes, but it is important to recognise the limitations and risks. As well as multifaceted, culture is multi-layered. Ed Schein, father of organisational cultural theory, paints a picture of the levels of culture: Artifacts– things that can be seen, heard and touched as soon as you walk through an organisation’s doors. Espoused values and beliefs - what people say is important. And finally – the basic, underlying assumptions that form the beating heart of the organisation. These assumptions build up over an organisation’s lifetime as a result of people finding a way of being that ‘works’ and works repeatedly when tackling challenges. That level of ‘taken for grantedness’ is tough to permeate – which helps explain the anxiety and resistance that can scupper the most well-meaning change efforts. Though it also means that there are times where it is obvious that ‘the world is shifting’ when cultural change is the most likely – as it becomes increasingly clear that the old ways of being simply just won’t cut it for the future.
Changing culture means being in it for the long haul, taking a holistic approach – and recognising that intended changes often end up having unexpected consequences. No blog post could do justice to the complexity of what is required. A few pointers, in particular from a communication perspective include:
- Clarity. Populate the cultural web to understand where your culture is now, and where you need it to be
- Help people to ‘unlearn’: use communication to help show why the current way of being just won’t work for the future. Better still, find ways people can find this out for themselves (e.g.: ask groups to conduct their own market research)
- Support leaders in being tangible and explicit about what is changing (and what isn’t). Highlight role models to help people ‘reframe’ their thinking. Engage – providing structured opportunities for people to make their own informed decisions about solutions.
- Provide a safe environment. Fear of failure or looking stupid is a big stumbling block. Listen to understand concerns, then communicate the support that is being put in place.
- Recognise the power of the peer group – especially in the digital age. Nurture and support ‘informal’ leaders
- Publicise and reinforce successes – and encourage people to do the same through internal social media platforms.
Course Director, Masters in Internal Communication Management