Charles Handy, in his book “Gods of Management” (and his earlier book “Understanding Organizations”) suggests we can put any organisation’s culture into one of four broad types. The type will depend on the organisation’s structure, of course, but also its history, ownership and the people in it.
The Power Culture
This is where the power is held centrally, such as in a small family run organisation; nothing significant happens without a decision from the centre. It’s usually depicted as a spider’s web – picture a spider sitting in the centre and waiting for a small vibration telling it something has become ensnared. The spider is now all powerful.
The alternative title is a Club Culture, as in a golf club, where the club secretary becomes the focus of power and decisions.
It may initially be seen to apply only to relatively small organisations where the person with the central power is accessible to almost everyone but that isn’t necessarily the case. It is certainly prevalent in small organisations such as new start-up companies but it can also be seen in very large ones, too. Large family companies will often demonstrate this. The central person doesn’t have to issue his or her instructions direct to every individual – information and decisions can be cascaded through tiers of management but everyone knows where it originates.
If everyone is comfortable with the situation this can be quite effective but it causes tension if those lower down expect to be given real responsibility to use initiative. And in larger organisations, the chain of command can result in an effect like “Chinese whispers” where instructions undergo subtle changes as they are passed through. undermining any advantage of clear leadership.
The Role Culture
Portrayed as a Greek temple where the apex of the roof is the focus of key decisions and direction but responsibility of factions lower down the columns is defined by each persons’ job title. This can be the ultimate bureaucracy – what you do is defined by your job title. Managers coordinate and communicate; formal procedures instruct. It need to be fairly well regimented to be most effective and it is how the military usually has to work. Initiative is useful within an individual role, finding better ways to complete a specific task, but there will usually be clear limits as to how far such initiative can go. It’s the culture that makes ant colonies so effective.
Power legitimacy lies solely with position; performance is dictated by procedures, not ability; overall system effectiveness is dependent on principles rather than personalities.
The Task Culture
A more dynamic system where roles change and is represented by a lattice. Teams form, perform and disperse. People within this culture need to be comfortable with multiple lines of reporting as they will often have to report to two (or more) masters. Good communication throughout the organisation is essential and members need accept regular change.
Power through rank is less important as influence is more valuable, influence won through expertise and up-to-date knowledge.
This culture works well for project based organisations where resources (both personnel and materiel) are shared to meet continually shifting needs. The opportunity to get stuck in truly repetitive work for long periods is limited (though not entirely absent for some people). The danger arises when key resources become limited – then certain roles taken on undue importance and power can become concentrated in a pseudo-role culture.
The Person Culture
This is the ultimate in flexibility, where individuals decide what is needed (singly or collectively) and little formal hierarchy. It’s depicted as a circle enclosing a number of individual points. There may be managers but management is by consensus. This doesn’t mean that organisations displaying this culture will lack direction but the choice of direction taken will rarely be in one pair of hands. Power and influence lies with personalities and often, though not necessarily always, aligned with expertise; strong personalities can swamp others, usually to the detriment of the organisation as a whole.
Such cultures will rarely be effective for large businesses. It’s more often found within professional practices (medical or legal, for example) where success is very reliant on individuals exercising their own judgement and skills.
An organisation need not demonstrate the same culture throughout, however. The important factor is that the culture must be a fit to the organisation and its need. The military is predominantly a Role Culture but, when small teams are deployed in reconnaissance or unknown territory, individual skills and initiative are often needed and we can find aspects of a Task Culture (within the unit deploying teams) and a Person Culture for aspects of the deployment. The culture defines the way individuals relate and behave, not the formal structure – something that is frequently confused to everyone’s cost.