Managing Culture Change
Corporate culture consists of three levels: Artifacts; espoused values; and shared tacit assumptions. Each of these levels is important in understanding not only what corporate culture is, but how it works, and how it can be both changed and used to the benefit of the organization as a whole.
Artifacts consist of real, tangible things which can be associated with the organization. For example, McDonald’s has its golden arches, KFC has its colonel, and Nike has its swoosh. These are the most obvious, though not necessarily the most powerful, artifacts which can be associated with a company or organization. The more important artifacts are, for our purpose, things like architecture, décor, and the way people act while at work.
Some of the deepest feelings attributable to an organization’s culture are engendered by artifacts. For example, outside the main entrance to Rocketdyne sits an F-1 Rocket Engine. The engine stands approximately 20 feet high and, at its base, is around 12 – 15 feet in diameter. In front of it is a simple, bronze plaque, which informs you that this is the engine, along with four others, which lifted the Apollo Lunar Modules off the earth on their trip to the moon.
For anyone who works there, and knows anything about the company where they work, this engine evokes powerful feelings of accomplishment and success. I know from firsthand experience and observation that this frequently translates into a willingness (at the very least, resignation) to work that extra hour, to take a little more time in assuring your work is the best it can be.
These may be characterized by, among other things, an organization’s beliefs, level of communication, and methods of accomplishing it mission. These values may be seen in such things as a company’s rules, policies, and procedures. It may be found on the walls as slogans and posters. In talking to members of the organization you may be told that the company believes in things like teamwork, “best practices”, continuous improvement, and lean manufacturing.
At Rocketdyne, the corporate mantra involves team-based component production, commitment to safety, scientific analysis at all levels of the corporate structure, and lessons learned, in addition to other policies and procedures too numerous to mention. It is the background against which our daily activities take place and translates into copious collections of data, numerous briefings to higher and higher levels of management, and close inspection and analysis of every piece of hardware which goes out the door.
However, while many of these concepts may be spoken of, and may even appear as items of value on the corporate web pages and on slogans and posters put up around the plant and offices, it does not necessarily follow that they are actually carried out in our day-to-day lives. Frequently, managers and others who will say they believe in stated policies, are nevertheless placed in positions where they are required by more specific policies to do exactly the opposite of what the company says it believes in.
At Rocketdyne, this can be seen in the use of individual awards and yearly performance reviews, in spite of the outer appearance given by a team-based organization. This is a case where the management, due to executive requirements, fails to “walk the talk”, and falls back on “the way we’ve always done it”.
This inconsistency leads to what is arguably the most important aspect of culture, the real, deep assumptions by an organization and its members of how to accomplish the daily tasks, the sum total of which are the company’s true vision and mission.
Shared Tacit Assumptions
This is perhaps the most pervasive and, with respect to efforts at change, the most insidious of the three aspects of corporate culture. They are the things which “go without saying”, which we accept as the ways of the world, or the ways in which things get done. People cannot readily tell you what their culture is, any more than fish, if they could talk, could tell you what water is.
In the same way, a company’s shared tacit assumptions are taken for granted. Many, if not most, people are incapable of seeing any other way to perform a task or get a particular result. It is all they know, and to think otherwise is, in a word, unthinkable.
At Rocketdyne there are numerous ways in which this happens. They are frequently discovered only when something goes wrong, or when a series of small things go wrong which, by themselves might go unnoticed, but which lead to a major problem. We have studied the Valuejet disaster in 1995 at some length, yet as soon as we return to our jobs we occasionally find it easy to forget that it can, and sometimes does, happen to us.
We have instituted numerous methods of improving quality and performance, such as quality circles, continuous process improvement, and total quality management. We are in the process of instituting “lean manufacturing” and some of the aspects of the theory of constraints. Nevertheless, we continue to assume individual action and heroics are the real way things get done. We look for the engineer or mechanic who will come up with the answer to difficult problems, and neglect to look to the whole company for answers.
Recently, some managers have been looking for people who can “think out of the box”, who are capable of changing their frame of reference and understanding our problems in unique ways, or approaching them from a different perspective. Still, the focus is more on the individual and not on the team.
If one sets about to change a company’s culture, its view of the world, it is of the utmost importance to understand not only these three aspects of culture, but also the depth with which they pervade the organization. Failing to do so will certainly result in a misapprehension of the difficulty involved in change.
The most important things to realize are: 1. Culture is deep – it is tacit and gives meaning and predictability to our daily lives; 2. Culture is broad – it involves every aspect of our work and sometimes even invades the way we conduct our personal lives, and; 3. Culture is stable – people are generally not fond of change, and are far happier when everything goes along smoothly, just like it did yesterday and the day before. Any attempt to enforce change is likely to produce resistance and anxiety.
As formidable as the technical and procedural issues of Knowledge Management are, the need to change an organization’s culture far exceeds them. Most all have heard the term “knowledge is power”. This is generally perceived to be so and frequently translates into a desire to hoard information. Many organizations have experienced the “building of empires” which stands in the way of its freely sharing collective knowledge. Without a major change in our attitude toward ownership of information, we will not be able to take advantage of the tools available to us.
Peter Senge, in his book “The Fifth Discipline”, writes of the steps and the “core disciplines” involved in creating a learning organization He points out that, among those disciplines, is that of having a shared vision, and why it is important. Here is what Senge has to say about shared vision.
“In a corporation, a shared vision changes people’s relationship with the company. It is no longer ‘their company;’ it becomes ‘our company.’ A shared vision is the first step in allowing people who mistrusted each other to begin to work together. It creates a common identity. In fact, an organization’s shared sense of purpose, vision, and operating values establish the most basic level of commonality. . . .
“Shared visions compel courage so naturally that people don’t even realize the extent of their courage. Courage is simply doing whatever is needed in pursuit of the vision.”
I can think of no better way to conclude my paper. Moving from our current relationship with collective knowledge, our intellectual capital, may well require a massive rethinking of our entire corporate culture. There are organizations, mostly younger and already possessed of a shared vision which includes becoming a learning organization, who are already pursuing this path.
However, there are numerous, often older organizations which will be hard-pressed to find the courage and character it will take to let go of the control they feel they now have and embrace a new kind of control; that which comes from an entire organization pursuing the same goals and vision. Until we experience the transformation from being data and information driven, to being truly knowledge driven, we will frequently be at war with ourselves.
Management provides some of the understanding of the problem, and the vision
and direction we must strive toward. However, without fundamental changes in
our attitudes the path will be long and fraught with difficulty. It is, however,
truly a worthy struggle and is almost certainly inevitable. Changes in
technology are coming at us with greater rapidity. We have no choice but to
develop new ways of thinking to better take advantage of the new tools placed
at our disposal. We owe it to ourselves.
 Edgar H. Schein, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, (San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1999), pp. 15-20
 Schein, Op. Cit., p. 21
 Schein, Op. Cit., pp. 25 – 26
 Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline, “The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization” (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990; A Currency Paperback, 1994)
 Senge, Op, Cit,. p. 208