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October 11, 2012

Organizational Culture – More than Food and Music

Companies have long wondered about the best ways to manage their people. Around 30 years ago they started bringing in time-management consultants to help them improve this process. Edgar H. Schein was one consultant who realized that as there is human culture – cultural differences between people and countries – there is also corporate culture. In global software development, the right corporate culture fosters innovation and growth. In order to define it, you have to know what it’s made of.

Organizational culture is much more than the food and music you like. In his book, “Organizational Culture and Leadership,” Schein defines corporate culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned 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 to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.”

Schein also identifies the 10 Elements of Culture based on observed behavior when people interact. We have all worked in places where the company culture is not conducive to getting work done quickly. How would you define your organizational culture? The 10 elements are: Observed Behavior, Group Norms, Espoused Values, Formal Philosophy, Rules of the Game, Climate, Embedded Skills, Habits of Thinking, Shared Meanings and Root Metaphors.

To identify these elements, Schein observed how people behave when they interact. A number of years ago, I worked at a Silicon Valley startup. The CEO had a habit of interrupting both employees and customers in the course of conversation. It is so disrespectful when people interrupt, but at that company, it was a part of the culture, part of the acceptable behavior.

A classic instance of Formal Philosophy, or broad policies and principles beyond the individual, is the HP way. From the sixties through the eighties, the HP way of a collaborative work environment was what everyone talked about. More recently, with Steve Jobs’ heavy influence on Apple, the idea that the product has to be insanely great is widely credited for his company’s success.

Most of us are conscious of embedded skills, or things people are expected to know. These are special competencies passed on by word of mouth, like how to talk to a customer on the phone or how to do various things that aren’t spelled out in a handbook. I experienced this first-hand in graduate school at Berkeley. Students were expected to know the C programming language, and there weren’t any classes where you could learn it if you didn’t know the language. The attitude was: if you didn’t know it, you shouldn’t be here.

We can look at the linguistic paradigms of a company, or how people say things, to identify an organization’s habits of thinking. Schein explains this as the shared cognitive frames taught and used to new members. This comes up often when companies hire offshore software developers to build an application for the Western market. For instance, developers need to learn the difference between a sales order and a purchase order, which gets even more complex when you add in backorders. In the West, you come to acquire this knowledge through experience, but a programmer in Russia, India or Vietnam can find it quite confusing at first.

The 10 Elements of Culture highlight things to look for in determining how your corporate culture is defined. The examples I’ve mentioned relate to global software development and how different company cultures can lead to miscommunication if you’re not aware of them. Assessing the organizational culture of our partners is a big part of what we do to make sure they’ll be compatible with a client looking to have software developed. How a company works on a day-to-day basis is what ultimately defines its culture and how well they work with global clients.

Andy Hilliard

As CEO, Andy leads and advocates for the globalization and collaboration of great software teams with companies in search of talent, innovation and a globally-distributed extension of their engineering function and culture. Andy founded the ground-breaking nearshore software development services company, Isthmus Costa...

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