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Performance culture: Strategies for achievement

Written by  Gregory S. Richards   Volume: 13  Issue: 9
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CGE Vol.13 No.9 November 2007

Organizational culture plays a strong role in encouraging performance-oriented behaviour. In the private sector, Intel, Hewlett Packard, and Microsoft cite organizational culture as a key contributor to their ability to perform well over a long period of time. For them, profitability is the sort of "buck stops here" outcome that engenders a performance-oriented culture. In a public sector context, a definable bottom line is not often available, so development of a performance-oriented culture can be a challenge.

What is a performance-oriented public service culture? Despite the many articles and books written on the topic of organizational culture, it is not completely clear what a performance-oriented culture looks like or how one goes about developing one. Some organizations have developed such cultures, but the process of doing so is often informal; indeed, if you ask ten people in these organizations what the culture is, you would likely receive ten different answers.

This paper proposes an "image" (shown in Figure 1) of a performance-oriented public service organizational culture and outlines five steps for creating one.

Over the years, many different approaches to measuring organizational cultures have been developed. We hear of organizations being described as "country clubs" or "academies," for example. Similarly, some cultures are described as being clannish (i.e., family oriented) while others are thought to be bureaucratic (slow moving, mired in red tape).

Kim Cameron and Rob Quinn developed one of these approaches in 1999. They referred to it as the "organizational cultural assessment instrument." The OCAI is interesting because it provides a visual depiction of the organization's culture based on four main orientations:

1.     Clan: A very friendly place to work where people share a lot of themselves. The leaders or heads of the organization are considered to be mentors or perhaps even family figures. The organization is held together by loyalty and tradition.
2.     Hierarchy: A very formalized and structured place to work. Procedures govern what people do. The leaders pride themselves on being good coordinators and organizers who are efficiency-minded. Formal rules and policies hold the organization together.
3.     Adhocracy: A dynamic, entrepreneurial, and creative place to work. People stick their necks out and take risks. The leaders are considered innovators and risk takers. The glue that holds the organization together is commitment to experimentation and innovation.
4.     Market: A results-oriented organization whose major concern is with getting the job done. People are competitive and goal oriented. The leaders are hard drivers, producers and competitors. They are tough and demanding. The glue that holds the organization together is an emphasis on winning.

Clan and hierarchy cultures tend to be more internally focussed while adhocracies and market cultures are more externally focused. It is important to note that every organization has some element of each of these cultural orientations, but there is often one dominant culture supported by different sub-cultures.

As an example, Cameron and Quinn collected data on Apple Computers (depicted in Figures 2 and 3) as it moved through its various incarnations during the 1970s and 1980s.

The graphs should be interpreted as follows:

Each quadrant represents a score on the particular cultural orientation. Higher scores are indicated by lines that move towards the periphery.

So in Figure 2, Apple at start-up had a strongly adhocratic culture which changed during the introduction of the MacIntosh into a more clannish culture (Figure 3). Fearing that Apple was spinning out of control, John Scully, a seasoned professional manager, was recruited to bring some order to Apple's operations, resulting in a more hierarchical culture (shown in Figure 3) at least in the early phases of Scully's tenure. Apple's culture continued to evolve and, with the second coming of Jobs, is probably much different that it was in the 1980s. The point is that a private sector organization's culture responds very strongly to the actions of senior managers who in turn are responding to what shareholders expect, what the competition is doing, and how customers are responding to their products.

Performance-Oriented Culture
Apple performed fairly well during its start-up years. It began to flounder during its post-MacIntosh years, and by all accounts, it is now performing well again. Apple's claim to fame is innovation, but it needed some form of control to ensure innovative products get to market on time and so on. So while there are some general guidelines about how organizations should orient themselves for performance, there are also differences based on the overall strategy of the organization.

Bearing this need for balance in mind, Figure 4 proposes a generic image of a public sector performance-oriented culture. It is based on research that tells us that a performance oriented culture emphasizes collaboration around the analysis and use of performance measures, uses mistakes as learning opportunities, and has a strong focus on execution.

Performance-oriented public service organizational cultures with a strong external focus (i.e., the peak in the "market" quadrant, in Figure 4) values, above all, delivering results that meet the needs of Canadians. The second "peak" in the "clan" quadrant means that the organization would have the type of team orientation needed to fearlessly examine and act on performance information whether the results are good or bad. The relatively smaller emphasis on hierarchy suggests that minimal formalization is needed to encourage employees to figure out things and act on them without requiring a slew of approvals. How much formalization is present, of course, depends on the nature of the work being done in the organization. For example, organizations responsible for security need to follow specific rules, so they might, in fact, have a higher peak in the hierarchy quadrant than that depicted here. Similarly, the relatively smaller emphasis on adhocracy suggests that while innovation is important, it also needs to be balanced. Most public sector organizations do operate in a fishbowl environment: Canadians have a right to know what is going on in the organization. So highly risky innovations that are perceived as a waste of taxpayer dollars might not be of value. Managed innovation, however, within the boundaries of a strong results-orientation, would be important.

Clearly then, a number of factors, such as the size of the organization and the nature of the work being done, would have to be considered before determining the exact cultural profile of any organization. For example, larger organizations might need a bit more hierarchical orientation while smaller ones might need a bit more adhocracy.

Figures 5 and 6 show images of two different Canadian public sector organizations whose cultures evolved due to their mandates, organization size, and the types of services provided. Figure 5 shows the culture of an Information Technology group within a large public sector organization. The emphasis on hierarchy suggests the strong need for control in project management and implementation of IT hardware and software. The challenge for this group was t

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