Monday, February 22, 2010

The Five Levels of Company Culture

Company cultures have five distinct parts or levels. A well developed work culture manages each level. Here they are.

1. Equipment and Other Physical Objects

This is the first level of any culture. It includes tools and objects people use to build and make, the clothes they wear, the structures they live and work in, the products they trade or sell, and the art they create and cherish. This is the level of physics and chemistry, equipment, hardware, engineering, and technology.

In some organizations this level is significant—such as in a chemical plant. In other organizations this may be quite insignificant. This is a level where the clearest analysis occurs, where you find the facts of science, and where conversation is the safest—"Guys talking cars."

Equipment is not usually a dominant issue. Because it is comfortable and safe to talk about, it may be a frequent topic for discussions.

Academically this includes physics, chemistry, and engineering.

2. The Systems That Coordinate Equipment

In organizations, this level includes operating stems, processes, procedures, and methods. It is where you find the software to control hardware, and where most training dollars are spent. The prototype system is a living organism, with complex feedback mechanisms, and that unique quality of living systems, homeostasis—the ability to maintain a stable internal state. This level holds the key to efficiency.

In most companies there is plenty of room for process and systems improvements. Because the details of systems are well known to those closest to them to, this level is a golden opportunity for involvement. When you're beginning the company culture development process, this is a good place to start—by involving employees in improving their work systems.

Academically this includes the life sciences, process engineering, and software development.

3. The Authority Structure That Connect Systems With People

In organizations, this level includes authority, competition, organizational structures, markets, information,productivity, and profits. Humans have refined some aspects of this level into economics, politics, laws, democracy, and ethics. Included here are competitive forms of decision-making such as win-lose, or combat. The key aspect of this level is power and control. In its crudest form it involves dominance and submission.

Issues around control, power, and competition usually dominate work cultures. They are also some of the most emotionally difficult to discuss. It is easier to work indirectly on power and control issues by engaging people in improving operational systems at levels 1 and 2. These discussions always bring in power and authority. As you work on system issues, you'll find that the problems around power and control will gradually diminish.

Academically, this includes economics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and much of business.

These first three levels contain everything that is not distinctively human. For example, everything contains matter—physics and chemistry. All living systems, and many non-living systems, have processes. Power and control, the dominant features of most human cultures, are also present in most animal species.

4. Communication That Connects People

This level is the first that is distinctively human. Only people have complex language and writing. Communication includes listening, understanding, dialogue, relationships, and teamwork. It also includes empathetic forms of decision-making, such as consensus and win-win.

This is the level where managers have the most potential leverage. improving communications and relationships has a powerful effect on the culture. But you can't do this in abstract. You have to communicate about something, usually from levels 1, 2 or perhaps 3. Building relationships and communications is the key to employee morale and motivation, to an engaged and productive workplace.

Academically, this includes the fields of psychology and psychiatry.

5. Experience—Creating Motivation and Trust

At the highest level is the quality of human experience. This includes what we cherish in life, and feelings such as trust, caring, safety, satisfaction, pride, and engagement. It also includes our spiritual or sacred side.

Managers cannot directly affect another’s experience, but they can affect it profoundly by actions at the other four levels— especially how they communicate, Level 4.

Academically there is no traditional field for experience. This is partly because academic fields are analytic and experience is synthetic. Perhaps literature and the fine arts peek into this area.

No comments: