Artifacts: A Powerful Driver of Your Organization’s Culture
“The bottom line for leaders is that if they do not become conscious of the cultures in which they are embedded, those cultures will manage them. Cultural understanding is desirable for all of us, but it is essential to leaders if they are to lead.” – Edgar Schein
Edgar Schein defines culture as the underlying values, beliefs, assumptions, shared meanings, myths, stories, legends, artifacts and symbolism of groups, teams, and organizations. Efforts aimed at understanding organizations using traditional methods of due diligence and asset valuation don’t approach ‘culture’ deeply, if at all.
Culture is all around us, especially in organizations. Too often we assume that establishing a culture is something that we need to physically create, or re-create, and that it is separate and apart from the daily activities of our lives. The truth is, culture exists all around us, and is a reflection of who we are, what we stand for, and how we operate, even if we haven’t purposefully created it.
In the context of organizations, culture is being created and recreated every single day. It is evidenced in our mission, vision, and values – which is what we most often associate with the idea of corporate culture, but it is most recognizable in the artifacts of organizational life.
Artifacts – A Minutia of Culture
An artifact is defined as a man-made object that has some kind of cultural significance. Work-related artifacts include our processes, policies, and procedures, as well as our technologies, daily interactions, and the environments we create. They can even be found in the methods in which we address each other, the way we conduct ourselves in meetings, our tone of voice on the telephone, and our interactions in the lunch room.
Each day, these artifacts are being established, some inadvertently, while others are strategically formed. The interesting thing is that they are forming and transforming constantly, and we are a part of them– even when we may not realize it.
How many of us have been on the phone with a customer service representative that has gone out of their way to help solve our problem? On the other hand, how many of us have called a customer service line and received minimal (if any) help, and felt angrier after the call than before? Customer service is just one way that these artifacts can present themselves. Some artifacts are immediately evident in our interactions with members of a company, while others may be hidden within the organization and take time to uncover.
Does your workplace encourage learning and teamwork? Are employees excited to collaborate, or are employees unenthusiastically clocking in and out, with limited contact with their peers? What do the interactions within your organization look like first thing in the morning, at lunch time, in the afternoon…or even at company parties? These artifacts exist everywhere. Do you see them?
I have been working with a client company who has a strict policy against using written agendas and taking minutes during meetings. Instead, every conference room and most offices have white boards or smart boards and all discussions in meetings are documented this way. They have a fairly strict protocol about who is invited to meetings, as well as clear ideas about the level of preparedness expected of all attendees, yet meetings never begin or end on time. This is their ‘meeting culture’. Some of it was purposely designed and well thought out, other aspects just happened. It has become their way of operating, and it conveys important messages about the ‘correct’ behaviors in their organization. This artifact was never written or discussed, but it has become a well-known part of this company’s culture.
Artifacts – Not Always Seen or Heard
A recent infographic perfectly sums up the concept of organizational artifacts, and the importance of managing not just the visible ones, but the underlying ones as well. Just as the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, up to 90% of an organization’s artifacts and values that make up its culture are often below the surface. This means that those steering the ship (in the case of the Titanic), or the leaders responsible for the buoyant vessel that is your business, are only seeing one-tenth of the artifacts that make up the culture of their organization.
With the right leadership and a cultivated culture, artifacts can positively ignite your organization. Without proper leadership, they can be your biggest liability. Being mindful that your organization is constantly creating these artifacts, while making an effort to foster the positive, effective, and productive ones, is crucial.
Have you considered what culture you have created, accidentally or on purpose, through the various artifacts in your organization? Is this the culture you intended and is it the culture you’d like to keep?