Human Resources: Measuring corporate culture

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:39 pm


I read your articles on corporate culture in the July 21 and Aug. 18 issues of Small Business Times. I have a simple question for you. How do you measure corporate culture.


This is the $64,000 question, isn’t itω After all, if you can’t measure corporate culture, why bother talking about it.

Having said that, let me observe that in the measurement world in which we operate today, we are not lacking data or information. The challenge seems to be in separating the relevant from the irrelevant.

As with any organizational variable, we must begin our measurement quest by arriving at a working definition of corporate culture. Just what do we mean when we use that termω

A general definition of corporate culture (what I like to call the organization’s “other” bottom line) might be something like, “The way we do things around here.” Implicit in that definition is that each organization has its own “way.” For instance, some places are very rigid and hierarchical. Others are informal and laid back. Still others are a mix of the first two. And so on.

Beyond the general definition, one helpful way of defining corporate culture is provided by Edgar Schein, MIT professor and researcher. Schein delves further into the corporate culture construct and tells us that it is comprised of three strata or levels:


These are the obvious elements of corporate culture – the practices that can be observed in such areas as dress code, leadership style, communication processes, etc.

Espoused values

These are the elements the organization says it believes in, the factors that it says influence the practices in which it engages. For example, “We value integrity (espoused value) therefore we treat our customers fairly and honestly in every transaction (artifact).”

Basic underlying assumptions

These are the unstated beliefs the organization has come to accept and abide by. For example, over the years, it may become part of the organizational fabric that hard work, discipline and conscientiousness are the foundation for success. It becomes firmly accepted and clearly understood. Over time, it permeates the entire operation. Over time, it goes unchallenged.

Once you have a clear understanding of what is meant by corporate culture, what is the next stepω Is administration of a survey the next stepω Is it better to use a published instrument or develop one from scratch.

Here again, there are a number of options available. We are not lacking instruments that measure corporate culture. At my company, we frequently make use of surveys to measure corporate culture. It is an efficient way to do so. But, there are some caveats that must be mentioned.

First, while there are some sound tools available, inevitably they fail to capture the nuances of the specific organization in which they are administered. And, while developing a survey that is specific to the immediate organizational application might yield more useful data, doing so requires knowledge and skill in undertaking such an exercise and sufficient time and resources to adequately carry out the work.

My experience has been that surveys alone do not sufficiently measure corporate culture. The data that they yield often provides monochromatic representations of what is really going on. To yield a vivid, Technicolor portrait requires additional data gathering.

Careful observation, discussion and discernment are necessary to yield a true representation of corporate culture. A model originally introduced by Schein is instructive in this regard. In pursuing his suggestions in our consulting practice, we often meet with organizational leaders and facilitate a series of reflective discussions that address these (and related) issues:

Define a relevant organizational issue/ challenge/problem

In order to engage the leaders, it is helpful to get them thinking about something that needs their attention, some emerging organizational concern that is important. For example, one issue might be to enhance an existing product or service by looking for innovative refinements.

Review the concept of corporate culture

Once the issue has been identified and some associated goals outlined, attention is given to the three levels of corporate culture outlined above. It is important to make sure that each participant understands the three levels. This can take some time ω not everyone catches on at the same pace, not everyone agrees with the definitions that are offered.

Identify artifacts

Next, attention is given to the artifacts that characterize the organization. What is it like to work hereω What do people sayω Not sayω What actions do they engage inω Avoidω This often is a rather extended discussion. Different individuals will have different perceptions based upon their specific experiences.

Identify the organization’s values

This can be a fairly easy exercise given that many organizations today have written down their values, published them, etc. Still, it is worth taking time to capture and discuss the values the organization says are important. Why are these values espousedω Why not thoseω What do these values say, uniquely, about this organizationω

Compare the values with the artifacts

This is often where powerful insights emerge. In discussing the artifacts of the organization and the values that guide these practices, there are inevitable gaps and inconsistencies. For example, while the organization may espouse integrity, it may not explicitly reward employees who behave that way in customer interactions. Fairness may be preached as a value, but when it comes to admitting an error, replacing a damaged product free of charge, etc., the organization’s practices may tell a very different story.

Repeat the process, if necessary

Sometimes to get a really clear understanding of corporate culture, it is necessary to repeat these steps, with the same group of participants or with other organizational constituents.

Assess the shared assumptions

Finally, attention must be given to the shared assumptions and how they bear upon the earlier identified organizational issue. For instance, in the example I offered earlier, if one shared assumption is that employees are disciplined, hard working, and conscientious, but one artifact is a “command and control” approach to leadership, and one value is “mutual respect,” how might these variables interact to affect resolution of the organizational issue (i.e., fine tuning an existing product or serviceω) that was identifiedω

Obviously, the point of all of this is not simply to engage in some interesting, analytic dialog. Rather, the aim is to truly understand how “the way we do things around here” affects individual and collective performance.

The purpose in measuring corporate culture is to better understand the complex relationship among assumptions, values, and practices. By understanding this relationship, leaders can take action.

Over time, actions can lead to changes in the assumptions, values, and practices. Over time, these changes will yield the next iteration of corporate culture. Over time, by being more mindful of corporate culture (i.e., the other bottom line), stronger internal integration will accrue (i.e., internal business environment) providing for more adaptive performance in the marketplace (i.e., external business environment) and stronger financial results (i.e., the bottom line).

Daniel Schroeder, Ph.D., of Organization Development Consultants, Inc. (ODC) in Brookfield provides “HR Connection.” Small Business Times readers who would like to see an issue addressed in an article may reach him at (262) 827-1901, via fax at (262) 827-8383, via e-mail at or via the internet at

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