Complexities of Culture


Some people consider a culture to be a state of sophistication such as when we say some is very cultured. Anthropologists consider culture to be the customs and rituals that define a society. When exploring organizational cultures, we are using a different definition altogether. Edgar Shein defines culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which 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.” We understand that culture is shared basic assumptions within a group, however, Edgar also acknowledges that their are different levels of culture. This is where organizational culture is distinguished from other sized cultures and understanding that to change an organization’s culture, there are other cultures that too need to see change.

Edgar Schein describes four types of cultures; macrocultures, organizational cultures, subcultures, and microcultures. Macrocultures are large cultures that span beyond organizations. Examples of these include religious cultures, industry cultures, and national identities. The world of academic healthcare centers is a macroculture. What defines this is the shared basic assumptions that are true across the industry so that an organization like the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota shares cultural similarities with the John Hopkins Institue in Baltimore.


Within macrocultures, there are organizational cultures. These are the shared basic assumptions that make two organizations in the same industry different from one another. What is a cultural norm at John Hopkins might not be acceptable at the Mayo Clinic and vice versa. Subcultures are defined by the basic assumptions within different departments. This is what distinguishes cultural norms in HR from accounting. This is because the subcultures are different. Even more granular than subcutures are microcultures. This is what is true for small groups within departments.


Edgar Schein defines three different types of subcultures according to where they fall in a traditional heirarchy. At the top are the “executives.” These are the people who are responsible for the financial health of the organization. The executive culture determines what “is” and “is not” within the organization. This group is made up of c-suite executives. Next, there are the “designers/engineers.” This culture is responsible for determining how things are going to get done within the culture. This subculture is usually made up of managers. Then their are the “operators” and this is where the “what” and “how” actually happen.


When new methodologies or learnings are introduced into organizations (in my case innovation) they need support from the executive subculture. They are responsible for saying “okay, we are going to make learning about innovation a priority.” This then allows the designers/engineers to teach people about innovation. In my experience, the designers/engineers are experts in innovation, and they introduce the new methodologies in bootcamps, workshops, and roadshows. This is how the operators learn about their new subject. However, getting the operators to apply the learning is a large hurdle to jump over.

As we understand there to be different subcultures within an organization, proposing a new method of doing work directly effects the employees at the front-line (operators). Because of this, new methodologies should consider the subcultures that already exist as they are being introduced. This will help improve the uptake of new learnings and ease the process of applying new learning to an already established subculture.


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