Coming to a New Awareness of Organizational Culture

  • Edgar H. Schein
  • January 15, 1984

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.

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.