Measuring culture in organisations


Color horizontal shot of two hands holding a caliper and measuring the word "culture".

We’ve all heard the stories of free food at Twitter and pool tables at Google. As someone who has worked in the technology industry for a long time, I’ve witnessed my own workplaces in Silicon Valley bring in pizzas on a Friday afternoon to be shared with colleagues and family members alike. It was a different world from the silent, grey offices I had worked in before and I saw first-hand the importance of culture in the success of a business. I’ve witnessed the good and the not-so-great across many other high-growth technology businesses over the years and one thing was clear, culture played a central role in the ultimate success or failure of each business.

Although culture does have some observable elements, for the most part, it feels intangible and invisible. Like the wind, we cannot see it directly, but we still know it is there. We feel its impact on trees, hear it howling around buildings, and feel it brushing against us. Just as we can set up mechanisms to monitor the wind, we can also set up mechanisms to monitor culture.

So why don’t all organisations measure culture if it’s so critical?

Three reasons:

1. Lack of awareness. Many don’t know how to properly measure culture or the importance of doing so.

2. Fear. In the world of culture measurement, there are two approaches: the first is to demonstrate how successful you are, and the second is to enable improvement and show where iteration and change are required. While the first is eagerly sought, the second requires bold leadership and a willingness to change. Sometimes the data shows us things we’d rather not see. Growth comes from facing those challenges and building strategies based on the reality of the situation.

3. Looking to the wrong metrics as indicators of success. Revenue, year-on-year growth, employee and customer retention are all good, solid metrics, but they are lagging indicators. They only tell you what has already happened and alone are not sufficient for strategic or tactical decision-making.

How we can measure culture

The answer lies in “the wisdom of crowds,” a concept popularised by James Surowiecki in his 2004 book of the same name. The idea is that large groups of people are collectively smarter than individual experts when it comes to problem-solving, innovation, and predicting. Put simply, it means asking people what they think.

This is where using The Field Model™ can help. It seeks to understand, diagnose and fix organisational issues and can be applied here to culture. It treats the cause, not the symptoms inside your company and addresses the things that have been brushed under the carpet.

There are three types of measurement – descriptive, diagnostic and predictive. Historically, most organisations have used descriptive methods, however, measuring culture requires both diagnostic and predictive measurements which identify how the current reality was arrived at and indicate the likely direction of travel, in the absence of intervention. Using all three measurements tells you when, where and how to apply resource to create the right kind of change.

Culture, however invisible or intangible it may seem, is measurable. At its simplest, building a set of success measures to understand what is working, and a set of impact measures to understand what creates change, will provide an impactful way to improve the development of your organisation.

Benjamin Ellis is Redefining Communications’ collective partner for data science. He works at the intersection of technology and social systems, working with Big Data and Machine Learning software, combining his background in engineering, marketing and psychology to bring new technologies to market, and to create positive organisational change. This blog is based on his article, Observing the invisible: Measuring culture, for SocialOptic where Benjamin is CEO.


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