The artefacts of organisational culture


February 17th, 2016

The Senior Citizen’s Clubrooms where I was running a workshop seemed to have every nook and cranny plastered with small, and some not so small, laminated signs issuing instructions of what NOT to do or specifically how to act. It struck me at the time, as the sort of club I would want to avoid. The signs seemed, to me, to indicate a culture of control and mistrust.

A colleague used to say that he could tell a lot about an organisation’s culture simply by visiting the tea-room and seeing what artefacts were present. Like the signs in the clubrooms, tearooms are a microcosm of the broader organisational culture: signs about how to act, notices about social events, what’s stuck on the fridge, newspapers or magazines. Is the space dedicated as a tearoom? Is it a quasi storage area, stacked with boxes of documents that no-one wants to throw out? Fascinating places, tearooms.

I asked the LinkedIn Creative Facilitation group what other indicators there were of organisational culture. Here’s a summary of the responses.

  • What’s displayed on office walls, including motivational posters and the like, organisational statements, and awards
  • Conversations outside of meeting rooms – and people talking to each other, or not, outside of scheduled meetings
  • Personal items – photos, mementos etc
  • Nature – plants
  • How people greet each other, and how they greet strangers
  • How people make decisions, and presumable, how they enact those decisions
  • Staff amenities and how they are used

One reason I’m interested in this is the sometimes apparent mismatch between what an organisation espouses its values to be (often posted on the walls) and what values are actually played out. It’s hard to know what people are thinking – it’s easier to see how they are acting, either directly through their behaviour, or indirectly, through the artefacts present or missing. Of course, it’s all assumed, but I think organisational artefacts provide an interesting starting point for any exploration of organisational culture, especially if there’s a desire to change that culture in some way.

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