Understanding culture doesn’t finish with a survey

February 13, 2018 by

 Culture surveys are valuable, they take a wide range of information about the culture of an organisation and consolidate it into an understandable form. For this purpose they’re excellent, but it’s important to understand that they do have limitations. Understanding culture doesn’t finish with a survey – that’s just the beginning!


One limitation of culture surveys

Culture surveys capture a lot of data, but they don’t explain the ‘why’, ‘how’ and the specificity of the ‘what’. For example communication may be flagged as an area in need of improvement but at this stage the survey results have provided only a very superficial understanding of this theme. There’s not enough information to make a sensible, informed decision about an appropriate response or solution


Another limitation of culture surveys

In an attempt for culture surveys to provide quantifiable data the survey relies on the consistency of information collected. This limits the scope of issues that can be identified and evaluated because to make the information conducive to consolidation, only a narrow number of options can be made available for people to consider. In this way, a culture survey will capture themes, but won’t necessarily allow for an appreciation for the questions that weren’t asked (and therefore the issues and themes that weren’t identified).


How do we improve our understanding of organisation culture?

Organisation culture can be best understood by using the information that comes through the culture survey to inform and guide a series of interviews and/or focus groups.

Ideally these focus groups and interviews are broad enough in their scope to capture issues that weren’t directly asked in the survey. For example survey participants may not be directly asked about the interior layout of their offices, but it could become apparent through focus groups that the office layout is having a detrimental impact on the ability for staff to communicate effectively. If communication was raised as an area for improvement in the culture survey then this information from the focus group has provided additional context as to an influencing factor affecting communication within the organisation. It could be one of many influencing factors that couldn’t be articulated in the limitations of the culture survey itself.

While this just an example, it demonstrates the need for additional collection of information from the organisations staff to paint the full picture. Only once the ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘what’ context of any given culture survey theme is known, can an effective plan of action be devised.

Its important to note here that interviews and focus groups are a sample of staff, and won’t always reflect accurately the overall thoughts of all staff. For example if a focus group raises concerns about a certain managers inability to do their job effectively, it’s important to not assume that all staff think this way. Investigation would need to be done to identify if this opinion is contained to the group or whether it’s observed across the board. Only the seeking of additional information beyond a culture survey can provide this kind of insight and diagnosis.

Do all of this, and then you will gain meaningful understanding of organisational culture and have a solid foundation to move forward with an effective change program.


Tony Chapman

Tony Chapman is a Director of SRA Corporate Change, as well as a mentor, coach, facilitator and senior consultant. 

Categories: Change, Workplace Culture

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