The Three Levels of Culture Level One: Artifacts The easiest level to observe when you go into an organization is that of artifacts-what you see, hear, and feel as you hang around.

Think about restaurants, hotels, stores, banks, or automobile dealerships. You can sense immediately that different organizations do things differently. For example, in Digital Equipment Corp (DEC) which involves constant meeting of people with each other where there were no existence of walls or even closed doors and there everyone dressed informally and meet with an intense feeling all around. and you got a sense of fast-paced action.

All you know for sure is that they have different ways of presenting themselves and different norms of how to deal with each other. What you don’t know is what this all means. In other words, at the level of artifacts, culture is very clear and has immediate emotional impact. But you don’t really know why the members of the organization are behaving as they do and why each organization is constructed as it is.

You have to be able to talk to insiders and ask them questions about the things you observe and feel. That takes you to the next deeper level of culture. Should you go to work for the one whose entry lobby and security procedures make you feel most comfortable? Do you know enough about either culture from experiencing the artifacts and behavior patterns, or should you dig more deeply? To dig deeper means to start asking questions about the things the organization values.

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Why do they do what they do? Why did DEC create open office areas while Ciba-Geigy put everyone behind closed doors?

These questions have to be asked, especially about those observed artifacts that puzzle you or that seem somehow inconsistent with what you would expect. For this purpose, you need to find insiders who can explain their organization to you.

In DEC, you are expected to go by teamwork, also that good decisions can always be made through arguing and eliminating other’s ideas to achieve a “buy-in from those who have to implement decisions. Therefore they had to make it easy for people to communicate with each other.

In this company, when they had meetings they tended to be free-for-alls and highly emotional. You may also have been given some documents, pamphlets, or short papers that described the company’s values, principles, ethics, and visions and been told that these documents are representation of their basic values like that of: teamwork, integrity, product quality, customer orientation and so on.

In Hewlett-Packard new employees were given a little book that describes the “HP Way”. You would have heard that this approach was necessary because the nature of their technology was such that careful individual research and thought was the only way to come to a positive and reliable decision which can be termed good.

In this company, meetings were formal and consisted mainly of senior people announcing the decisions made and what now had to be implemented by junior people. In Ciba-Geigy, you would also have been given various documents that purported to describe the company’s values and principles. But to your surprise, many of the points on the list of values would be almost identical to the ones that DEC gave you. Ciba-Geigy was also customer-oriented, cared about teamwork, product quality, integrity, and so on.

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How could two organizations that espoused so many of the same values have completely different physical layouts and working styles? You also may have noticed that some of the values mentioned did not seem to fit the observed behavior.

For example, both organizations espoused teamwork as a value, but both were highly individualistic, encouraged competitive behavior among their employees, and had reward systems that were geared entirely to the individual.

Clearly, Ciba-Geigy seemed to have been a ”command-and-control” kind of organization, while DEC seemed to have been a flatter, network kind of organization in which people felt personally empowered. You may also have had emotional reactions to these labels, based on your own past experience and values. So now you have to dig still deeper to reconcile the inconsistencies that you have observed and been told about.

Would you like to read more about this topic? This book might interest you: Corporate Culture Fundamentals.