Culture Shock – Tips for Understanding Corporate Culture

Ever walk into an office and get a “feeling?”

Without words, there’s a sense of something as you pass through.

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

More than likely, that gut feeling or impression is a reflection of the company’s organizational culture.

From a communications perspective, it’s important to understand a company’s culture in order to reinforce communications for both internal and external audiences. A strong corporate culture supports the core of a company, which will in turn affect employees and trickle out to external communications.

So what exactly is organizational or corporate culture?

One way to think of organizational culture is like the brand essence of a company—you may not know how to describe it, but you know it when you see it (or is that obscenity? Oops, same idea, though).

Here’s a run-of-the-mill definition — culture can be understood as the shared beliefs, values, and customary ways of thinking and acting which guides the behavior of an organization’s members.

To quote Marty McFly, that sounds a heavy. But think of organizational culture as you would think of culture from a sociological perspective or from your own personal perspective.

A favorite approach of mine to understanding culture in organizations is by way of Edgar Schein, who suggested that culture is a manifestation of three fundamental levels:

1. Artifacts - observable items, such as colors and decor, dress code, and emotional feelings an organization’s members convey.

2. Values - what a company explicitly says are its values, or the norms, ideologies, and philosophies. These may include a mission statement or value proposition.

3. Underlying Assumptions – this is what happens to the values at a certain point of time as they transform into what is accepted as “the way things are” within an organization.

That third level is where you get the feeling with regard to organizational culture, and it’s often the more tricky aspect to study or articulate. But that is where the core of culture resides.

For communicators, it’s worth the effort to understand and study a company’s culture and find avenues to integrate it into corporate communications (both internal and external).

It all goes back to supporting the company’s core– culture is like the heart of an organization, and a healthy heart will support and strengthen the rest of the body. A healthy cultural core supports not only a company’s business direction and staff, but also creates a being that is consistent internally as it is externally.

Here are some examples of organizational culture in action:

Google
Leave it to the leading web company to have one of the coolest-looking offices and oft cited cases of superb corporate culture.

See the artifacts in this picture? The colors, furniture choice and how comfortable the staff looks? Google’s offices are a reflection of its commitment and openness to innovation and great ideas. No wonder anyone would drop to their knees to work for them.

Zappos
What do zombie elves and social media have in common?

They’re both a part of the Zappos coroprate culture. Seriously. Zappos Community Architect Thomas Knoll participated on a panel discussion at CES where he shared the company’s commitment to integrating its use of social media with its unique company culture. With several corporate blogs and numerous staff on Twitter, Zappos openly shares its culture with its customers and reinforces why they’re a great company.

Do you think PR folks should also support a company’s culture? What have you observed of your company’s culture or do you have any additional examples to share?

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January 11, 2011. Tags: , , . corporate communications, internal communications.

8 Comments

  1. Tweets that mention Culture Shock – Tips for Understanding Corporate Culture « PR in Pink -- Topsy.com replied:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Danielle , Krista Giuffi. Krista Giuffi said: New Post: Tips for #PR Folks on Understanding Corporate Culture: http://bit.ly/i7NhqM #publicrelations #corporatecommunications [...]

  2. Frank Strong replied:

    I wonder to what degree we can ever really understand a corporate culture, without being directly involved. For example, a brand with an image of corporate stiffness, but is actually relaxed, or the vice versa; a brand that appears relaxed but is actually pretty high stress.

    A separate thought is the effect leadership has in setting the tone. Do high-stress execs have high stress employees, hence a high-stress culture?

    • Krista replied:

      That’s a good point, Frank– in studying corporate culture, the researcher (or communicator) should take into account limitations such as what they are able to see and learn directly from those in the company. I think for that reason, there are a number of ways to study culture.

      I think your question about leadership is another good point– does leadership also set the tone for culture? It would be interesting to find case studies or research into how leadership and corporate culture are related. Looks like I have some homework to do ;)

  3. Tweets that mention Culture Shock – Tips for Understanding Corporate Culture « PR in Pink -- Topsy.com replied:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jfavreau. Jfavreau said: RT @Frank_Strong: Culture Shock – Tips for Understanding Corporate Culture http://bit.ly/fhazW6 @PR_in_Pink [...]

  4. Follow the Leader… « PR in Pink replied:

    [...] good leader fosters the company culture – I’ve already discussed organizational culture, but it’s usually the leader who not only fosters it, but reinforces it to staff and external [...]

  5. Examples of Organizational Culture replied:

    [...] Purina PetCare CompanyOrganizational culture chasm: Larger Education vs Business enterprise globeCulture Shock – Tips for Understanding Corporate CultureProduction Designer- Nestle Purina PetCare CompanyOrganizational culture chasm: Larger Education vs [...]

  6. » The Concept of 'Paying it Forward' as a PR Strategy Punchak PR replied:

    [...] companies’ PR goals and help move them forward every day. Over time, these values and goals should become a part of the corporate culture. For Air Canada, this employee’s act of kindness cost only $200, a drop in the bucket of their PR [...]

  7. The Concept of 'Paying it Forward' as a PR Strategy replied:

    [...] Truly effective, consistent PR strategy is incorporated into a business. It is more than just a flashy campaign every now and then. Every employee should understand the companies’ PR goals and help move them forward every day. Over time, these values and goals should become a part of the corporate culture. [...]

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