What is culture? LO20116

Christian Zenger (chris.zenger@synopsis.ch)
Mon, 7 Dec 1998 23:01:52 +0100

Replying to LO19973 --

Replying to LO 19973 and following

Dear Sabine, dear LO Colleagues

Sabine Bache wrote [LO19973]

>What is culture? how could you define culture. What do I have to address
>in order to change culture? I am looking for dimensions to define
>culture. I would like to be able about 6-8 dimensions which could be then
>defined be a subset of further dimensions. I would then like to translate
>those dimensions into a kind of questionnaire that would enable me to do
>a "culture check" of the organisation.

I like to tell you about a computer-based method which can be used to make
the corporate culture visible. You might measure even slight changes of
the corporate culture. And you are able to keep up with the change
processes because the results are immediately available.

The method is an excellent way to establish a meaningful questionnaire for
broad based "culture checks".

Before I describe the underlying theory, the software tool and the method
I'd like to list a few quotes of the ongoing discussion. From my point of
view it looks like with every input a new facet was uncovered and we came
a step closer to the solution (at least: to my solution). An excellent
learning path. Even rather negative contributions like LO20035 from Andy
("intellectual fog") had a positive effect by provoking interesting and
wellgrounded answers.

David Guinn wrote [LO19992]
To find out what Culture really is, we must ask a fish. Culture is like
the water the fish lives in. She probably does not even know it is there.
It is so much a part of life, it is taken for granted to always be there.
How do you measure something that is undefined? Something that is just a
"feeling", or a way of life.

Richard Scherberger quotes Edgar Schein for a definition of culture:
"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 thought to
new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to
those problems."

At de Lange wrote [LO20013]
...whenever a thinking human was involved with anything, then it is culture.
...Will that culture of the organisation also please members of other
organisational cultures? [last but not least: the clients]

Fred Nickols wrote [LO20020]
There is no such thing as culture. It is a construct, a label, a name for
vaguely perceived patterns in behaviour and artifacts. You will more
quickly wrestle the wind to the ground than you will change culture.

Robert Bacal wrote [LO20024]
...virtually everything discussed in this list is a construct.

Andy wrote [LO20035]
Fred, Most impressive response. Cutting through the intellectual fog of the
well meaning but ungrounded. Bravo!!!

Ragnar Heil wrote [LO20037]
Patterns of values or cognitions as well as systems of symbols produce a
culture. In the tradition of the sociologist Max Weber you could describe a
culture as a community of shared meanings.

David Guinn wrote [LO20038]
...the "soft facts" are the things we must work with. We are not trying to
change a machine. It takes time and energy to change thinking styles.

John Gunkler wrote [LO20041]
If we say that everything that is a "construct" does not "exist" we will
find our discourse to be quite barren.

Eugene Taurman wrote [LO20045]
It is always interesting to me to ask questions as I visit a new company and
see the similarity of attitudes in a company. Opinions seem to be shared
between very different people.

Gerry Randell wrote [LO20052]
Then 'culture' is the outcome of what is inside people interacting with what
is inside their society.

My answer:

The concept
Some change projects are well designed and thoroughly executed, but the
company's performance deteriorates. In other words: the operation is
successful but the patient is killed. Maybe this happens because a number of
factors were not taken into account. These factors are "soft" and therefore
hard to pin down. The sum of these factors may be called the corporate

The culture of an organisation is the outcome of a highly complex and highly
dynamic system of soft factors. Only by "using" the most complex and dynamic
systems available, the human brains, you can measure the state of the system
and the changes of the various soft factors.

The Theory
In the 1950's the American George A. Kelly invented the "Psychology of the
Personal Constructs". It says that every human virtually constructs his
individual conception of the world by developing and using individual
constructs. In order to find an orientation in a field of elements, you try
to percept differences between the elements and construct an individual
pattern based on opposites. Today Kelly's theory is widely accepted and used
in psychological practice.

The Tool
G.A. Kelly invented the Repertory Grid-method to uncover the personal
constructs. The interview technique is based on the principle of direct
associative comparison. The result is a matrix (a grid) showing the
individual pattern of conception. Yet the manual method does not allow to
analyse patterns of groups.

In the 1980's two scientists at the University of Bremen started develop
computer based Repertory Grid-tools. Due to the mixture of knowledge
(psychology, mathematics, neurology) a creative and unique solution could be
found: t.o.p. GRID (task-oriented, personal GRID). By applying a
mathematical deconstruction process t.o.p. GRID reveals the hidden order and
displays the results conspicuously and evidently in a three-dimensional
semantic space. This semantic space can be interactively explored by using
visual, statistical instruments.

The analysing instrument combines the qualitative statement of a personal
interview with the quantification of a question-sheet poll. The results of
individual interviews can be combined without any loss of information, into
a group-examination (up to 100 interviews).

The tool is used be a growing network of small to medium sized consulting
firms. It is not given to the big ones. Quality is first.

For further information check out http://www.neuhimmel.de./TOPGRID/index.HTM
(only in german, english information upon request).

The Method
The purpose of soft fact-controlling is to enable the leaders of a change
process to understand and actively steer the relevant soft factors. Soft
fact-controlling with t.o.p. GRID can, for instance:
- make a business's corporate identity apparent
- show informal management structures
- map changes of attitudes in organisation development processes
- accompany coaching and team development in a targeted manner
- make the customer's perspective apparent in the area of product or service
- make intuitive expert-knowledge accessible

We use t.o.p. GRID often to prepare question-sheet polls by finding the
individually relevant dimensions which are used in a specific context to
define the culture.
Example: In a questionnaire you ask a person to give a statement on the
"flexibility" of the organisation, because "flexibility" is an important
construct for the management. But, what if the employee never thought about
"flexibility" in this context? The dimension is not a personal construct.
Most probably the questionnaire will not be filled out or the results are
Another example: During our interviews customers of a service department
often associated "arrogance" with the image of the company's
representatives. This aspect was never included in the customer polls

Solution Proposal
Development of a meaningful questionnaire for a culture check: In similar
cases we conducted between 20 to 40 interviews (depending on the size and
complexity of the organisation). As interviewees you may name people who
know the organisation by experience, from any level or function, also
long-time clients or suppliers. The interviews take usually around one and a
half hours, all constructs are directly entered on a laptop PC. The
interviewee obtains immediate feedback about the interview results. A first
presentation of the overall results may be delivered right after the last

You will get the shared views of the experts, discover trends and
tendencies, identify typical characteristics, congruent and conflicting
opinions become easily apparent. Misunderstandings which lead to fruitless
discussions in everyday communication are resolved. The knowledge of the
interviewees is put to optimal use for creative solutions and concepts.
Probably you will even find that with the t.o.p. GRID data at hand, there is
no need for costly question-sheet poll. The change process can be designed
and kicked-off.

Christian Zenger
synopsis research & consulting


"Christian Zenger" <chris.zenger@synopsis.ch>

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