Originally published in Interiors & Sources

01/01/2003

Workplace Design and Organizational Culture, Part III

Jan Johnson and Lorna McDougall

Workplace Design and Organizational Culture, Part III

 

Part One of this series introduced the basics of corporate culture. We suggested that corporate cultures reflect the values and beliefs of their founders and members and are continuously adapting or evolving in response to external conditions and internal choices about how to respond to those conditions while accomplishing the goals of the organization. Yet at their core, organizational cultures are largely unconscious or at least unstated, even though they drive most aspects of behavior and interactions—the practices of an organization.

Part Two discussed the links between culture and the workplace—how we experience space in conscious and unconscious ways, and what models or tools might be helpful in applying this understanding to real projects.

Both previous articles suggested that having a better understanding of "the way things are done" in our client's organizations should allow us to create a better alignment or "fit" between our client's culture and their workplace. Understanding why and how cultures change may also allow us to anticipate the future and be ready for what's next. Part Three, included here, introduces a model to diagnose and support change in organizational culture that can also be helpful in finding that "fit."

What's the value in understanding organizational culture? If we're going to benefit from our understanding of it, where do we start? What processes or tools might help us to identify or describe the current culture? Can we also facilitate a discovery process to get the organization thinking about what's next? What might, in fact, be next? And how can we anticipate that future state in the design of workplaces?

We hope we've given the reader at least one answer to the first question. If our role as designers is to interpret and support both the strategy and the practices of our clients, we must know what those strategies and practices are and have methodologies for interpreting them.

We've also alluded to the payoff for our clients in understanding and managing their company's culture. According to Kim S. Cameron and Robert E. Quinn, experts and authors on organizational culture, the payoff can be huge. They posit that culture is what differentiates extraordinarily successful firms from less successful firms. Organizational culture is what thriving firms highlight as their most important competitive advantage, the most powerful factor or key ingredient to their success.1

Simply stated, successful companies have developed something special that supercedes corporate strategy, market presence, or technological advances. Although strategy, market presence, and technology are clearly important, highly successful firms have capitalized on the power that resides in developing and managing a unique corporate culture. This power abides in the ability of a strong, unique culture to reduce collective uncertainties (i.e., facilitate a common interpretation system for members), create social order (i.e., make clear to members what is expected), create continuity (i.e., perpetuate key values and norms across generations of members), create a collective identity and commitment (i.e., bind members together), and elucidate a vision of the future (i.e., energize forward movement).2

And yet, as we've discussed in the previous two articles, there is no single perfect culture that guarantees success. In that way, cultures are like strategies or management styles, or even workplaces—they must be designed for the unique requirements and conditions of an organization to be effective. And yet they must continually adapt as things change externally or internally.

We've adopted Cameron and Quinn's book and the Competing Values Framework they describe in it as the basis for this article, and will use it to link models for categorizing organizational culture put forth by Trompenaars and his mentor Hofstede, and a model from the world of management consulting that describes how organizations evolve over time.

Distinguishing Types of Corporate Cultures

In the second article, we introduced a model from C. Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars that suggests that, generally3, corporate cultures vary along two dimensions—the relative importance placed on people versus task, and the way power is manifested—through hierarchy or egalitarian structures. These two dimensions create a four-box matrix. Trompenaars labels each box with a simple metaphor:

Trompenaar's mentor, Geert Hofstede, has integrated several viewpoints4 into a slightly different two-dimensional matrix. His juxtaposes low power distance with high power distance (very similar to hierarchical/egalitarian); and low uncertainty avoidance with high uncertainty avoidance5. He also suggests that each quadrant corresponds to a dominance of that approach in certain national cultures. The "Village Market" generalizes organizations in Great Britain; the "Well-Oiled Machine" is prevalent in Germany; the "Family" in China; and the "Pyramid" in France. Hofstede identifies a fifth type, the "Divisionalized Form," that contains elements of all the other four, and suggests that it is commonly seen in the U.S.

His matrix (oriented like Trompenaars') looks like Chart 2 above.

A third version of the matrix, from Cameron and Quinn's Competing Frameworks model6 (oriented to correlate to Trompenaars) looks like Chart 3 on page 59.

They seem to build on Hofstede's premise that the Divisional Form prevalent in the U.S. consists of some elements of all four by suggesting that, while every organizational culture has some elements of all, they will differ in degree or emphasis. This only makes sense. Even the least hierarchical organizations still have legal requirements for structure, and overall decision-making requires coordination. How much of each, though, and how they play out and interweave is what makes the organization unique. Later, we'll look at how they expand on this idea as a basis for changing cultures by consciously changing practices.

