Assessing the Organizational Culture

Last time I talked about organizational culture and what it means. Now, so many times senior managers in an organization will ask for a description of their organization’s culture. Great ask, but how can we get that picture of the culture?

In my experience there are things that you should do, things you shouldn’t and then the nice to haves. Let’s start by discussing what you should do. With no pun intended the first thing you should get active on, are investigative discussions within the organization.

These discussions must be 2-way exchanges between you and the workforce. These can be group activities, 1-2-1 or a mixture of both. I favour the mixed approach. Within these exchanges you want to be facilitating answers to some open questions. Questions like “how do you learn things here?”, “why do you think change happens in the organization?” or “how great is it to work here?”. All these questions are hopefully going to prompt several minutes of response but be prepared to follow up the initial questions with, “why do you say that?” and “how has that affected you?”; or any similar drill down probing questions. Those of you with recruitment experience will find this a bit like interviewing job prospects. When you are in the group situation be prepared to encourage comment from the quiet corner and silence the noisy neighbour – politely of course! Throughout this dialogue you will be scribbling notes furiously. I have found some people who have recorded these exchanges but I find it stifles free discussion. If it’s good comment you can write it down and reflect it back for affirmation. In the group setting I have found flipcharts do work sometimes but you have go judge the group dynamic and I have only ever successfully used them to capture summary points of the discussion toward the latter stages of the conversation. Of course, as with any such workplace activity, you need to explain yourself, confirm the confidentiality and how you and you alone will be analysing the information.

The interviewing and information gathered through the process will be one of the biggest contributors to your appraisal but there are a few other things you need to do. The second thing is to make observations. Now I like to find a corner of the office, of a side in the workshop and sit and do some paperwork, while observing what is happening. Try not to make it too obvious but make notes on how the conversation goes between people, what sort of topics are discussed, how the leaders lead and the managers manage. Try and get to a number of mixed vantage points through the experience and at different times of the working day or in the case of shift workers, across different shifts too. You want to be able to see the way things are run and people act while doing their job across as many of the activities and as much of the working times as possible.

The third key element of the appraisal is to look at what the policy and processes are that are in place. Now this is not from a right or wrong, or efficiency viewpoint – you may well have views there! It is important that you reflect the way people are expected to conduct themselves in the organization, what the hierarchal roles and decision making process is and also be aware of just how much or little structure there is to the daily activity.

As well as these 3 key areas of activity, I would also recommend a few beneficial if not essential activities to add to your base of information. Try and attend, sit in or observe a number of team meetings. I would also recommend sitting in on a board meeting or other executive level meeting. If there are projects currently active then make time for one or two project meetings too. I would also recommend sitting in on training or learning event if possible. My last preferred activity is to sit down and read through the company external document and the internal board meeting notes and the like. This gives a good insight into company vision and mission with a comparison of the delivery and execution.

Before I finish up, I’d like to mention a few things to stay away from. Some I think are obvious but worth discussing all the same. Rumour and gossip have no place in an appraisal. The amount of rumour and gossip may well be relevant for discussion, but its content is not. Don’t write anything up until you have got at least 50% of the way through and never ever provide a first draft of the report to the CEO or requestor until after all the necessary activities are completed. You don’t want to get the observations diluted by changed attitudes midway through the review. Finally don’t rush the appraisal. For a company of around 1000 employees this should take a minimum of a month and more likely 2 for an individual to undertake. If you are challenged on this then you need to challenge back about the quality and depth of the review.

That brings me to the end of this post on undertaking the cultural assessment. I’m sure there are observations that many could make from their experience. In the third and final post in this short series, I will be explaining how I go about compiling the client report, what to include and how to explain your findings in the best way.

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