Thursday, 22 October 2015

Micro Culture within Organisations: What is it? Why does it matter?

Culture is the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society (Oxford English Dictionary). Organisational culture is the behaviour of humans within an organisation and the meaning that people attach to those behaviours (Wikipedia). The operative part of the ‘definition’ of organisational culture is the ‘meaning that people attach to behaviours’. It immediately becomes apparent that it is not about how we behave; it is all about what others who work with us think what our behaviour means. That is why getting organisational culture right is very tricky if not impossible. Understanding the concept of microcultures could help us in this difficult area.

Culture in Society

The society we live in has macro and micro-cultures. Macro-cultures are thought to be the majority groups whose norms are very visible and these become dominant, overarching and can be seen across historical timelines which means they are often long lasting. Interestingly within the macro-cultures there may be dominant small groups whose influence on the macro-culture is significant and overwhelming. For instance, parliamentarians are a small group who have disproportionate influence on society, they are representative which means we choose them to influence us. An example of a dominant small group within the macroculture who are non-representative are Oxbridge. There are many other examples of dominant small groups.

Society also has micro-cultures. The microcultures are generally thought of as being numerically small, voluntary, short-lived, situation specific, weak, non-dominant and not so visible.  However there are very numerically large groups within the population who form microcultures, for instance ‘women’ and unions amongst others. We can also see micro-cultures that have been around for a very long time such as the Amish and yoga. There are also microcultures that are very powerful such as think-tanks, activists, extremists, etc; some microcultures have been so powerful in their times as to change the society in permanent terms for instance the antislavery movement in the west. Microculture has always been viewed by the macroculture of any specific period in time with suspicion, as a threat, as very different and generally poorly understood.

There is another cultural entity called subculture which is distinctly different from yet often misunderstood as being a dominant small group within macrocultures or being a microculture.

It seems that macro-culture is similarity based who do not mind, often understand and even tolerant of reduced values. Microcultures are value based meaning that there are strong traits of equality, morality, ethicality and other traits held precious with microcultures feeling that they are forced to tolerate similarity. Subcultures are based on difference and variance ‘I am better than you. You are worse than us’ etc and exploit those differences without exploring the contexts adequately, often to personal benefit or detriment of the members of the subculture.

Organisations and MicroCultures

Organisations mirror society and within organisations there are micro-cultures. In organizations, especially in healthcare organizations, ‘micro-cultures’ have not been subject to proper study. There is a general assumption that it is best for everyone in an organisation to have a similar culture i.e. an overarching organisational culture. In reality, there are numerous cultures within an organizational culture, which is only normal. However, there may be some good micro-cultures which may want to observe and learn.

The micro-cultures have similar structure, activities, qualifications, finance, job descriptions, titles and staff specifications as the macro-culture but the expressions and the results of these vary significantly from the organisational macro-culture.

How To Do It

What or how are the specifics of a good microculture that enable a different expression and better results?

In the micro-culture that I experienced, we did whatever was statutorily required of our organization and mandatorily required by our organization. The micro-culture related methods and behaviour are over-and-above what was required of us; it was not a replacement behaviour neither did we think it was an add-on. It was just the essence of the way we worked.

My observation suggests that what we do more of some things and less of others. Here is a brief list:

We did more of
We did just the amount required of us
Direct specific communication
Emails/memos/ ‘cascade’
Generic incremental ‘planning’
Formal planning
Taking responsibility for others
Holding to account
Learn small & frequent
‘Formal’ learning
Routines for us
Variations for the patients
Talk often and short
Long speeches and big meetings
Internal recognition
External recognition

Due to these methods and techniques we were able to have a supportive and friendly environment.


We may attempt to measure the successes of micro-culture in many ways. Since culture is often defined as the ‘way we do things here’, I have chosen to measure it by some of the things we did differently. Many of these methods were exclusive to us, some have been done much ahead of time before other areas. I have chosen our record of innovation as a ‘measure’ to demonstrate the success of our micro-culture. I have already published about the innovations

The results in general principle, result in happier staff, lower costs, quicker times for patients, often better results, better retained learning and such other positive impacts.

Culture and its effects are difficult to measure. Surveys have been used with staff self-reported scores and users perceptions. These are useful up to a point. The tangible link between micro-culture methods, processes and behaviours to outcomes will always difficult to elucidate. However, we believe that while a happy working environment is vitally important, we also believe that such an environment should result in some relevant outcomes. We believe that while our structure, activities, specifications, qualifications and knowledge are more or less similar to any organization and its specific departments our expressions of these and our results are different and take the form of the innovations which have been described above.

What can we do with the concept of Organisational MicroCulture?

Microcultures are often appreciated but at the same time often criticized. Some microcultures seek attention, some often shun the limelight.

The point is to assess the micro-culture on the basis of contextual impact, what is good for one may not be good for another, what works at one time may not work another time, what is seen as bad may become acceptable at a later point of time. (Mandela, IRA, PLO)

In organizations firstly micro-cultures should be allowed. We know that often there is no single recognizable so called organizational culture especially within the healthcare context. Next, more importantly supported on the basis of results that matter for the patients (and not on some vague notions of what a pan-organisation culture ought to be).

If you were a senior person in an organization, as you support a micro-culture you will also have this burning desire to ‘spread out’ ‘roll out’ an identified brilliant culture and reap the benefits of results and happiness for the whole organization; unfortunately it does not work like that. We may love the way that the Amish live today but we will be unable to roll it across the world or even use it for us. Products can be rolled out, packaged popular cultures can also be rolled out (eg MTV) but work place behaviours seem to be too personal, too individual, too variable, hence too complex to roll out.

What we can do is to grow our own, micro-propagate. We can become aware and make others aware of effective micro-cultures, managers can encourage and enable interaction with micro-cultures. Managers should be aiming for an environment of varying positive microcultures (and not necessarily one large single positive culture which generally exists in management books). Managers should not be aiming for a coalescing of cultures, though that sometimes happens on its own. Processes and activities can be copied, a culture cannot be copied.

Though I have described our observed methods, there is no real ‘model’ and hence there is no proper way to ‘replicate’ it. However, there are principles which can be reflected upon which can then result in growing your own micro-culture. We are not issuing a self-assembly kit – we are sowing some ideas some of which you may want to use to create your own beneficial micro-culture. It is our view that micro-culture cannot be replicated but can be propagated.


Follow me on Twitter @HemadriTweets

A) There is a particular academic reference to the first few paragraphs of this blog which I have misfiled and will post it here when I find it
B) This topic was presented at the Clinical Microsystems Festival, Jonkoping, Sweden in 2015 

No comments: