Culture – Is it important?

Culture remains a catch-all term since time immemorial. It seems important, in so far that, it’s the one thing that binds us all together in a way that nothing else does. But before I share my views on this, let’s be clear on the term “culture” as there tends to be so many of them. I personally like the one by E.B Taylor (published in 1871) as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of the society”.  It could be thought of broadly as a brand but never easy to articulate.

Another of the definition I like, more in tune with my own idea of organisational culture is the one by Edgar Schein. Schein defined culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group 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 you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems”. Schein goes on to explain that organisational culture exists in three levels – beliefs and assumptions, norms and values and visible artifacts (see Figure below adapted from his book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 3rd Edition).

Perhaps culture could be defined as simple as “it’s the way it is”. My own take on this is that founders often establish the culture through their “assumptions, beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings”. These beliefs and assumptions influence their own values and behaviour which is reflected in their leadership style. These over time transcribe into organisational artefacts or “the way things must be/are done”. The founders continue to exert their influence by recruiting people with similar shared values and inculcate the beliefs they themselves hold dear. It could however be argued that it is bound to change over time to reflect the broad range of people that come on board, but let’s leave that discussion for another day.

Culture has an important role to play in a firm’s identity and it’s worth watering, weeding and nurturing, particularly as the company begins to grow, be it organic or through acquisitions.  It is important that a dominant culture is maintained that stiches every member of the company together at every stage of its growth. It’s worth remembering that it’s not just the skills of the members that are important for a company to succeed but the underlying beliefs and values through which members interact to make things happen (and perhaps becomes outwardly visible, as company culture, over time)!

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