Creating Sustained Culture Change

Michael Simpson
May 22, 2008 — 2,165 views  
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HR/OD professionals are often asked to help change a corporate culture. The purpose of this blog is to provide some information about culture from the existing literature as well as provide best practices for diagnosing, mapping, and planning corporate culture change.  With the right tools, HR/OD can truly be a change agent and bring about radical change in the cultures of their organizations. Meyerson (2001) stated that change agents are “tempered radicals who, "gently and continuously push against prevailing norms, making a difference in small but steady ways and setting examples from which others can learn."

Selecting effective tools to diagnose and change cultures:
The first step, I believe, is to define the scope of corporate culture. I am concerned that much of the literature addresses culture on an organizational level and gives little acknowledgement to the fact that sub-cultures many times create a culture different than the organization's culture. In fact, these sub cultures can eventually drive the organization's culture. I believe that this designation is imperative as I have personally witnessed a number of organizations who attempt to assess and change culture by looking only at the company level. While I believe this has some merit, it is important to look comprehensively at the web and influence of all of the cultures and sub cultures that make up an organization in order to effectively change the culture.  An effective culture assessment tool, in our opinion, needs to understand the impact of sub-cultures on the organizations’ culture.

There are a number of tools available to assess corporate cultures with varying degrees of sophistication. As one considers the idea that culture is one of the most challenging concepts with the field of HR/OD (French and Bell 1990), it is important to have strong diagnostic instruments. These instruments are not just for identification of a culture, but to provide a roadmap for positive transformational change for that culture. In my work as a consultant, I continue to believe that culture is not just about the shared tacit understandings and expectations, but of the behaviors of the people within the organization. Even with a shared understanding of the desired culture, people can still behave in a way that does not support the vision. For example, the progressive company that encourages risk taking can again have a division that does not manifest this goal as the leader may not value (and may even punish) this behavior. In order to change a culture, behaviors, values and attitudes need to change as well.  A good tool will outline the behaviors, values and attitudes necessary to change the culture.  

In conclusion, culture change initiatives need to be conducted with effective tools to truly result in lasting change. Many of these initiatives fail due to a lack of rigor in assessing the influence of sub-cultures, behaviors, values and attitudes across employee levels in the company.
Denison, D. (2007). Denison consulting corporate website.
Fey, C., & Denison, D. (2000). Organizational Culture and Effectiveness: The Case of Foreign Firms in Russia.
French, W., & Bell, C. (1990). Organization Development.- Behavioral science interventions,for organizational improvement. Prentice Hall publishers.
Goffee, R. & Jones, G. (1998). The character of a corporation. Harper Collins publishers.
Myerson, D. (2001). Radical change the quiet way. Harvard Business Review. October 2001.
Rothwell, W., & Sullivan, R(2005). Practicing organizational development. Pfeiffer publishers.
Swanson, R., & Holton, E. (2001). Foundations of human resource development. Berrett-Koehler publishers.

Michael Simpson


Michael Simpson has over 19 years of experience leading US HR/OD divisions in the healthcare, professional services, manufacturing, and retail industries for $500MM+ organizations. In each of his leadership positions, Michael transformed administrative HR functions to innovative business partners. Michael's passion for individual and organizational development also resulted in HR initiatives across the US, Canada, Asia, Europe and Latin America.