Organizational culture is a complex construct. It encompasses a diversity of concepts, meanings, observable behaviors, and beliefs. Businesses invest significant resources in establishing and maintaining a distinct organizational culture. Scholars and practitioners in organization studies often take their inspiration from the model of organizational culture developed by Edgar Schein. This model presents organizational culture as a multi-layered combination of artifacts, assumptions and values (Burkus, 2014).
In this paper I would like to revisit the key values, assumptions and principles underlying the culture of my past place of employment. It was a small organization with approximately 40 employees. The company struggled to create a unique and recognizable cultural image. Some of its values, principles and artifacts looked unusual and even bizarre for an outside observer. However, looking deeper into the company’s philosophy, it was easy to understand why it was pursuing that path.
When I entered the office for the first time, a number of cultural artifacts captured my attention: glass walls, desks with wheels so that employees could move them freely around the room, a game table in the middle of the office, and a series of large wall clocks showing real time across different time zones. According to Burkus (2014), “artifacts can be easy to observe but sometimes difficult to understand.” Initially, I could not understand why all walls were made of glass and why it was so essential for workers to have movable desks.
Later I realized that the organizational culture rested on a combination of principles – that of flexibility and that of control. In other words, employees were free to manage their projects in the most suitable way as long as they were able to finish them on time. Glass walls were a symbol of transparency and openness, but they were also an instrument of enhanced visibility and a strategy for controlling employee efforts. Movable desks were designed to give employees a sense of freedom and some space for change. However, they also allowed employees to sit together if they were working on the same project. The game table in the middle of the office had to provide an area for relaxation and comfort between workplace tasks. Besides, it had to create a space for discussions and creative decision making. Simultaneously, the large clocks hanging on the wall had to remind employees of their obligations. They were a symbol of discipline for everyone. Because the company had partners and customers in different countries, the clocks showed real time across several time zones. They had to enhance employees’ time management skills.
Here espoused and enacted values also deserve attention. Bourne and Jenkins (2013) define values as enduring yet dynamic beliefs that guide personal decisions and behaviors. Espoused values are those which companies publicly declare in their policies (Burkus, 2014). In my organization, the key espoused values included hard work, customer satisfaction, creativity, and quality. Through a combination of hard work and creativity the company wanted to create high-quality products that would boost customer satisfaction.
However, it is customer satisfaction that was at the center of everything done within the organization. This value greatly impacted the overall culture of the organization, making it customer- rather than employee-oriented. It was typical to hear phrases such as “the customer will not be satisfied” or “you cannot do it without customer’s approval” in daily communication among workers. Sometimes, the values of quality and creativity were compromised to promote customer satisfaction against all odds.
Customer satisfaction and hard work were the two enacted cultural values in the organization. Employees could enjoy some freedom and creativity in their projects, but only within the boundaries set by customers. All projects had to be finished on time. Anyone who was late with his or her project was severely penalized. Discipline was above everything, leaving transparency and openness behind. Transparent walls were an artifact but did not translate into actual values. Hard work replaced personal communication. The game table in the middle of the office had a huge layer of dust on its surface, reminding employees of the creativity and freedom they longed to have in their workplace routines.
To conclude, organizational culture is a complex construct. Artifacts, enacted values, and espoused principles come together to create a distinct organizational environment. However, cultural artifacts do not always translate into enacted values. Many of them simply remind employees of the freedoms they could potentially espouse to achieve better workplace results.