Cameron and Quinn's framework was developed from research conducted on the major indicators of effective organizations, which they clustered into two dimensions. One differentiates criteria that emphasize flexibility, discretion and dynamism (e.g., organizations like Nike or Microsoft, where the structure and the products change fairly frequently)—from those that emphasize stability, order and control (like most universities, government agencies or companies like Boeing). The second dimension contrasts criteria that emphasize an internal orientation, integration and unity (IBM or Hewlett-Packard, for example) from those of an external orientation, differentiation and rivalry (like Toyota or Honda). They also suggest that organizations shift over time—sometimes emphasizing hierarchy, increasingly emphasizing market, as they evolve. They even suggest that companies tend to move through these four dimensions in predictable ways—from adhocracy in the start-up phase to clan to hierarchy to market.

This notion that, over time, companies may change the relative emphasis they place on external versus internal and flexibility versus control segues nicely to another model we wanted to include here. This model suggests that management styles (an aspect of corporate culture) must also change over time, and do so in reasonably predictable ways.

Organizational Evolution and Revolution
In the previous article we discussed the incremental levels of organizational change that take place on a daily basis—the simultaneous challenges of streamlining and growth—especially within organizations that are involved in multiple industries or have a very diverse customer base. At certain points, however, the level of organizational change seems to be more transformational than incremental.

A classic Harvard Business Review article presents a model for organizational change that we find relevant and highly suggestive. Its author, Larry Greiner, a professor of management and organization at USC's Marshall School of Business, offers what he feels is a broadly applicable framework for characterizing transformational management styles as companies evolve7.

He posits that there are generally five stages of development that call for different management styles. He also suggests, though, that for an organization to enter the next stage of its development, the existing style must be upended and a new one adopted. His premise is that what worked during one phase or stage will eventually become problematic (and be felt as a crisis) and require a radically different style to allow a new period of growth or development to occur.

Startups rely on creativity, but eventually need directive leadership, which works until size and specialization necessitate greater autonomy; delegation works until even greater complexity offers new opportunities for economies of scale and other benefits of coordination, so new controls are put in place; which work until the red tape syndrome sets in and policies become more important than their effect. Then controls give way to a looser collaboration that is encouraged until the organization must make its next transition.

Greiner suggests that these phases are relatively consistent—varying mostly in the speed with which an organization may pass through them—therefore helping us to predict change and to help clients navigate these changes and their effect on the workplace successfully.

So although all organizational cultures define and implement functions, roles, tasks and other behavioral patterns in their own ways, there are nevertheless "normal" changes in organizational culture that shift between centralization and decentralization of control and tend toward developing or dismantling traditional hierarchies, depending on the stage of development. Where there are changes in internal direction, we will see change in culture.

Understanding the phases in the corporate life cycle has another advantage for designers. By determining which phase an organization is in at the time of a project and in the foreseeable future, a designer can align design with not only the management style of the time, but with what's likely to be next. This lets us create culturally appropriate design that contributes to our client's success by evolving as they do.

Remember, though, that the transformative change Greiner talks about is difficult and disruptive. If culture is a relatively consistent pattern of beliefs and actions that sustains orderly social life, reshaping it threatens our sense of order and purpose. Change management means overcoming inertia, and finding ways to reduce the stress change inevitably brings.

And yet, we are bound to encounter change, as a business progresses through specific stages. As we discussed in the first article, organizations are constantly adapting to changes in external conditions, economic climate, pressures from the marketplace, new technologies and social shifts, as well as internal conditions, the values and integrity of leadership, the management style of the time, or the resources and competitive advantages a given company enjoys.

Being able to anticipate change or being willing to nurture change is, therefore, an aspect of managing one's culture. And as Cameron and Quinn have pointed out, that's a highly valuable skill. This is where their model may be most valuable—in providing a process and tools to do so.

Their model includes a questionnaire that allows the taker to assess the relative importance or presence of each of these four elements—both for "today" and "where we want to go next." They then give recommendations for what to start doing, keep doing and stop doing in each of the four categories in order to move from the "today" state to the "future" state—that is, increasing or decreasing the emphasis of each of the four attributes. Each organization must, however, assess the "start doing" and "stop doing" for itself. Every individual and group will interpret these notions differently, and a common understanding must be established to bring balance and integration to these interpretations. (See "What to do, what not to do" chart on page 60).

What we really like about the process they recommend is that it can be expanded to not only determine how shifts in culture would play out in procedures or actions, but also, in the workplace. Testing and gaining consensus about how culture gets materialized in the physical environment is a natural follow-on to discussions about what to start, stop and keep doing to achieve one's goals.

You might now see how we've concluded that companies' attitudes about the topics we reviewed in the second article are closely related to their position in the development cycles described by Greiner and by Cameron and Quinn. Considerations of physical space and its assignment help to encode the organizational structure appropriate to the stage of the development of the business and the general character of the organization.

A company in the start-up and initial growth stage is likely to pay little attention to the physical workplace—it's a case of just getting enough space and getting it to work.
As the organization matures and begins to focus on specific functions, the tendency is to reflect the internal structure or roles within the company—the hierarchy—in the way space is assigned.

As attention shifts yet again to external markets and activities, the organization may transition to a universal planning concept—parity—to undo the hierarchy of standards that is status-based, difficult to manage cost effectively, and which doesn't represent the way work is now being done.

