How do you analyze culture?

What is culture?

Culture is about collectively giving meaning to the things we do and the things we possess. You do this inside a country, county, community and family. Corporations also have their own distinct cultures and subcultures. It is why in a new job you always need time to adjust, not just to the new tasks, but also to the new social rules and habits.

The culture iceberg with visible and invisible culture

How to analyze culture?

There are a lot of great theories about how to analyze culture. Both their strengths and their weaknesses is that they oversimplify culture. Some have made typologies of cultures, others analyze dimensions of culture. I will get back to these theories in later blogs. For now I will tell you how I go about it.

I always start recording and analyzing when I first meet the company or team I am asked to help. I record what people tell me about themselves and I ask about the visual artefacts of culture in a company. First up is are the organisational charts, the mission statement and the strategy. These can tell you a lot about the culture a company wants to have. Depending on how aligned these artefacts are with the actual culture it can also give you a first idea about what kind of culture a company has. Below is a simple organizational chart and an example of the questions I ask.

Organizational chart example

How does a mission statement help in understanding culture?

A lot of mission statements are vague, but they do tell you something about

  • How the company wants to be viewed by outsiders
  • Who they consider their most important stakeholders
  • What they consider their most important values

In combination with the organizational chart this will already give you valuable insight into the formal culture of a company. Talking about the mission and organizational chart will also give you a first outline of the informal culture. Do people know the mission statement? Does it have meaning in their day to day work?

How does the strategy help in understanding culture?

The strategy is also a great example of formal culture. It tells you

  • How a company wants to achieve it’s mission
  • What performance is expected of their employees

It is also very interesting to see what is and is not mentioned in the company strategy. Some company use a balanced scorecard as their strategy, others have kpi’s and cultural values. When you talk to people about strategy and what it means to them, you will get an idea about how both the formal and informal culture of the company work.

What about shared values?

Shared values are a great way to transition from the most visible part of the iceberg to the part that is closer to the surface. What people say makes the culture of this company uniquely itself:

  • Is the company mindful of it’s past or looking at the future?
  • How does the company view it’s customers? Like Kings, children, wallets or..?
  • How is social life organized? Is is through competition, hierarchy, collaboration, function?
  • What way of doing your job is perceived as good? Being busy, working overtime, taking enough breaks, going to work when you are sick…?
  • When are people successful in this company?
  • How does the company view it’s suppliers??

You can add or skip questions depending on the context of the company you are in. It is important to ask people follow up questions to make sure you truly understand what makes the company work. It also helps you in gauging whether you are getting socially desirable answers or answers that reflect reality.

The analysis described above will help you get a first idea about the culture of a company. In my blog of the 24th of December we will look at the part of the iceberg below the surface. In later blogs we will look at influencing culture to help sustain your change effort.

Two great resources

Book the culture map by Erin Meyer

A great book

Book by Geert Hofstede cultures consequences


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