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  • Writer's pictureClare Tarling

The culture iceberg + walking the talk


Edgar Schein (1992) - Model of Organisational Culture


We can all recognise a "good culture" or a "toxic culture" when we experience it. But defining "culture" is like trying to make sandcastles from jelly. Culture is slippery, ever-changing and pretty subjective.


Schein tried to give the concept of culture more shape by prompting us to think of it as an iceberg:


  • Artefacts: the top of an iceberg can be seen, measured, touched, carved and analysed. In an organisation this could be the office layout and colour, daily routines, clothes people wear, language people use, the logo, or the format of team meetings. In theory, these things are easily changed and speak volumes about what lies beneath.

  • Values: the part just below the water is somewhat hidden, but still reachable by the sun's rays, so can be seen from time-to-time. Values may be obvious - listed on the website and other publicity, and embedded in HR documents. Values might only surface strongly in organisational myths and legends. They can be tweaked, but not radically changed. An organisation founded on ecological credentials could never become a disposable vape manufacturer even if it tried.

  • Assumptions: the biggest, deepest part forms the majority of the iceberg. We can't see it or manipulate it, but we know it is there lurking. It is the foundation of everything that lies above, so it cannot be ignored. It is the reason why the organisation is here, its whole history, its reason for being. Change at this level is likely to take years, if it ever changes at all.


Communications and marketing

Communications and marketing materials are at the very top of the iceberg: website, leaflets, surveys, social media posts and reports. These are physical expressions of everything that lies beneath. Inconsistency here will be uncomfortable and will be discovered in the end! When the design and feel of your communications match your organisation's reason for existence, your stated values and your staff's motivation for coming to work each day - then you are really onto something!


Accessibility

Lets invent a fictional care provider. Most staff go into care because, well, they care. An assumption might be "we are all here because we believe that everyone is equal, we all deserve a good life, and I want to help people less fortunate than myself". There may be other parallel and more personal assumptions like wanting to further a career or get some free training.


The values on the care provider's website are embedded in the strapline and other content to attract people who need care and the staff to look after them. Words like "inclusive", "person-centred" and "equality" might pop up repeatedly. I hope so, anyway!


But hang on - what if none of the information is accessible? The brochure you download is in small print, littered with irrelevant graphics, and unreadable by assistive technology? No phone number, only email contact. Customers are given surveys to complete which are 20 pages long, also in small print, using lots of care-industry jargon and complex scaling systems.


In this case, the company is needlessly doing itself a real disservice, and there is a big disconnect. It can be as simple as not having anyone in the office with the right skills. Not having enough money to invest. Not asking customers for their opinions.


Organisational change

Remember - artefacts are the easiest aspects of an organisation to change. Easier than changing your employees, your strategy or your services. They can also, over time, strongly influence what happens beneath. Which is why companies invest so heavily in branding. If your communications are warm, welcoming, accessible and person-centred, then this re-enforces and supports your values. This attracts the right people (customers and staff), and over time, forms your collective history and identity.


None of this is easy or quick, but there is no better place to start than at the top of that iceberg!


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