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Faculty Insights

How to Know When You Need a Business Culture Assessment

By Wisconsin School of Business

August 24, 2016

Recently here at the Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional and Executive Development we have been getting quite a few requests to work with organizations on culture-related issues. It seems there is an uptick in leaders advancing their business agendas through improved and enhanced organizational culture. Often, these requests for professional development come in the aftermath of a business completing one of two tasks: Either they have just completed some strategic planning exercise and come to the conclusion that culture issues stand in the way of achieving those results, or they completed some kind of climate or engagement survey and are seeking deeper insight into the meaning of those results.

Steve King
Steve King, executive director of the Center for Professional and Executive Development at the Wisconsin School of Business

On the face of things, advancing a strategic business agenda by improving business culture makes a great deal of sense. Peter Drucker famously said that culture eats strategy for lunch. I suppose this is true. So the inner Drucker in all of us might benefit from a good strategic planning session followed by an assessment and some modifications to an organization’s business culture.
Business climate vs. business culture
However, increasingly we find organizations completing some type of employee survey only to have more culture-related questions pop up. Why is that? I think this is tied to a distinction between climate-oriented assessments and culture-oriented assessments.
We might say organizational climate assessments are about capturing shared perceptions and attitudes about the organization, while organizational culture assessments are about capturing shared beliefs and assumptions about the organization’s expectations and values. So a climate survey would ask questions like, “Are my division’s goals clear?” or “Is my manager effective?” or “Am I paid fairly?” A culture survey would ask questions like, “Am I expected to collaborate with my teammates?” or “Am I expected to do right and never wrong?” or “Am I expected to always follow the rules?”
If we learn in a climate survey that, by and large, managers are seen as ineffective, we still need to know why. Maybe it’s because managers are expected to accept nothing less than perfection, which isn’t realistic and can be quite harmful. Or maybe it’s because managers are expected to simply follow orders from above and never think for themselves, which blunts initiative and innovation. These are cultural traits and expected behavioral norms.
One way to get at the “cultural why” is to administer a companion culture assessment along with climate assessment and then analyze the connections between the two sets of data. In CPED programs we deliver at the Fluno Center in Madison, Wisconsin, we work with managers and leaders to leverage the value of both sets of data—climate and culture. What we are finding is that this one-two punch of assessment work provides organizations with the best information to set agendas for culture change and drive the related and anticipated business results.
Learn more about the Wisconsin School of Business’s Center for Professional and Executive Development.