Coming to a New Awareness of Organizational Culture

If we really want to decipher an organization’s culture, this author claims that we must dig below the organization’s surface — beyond the “visible artifacts” — and uncover the basic underlying assumptions, which are the core of an organization’s culture. To do this, he provides a tool — a formal definition of organizational culture that emphasizes how culture works. With this definition in hand, the author feels that one cannot only come to understand the dynamic evolutionary forces that govern a culture, but also can explain how the culture is learned, passed on, and changed.

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The purpose of this article is to define the concept of organizational culture in terms of a dynamic model of how culture is learned, passed on, and changed. As many recent efforts argue that organizational culture is the key to organizational excellence, it is critical to define this complex concept in a manner that will provide a common frame of reference for practitioners and researchers. Many definitions simply settle for the notion that culture is a set of shared meanings that make it possible for members of a group to interpret and act upon their environment. I believe we must go beyond this definition: even if we knew an organization well enough to live in it, we would not necessarily know how its culture arose, how it came to be what it is, or how it could be changed if organizational survival were at stake.

The thrust of my argument is that we must understand the dynamic evolutionary forces that govern how culture evolves and changes. My approach to this task will be to lay out a formal definition of what I believe organizational culture is, and to elaborate each element of the definition to make it clear how it works.

Organizational Culture: A Formal Definition

Organizational culture is the pattern of basic assumptions that a given group has invented, discovered, or developed in learning to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that have worked well enough to be considered valid, and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Pattern of Basic Assumptions

Organizational culture can be analyzed at several different levels, starting with the visible artifacts — the constructed environment of the organization, its architecture, technology, office layout, manner of dress, visible or audible behavior patterns, and public documents such as charters, employee orientation materials, stories (see Figure 1). This level of analysis is tricky because the data are easy to obtain but hard to interpret. We can describe “how” a group constructs its environment and “what” behavior patterns are discernible among the members, but we often cannot understand the underlying logic — “why” a group behaves the way it does.



1. See J. Martin and C. Siehl, "Organizational Culture and Counterculture: An Uneasy Symbiosis," Organizational Dynamics, Autumn 1983, pp. 52-64.

2. See C. Argyris, "The Executive Mind and Double-Loop Learning," Organizational Dynamics, Autumn 1982, pp. 5-22.

3. See: E. H. Schein, "Does Japanese Management Style Have a Message for American Managers?" Sloan Management Review, Fall 1981, pp. 55-68; E.H. Schein, "The Role of the Founder in CreatingOrganizational Culture," Organizational Dynamics, Summer 1983, pp. 13-28.

4. See R. Evered and M. R. Louis, "Alternative Perspectives in the Organizational Sciences: 'Inquiry from the Inside' and 'Inquiry from the Outside,' " Academy of Management Review (1981): 385-395.

5. See: F.R. Kluckhohn and F. L. Strodtbeck, Variations in Value Orientations (Evanston, IL: Row Peterson, 1961). An application of these ideas to the study of organizations across cultures, as contrasted with the culture of organizations can be found in W. M. Evan, Organization Theory (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976), ch. 15; Other studies of cross-cultural comparisons are not reviewed in detail here. See for example:G. Hofstede, Culture's Consequences (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1980); G. W. England, The Manager and His Values (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1975).

6. See E. T. Hall, The Silent Language (New York: Doubleday, 1959).

7. W. G. Dyer, Jr., Culture in Organizations: A Case Study and Analysis (Cambridge, MA: Sloan School of Management, MIT, Working Paper #1279-82, 1982).

8. See: T. E. Deal and A. A. Kennedy, Corporate Culture (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982); T. J. Peters and R. H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence (New York: Haroer & Row. 1982).

9. See: J. Van Maanen and S. R. Barley, "Occupational Communities: Culture and Control in Organizations" (Cambridge, MA: Sloan School of Management, November 1982); L. Bailyn, "Resolving Contradictions in Technical Careers," Technology Review, November-December 1982, pp. 40-47.