Diffuse and diverse organizations, which employ highly collaborative work strategies, may then evolve a pluralistic strategy where everyone participates in creating more responsive, flexible, customizable spaces within certain agreed upon parameters.

These patterns reflect the changing priorities of adapting organizations for function, structure, teamwork, autonomy and communications; they provide the basis of unique strategies for the physical environment.

Culture and the Workplace
The diversity of the business world suggests that a broad spectrum of space allocation strategies is needed to address a wide range of culture, market and geographic conditions. Increased levels of flexibility are also required as organizations grow and pass along the evolutionary pathway that leads from start-up to reinvention.

Understanding culture allows designers to develop environments that support an occupant's sense of shared purpose and alignment with organizational structures and strategies. That's good for performance, and can even reduce the withdrawal, frustration and even vandalism that can result from misalignment. Design in this respect has a pervasive influence on how life is lived in an organization, and, skillfully delivered, makes a significant difference in the success of organizational strategy in this challenging and rapidly changing business environment.

We have, because of limited space and the goal of brevity, made several broad generalizations and avoided going into lengthy explanations of key concepts. We encourage all readers to read one or more of the books the nuances and complexities of organizational cultures.

What To Do, What Not To Do
Cameron and Quinn offer the following
example of what one organization determined it needed to do to increase or decrease the emphasis in each of the four aspects.


Increasing the "clan" aspect was determined
to mean . . .


* meeting employees' needs
* supporting team players
* increasing sensitivity
* creating better morale
* creating high levels of trust
* showing concern for people
* encouraging self-management

but not . . .

* becoming undisciplined or overly
permissive
* tolerating cliques which jockey for power and control
* becoming one big love-in
* having only an internal focus
* de-emphasizing hard work
* forgetting about goals
* protecting each other at the expense of achieving goals
* having freedom without responsibility

Increasing the "adhocracy" aspect was
determined to mean . . .


* putting dynamism back into the
business
* creating an environment where risk-
taking is safe
* encouraging creative alternatives
* making change the rule, not the exception
* being flexible and adaptive
* trying new ideas
* becoming a forward-looking organization
* adopting a bolder approach to program innovation
but not . . .
* allowing everyone to do as they wish
* running the business with reckless abandon
* disregarding customer requirements
* tolerating selfishness
* having complete freedom
* missing goals
* tolerating dishonesty
* having the latest of everything
* taking unnecessary risks

Decreasing the "hierarchy" aspect means . . .

* eliminating useless rules and procedures
* eliminating unneeded reports
* reducing rules and structures
* reducing bureaucratic paperwork
* reducing corporate directives
* eliminating micro-management
* removing unnecessary constraints

but not . . .

* eliminating a logical structure
* allowing the inmates to run the asylum
* eliminating rules
* letting 2,000 people do their own thing
* eliminating production schedules
* throwing the baby out with the bath water
* taking advantage of the situation

Staying the same for the "market" aspect means . .

* slightly fewer measurements
* maintaining commitment to winning
* stopping the drive toward the numbers
at all costs
* focusing on key goals
* motivating others
* adapting to market as well as human needs
* we still need to make money
but not . . .
* ignoring the competition
* losing our spirit and will to win
* missing goalsw neglecting customers
* missing profits
* neglecting to look at results

This process of assessing the meaning of each quadrant—how it plays out in a given organization, or interpreted by its staff—is where opportunity lies to connect this to the workplace. One could develop a parallel list of what each of these increases or decreases in emphasis might mean to the physical work environment. For example . . .

* space standards for individuals would still exist, but would become more
function- or activity-based and the range of sizes more narrowed.
* space gained from reducing larger individual spaces could be reallocated to group/team spaces designed to encourage the social ties and interactions (versus mechanistic activities) that foster innovation, if that's what's needed.
* furniture standards (would still exist, but) could be designed so that a larger variety of arrangements are possible while reducing the cost of ownership.

As for the action that underlies appropriate design—while the cognitive-social structure of organizations keeps them orderly, it is activity that makes them productive. A future article will explore research that suggests that performance and innovation are enhanced by specific kinds of social ties that are more fluid in nature and require a more fluid (and, in some cases, less formal) use of space than "traditional" structures.

To receive credit from this, see the series of questions and follow the instructions.


Jan Johnson is Teknion's Director of Workplace Learning, serving as a resource to both Teknion and external organizations. She works with current and prospective customers to examine the influence of changing work trends in the business environment and apply the most pertinent data from within and outside the industry.

Lorna McDougall is a consultant to major companies on organizational culture and design. She gained her doctorate at the University of Oxford and has a long-standing interest in culture, design and the built environment, as well as in organizational design. She works in several industries, including healthcare, financial services, leadership development, education and technology as well as design.
 


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Tennant Company is a recognized leader in designing, manufacturing and marketing solutions that help create a cleaner, safer, healthier world. With thousands of satisfied customers already using award winning ec-H2O technology, why not see what you're missing? Test ec-H2O on your soils in your facility. Get a free demo.


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