What is an organisational culture? Definitions of organisational culture reveal...

What is an organisational culture?

organisational culture

People talk a lot about ‘organisational culture’ and changing the organisational culture. But what is an organisational culture?

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The definition of organisational culture

There are several different definitions of organisational culture (1)

These definitions range from the simple – “It’s the way we do things around here”(2)

to the more complicated such as Schien’s definition of culture:

“a pattern of shared basic assumption that have been invented, discovered or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with 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 relationship to those problems”(3)

Schien’s definition of an organisational culture tends to be the most widely adopted in research.


Inferred and invisible




The idea of a ‘Culture’ is actually a metaphor. It is an image or understanding that is symbolic of something that we can’t actually access directly. Culture isn’t something you can see or touch, rather we infer it from the behaviours, conversations, words, images, clothes, artefacts, art, decisionand other patterns we notice within any defined group of people, an organisation for example. In effect the culture of an organisation is the inferred and invisible curriculum and customs of that group of people.


Shared attributes of an organisational culture

When you look across the range of definitions we find that there are some things that are shared between these ideas of what a culture comprises. Things like shared:

1. Beliefs,
2. Values,
3. Norms of behaviour,
4. Routines,
5. Traditions,
6. Sense-making
7. Perspectives



through a lens


Through a lens

One popular way of understanding what a culture is, is that is it is the lens through which the people in an organisation perceive or view, understand, interpret and make sense of the world around them (4). As a result it is also the sense through which they make decisions and do things. One study (5) found that culture is not just what we infer from what we observe a group of people, but it is also the shared ‘cognitive and symbolic context’ within which they exist.(6)

The mental idea concept of a culture is also one of the lenses through which we view and evaluate the organisation in question.


What this means

What this means is that the culture tends to shape and define our thoughts and actions. It shapes what we think about, how we think and the rationale we use to explain things.

Does that mean that everyone is the same in a culture, that they all think alike and do the same thing?

No not at all.

There are likely to be a wide range of people who fit into that culture. This includes people who are more modal (more of an example of the culture) or more peripheral (less of an example of the culture).

Over the next few Thursday / Friday posts I will explore organisational culture, what it is, what it does and importantly the latest research on how to change it.



(My DPhil (PhD)  research at was focussed on acculturation – how people learn to become like something. For example, how does someone join the police and in a fairly short period of time; become like, act like, sound like, almost smell like a police officer? It is an informal and usually unconscious learning process.)


1. Alvesson M: Cultural perspectives on organisations. 1995, Cambridge University Press
2. Balogun J, Hailey V: Exploring strategic change. 2004, London: Prentice Hall
3. Schien E: Organisational Culture and Leadership. 1995, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
4. Konteh FH, Mannion R, Davies H: Clinical governance views on culture and quality improvement. Clinical Governance: An International Journal. 2008, 13 (3): 200-207. 10.1108/14777270810892610.
5. Scott T, Mannion R, Marshall M, Davies H: Does organisational culture influence health care performance? A review of the evidence. J Health Serv Res Policy. 2003, 8 (2): 105-117. 10.1258/135581903321466085.
6. Parmelli, E., Flodgren, G., Beyer, F., Baillie, N., Schaafsma, M. E., & Eccles, M. P. (2011). The effectiveness of strategies to change organisational culture to improve healthcare performance: a systematic review. Implementation Science, 6(1), 33

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page

  • jose Santiago says:

    a very succinct and clear view of culture, i always had the counter culture elements in a culture that help reinforce the culture vs the counter culture elements . how to deal with this can be a challenge especially in a change context.

  • Philip Dyer says:

    Always a great read David; thank you 🙂

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