10. See R. L. Solomon and L. C. Wynne, "Traumatic Avoidance Learning: The Principles of Anxiety Conservation and Partial Irreversibility," Psychological Review 61,1954, p. 353.

11. See D. O. Hebb, "The Social Significance of Animal Studies," in Handbook of Social Psychology, G. Lindzey (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1954).

12. See E. H. Schein, Coercive Persuasion (New York: Norton, 1961).

13. See: E. L. Trist and K. W. Bamforth, "Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Long-Wall Method of Coal Getting," Human Relations, 1951, pp. 1-38; I. E. P. Menzies, "A Case Study in the Functioning of Social Systems as a Defense against Anxiety," Human Relations, 1960, pp. 95-121.

14. See: A. M. Pettigrew, "On Studying Organizational Cultures," Administrative Science Quarterly (1979): 570-581; Schein (Summer 1983), pp. 13-28.

15. See: Schein (1961); E. H. Schein and W. G. Bennis, Personal and Organizational Change through Group Methods (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965).

16. See: A. K. Rice, The Enterprise and Its Environment (London: Tavistock, 1963); R. F. Bales, Interaction Process Analysis (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1950); T. Parsons, The Social System (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1951).

17. See G. Romans, The Human Group (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950).

18. See: K. E. Weick, "Cognitive Processes in Organizations," in Research in Organizational Behavior, ed. B. Staw (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1979), pp. 41-74; J. Van Maanen, "The Self, the Situation, and the Rules of Interpersonal Relations," in Essays in Interpersonal Dynamics, W. G. Bennis, J. Van Maanen, E. H. Schein, and F. I. Steele (Homewood, H,: Dorsey Press, 1979).

19. See E. H. Schein, Process Consultation (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1969).

20. When studying different organizations, it is important to determine whether the deeper paradigms that eventually arise in each organizational culture are also unique, or whether they will fit into certain categories such as those that the typological schemes suggest. For example, Handy describes a typology based on Harrison's work that suggests that organizational paradigms will revolve around one of four basic issues: (1) personal connections, power, and politics; (2) role structuring; (3) tasks and efficiency; or (4) existential here and now issues. See: C. Handy, The Gods o/Management (London: Penguin, 1978); R. Harrison, "How to Describe Your Organization," Harvard Business Review, September-October 1972.

21. See E. H. Schein, "The Role Innovator and His Education," Technology Review, October-November 1970, pp. 32-38.

22. J. Van Maanen and E. H. Schein, "Toward a Theory of Organizational Socialization," inResearch in Organizational Behavior, Vol. 1, ed. B. Staw (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1979).

23. Ibid.

24. See Evered and Louis (1981).

25. See M. R. Louis, "A Cultural Perspective on Organizations," Human Systems Management (1981): 246-258.

26. See: H. Schwartz and S. M. Davis, "Matching Corporate Culture and Business Strategy," Organizational Dynamics, Summer 1981, pp. 30-48; J. R. Kimberly and R. H. Miles, The Organizational Life Cycle (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1981).

27. See R. Katz, "The Effects of Group Longevity of Project Communication and Performance," Administrative Science Quarterly (1982): 27, 81-194.

28. A fuller explication of these dynamics can be found in my forthcoming book on organizational culture.


The research on which this article is based was supported by the Chief of Naval Research, Psychological Sciences Division (Code 452), Organizational Effectiveness Research Programs, Office of Naval Research, Arlington, VA 22217, under Contract Number N00014-80-C-0905, NR 170-911.Special thanks go to my colleagues Lotte Bailyn, John Van Maanen, and Meryl Louis for helping me to think through this murky area; and to Gibb Dyer, Barbara Lawrence, Steve Barley, Jan Sam-zelius, and Mary Nur whose research on organizational culture has begun to establish the utility of these ideas.

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