The Vector View of the Consultant’s Challenge: Conducting an Organizational Assessment Focusing on the Culture

February 4th, 2015   •   no comments   

If you are new to this field, you will quickly find out what those who have been around the block a few times are well aware of—there are many twists and turns in the business of conducting accurate and actionable organizational assessments. Many practitioners think they do it well and many companies who pay for these assessments think they got a good deal. In reality, they were far from what they could and should have received. This usually starts to become clear in the intervention planning, and if not there becomes very clear shortly after the intervention begins.

Most consulting firms in their first meeting with a potential client listen carefully to the executive or senior manager describing the challenges their organization faces. They hear about the lackluster results the company seems to be getting and as soon as the potential client winds down the consultant or their sales person will say, “We have exactly what you need. We have an online survey we can send to your employees, we tabulate the results and based on those results, we can plug the appropriate sections into our proven culture change program to take care of your problem.”

We, like most consulting firms never take on a client engagement without some sort of assessment or “diagnosis” up front. The approach at Vector Group is a process we call the Organizational Scan©, however, it is definitely not a prepackaged survey. We want to know, in their own words, how individuals and groups talk about and describe the organization and the work they are striving to deliver.

The Organizational Scan© clarifies organizational intent and direction, and captures information about the “real organization’s” alignment with that direction—its values and belief system, day-to-day life, priorities, reward and recognition systems both formal and informal, the organizational structure, systems, and policies and procedures. All of these have an effect on the work and affects how people do the work. The organizational culture is in effect, nothing more than overtly and/or covertly agreed upon behavior patterns developed to deal with all of those issues of organizational life.

The critical point of difference between us and other firms is that we gather this information from interviews and focus groups and not an off-the-shelf survey instrument. In a survey you get people’s reactions to the words, terms and concepts used in the survey. A survey does not give you how and why people discuss and talk about the organization and the impact upon doing the work. Our view is that we have to understand the people and the work they do in their own words; this cannot be a survey that force fits their reality into our predetermined categories and definitions.

In over forty years of dealing with organizational performance, we have never seen any two situations that are identical and described in the same manner. We need to understand their views and feelings and how they choose to describe it. After all, in the end it is your organizational culture and vocabulary that is important, not ours. There are unique aspects to each and every organization that no pre-packaged survey will surface, and usually these unique elements are critical the understanding the reality of organizational life for your company.

Once the initial scan is done, if your company is large and geographically diverse, findings from the scan can be put into a survey instrument (using the words and concepts derived from the people who took part in the scan) and sent across the company to ascertain the breadth and depth and local nuances of the findings.

The Vector Organizational Scan© can be enterprise-wide or more focused, but always with an eye toward how the whole organization functions. The assessment process includes the following:

CEO or Functional Head Interview—a one-to-one interview to determine the CEO or the Functional Head’s view of the organization’s direction, strategy, culture, health and needs, and of the business context in which the organization is operating.

Documentation Review—an examination of all relevant documentation on the organization’s conditions, process, and outcomes. Policy and procedures manuals, annual reports, strategic plans, newsletters, etc., are reviewed.

Senior Management Interviews—one-to-one interviews of members of the top management team — heads of functions, departments and support groups—to gain their perspective on the organizational situation.

Core Samples—targeted focus groups representing all levels of the organization both within functions and across functions to develop a profile of the “real” organization and how things are done.

Workplace Observation—informal “walkarounds” in the various worksite environments, at various times of the workday, to get a “feel” for the work, the physical environment, climate and morale, etc.

Organizational Scan© Domains

We design the questions we ask to inquire into the following domains in order to determine their characteristics, interaction, and alignment with the intended direction and strategic goals of the organization.

• External Business Environment
• Mission/Vision
• Strategy/Goals
• Values
• Structure
• Leadership
• Management
• Management Practices
• People
• Climate
• Policies/Procedures
• Systems
• Work Processes
• Objectives
• Measures
• Workplace Environment
• Products/Services
• Organizational Results

Contrary to what you might expect the process for gathering this data when you have people well trained and experienced in qualitative data gathering is quick and relatively inexpensive. Depending on the size of the organization (1000) the assessment could be completed anywhere from two to six weeks depending upon the availability of people. Scheduling of individual interviews, group interviews and focus groups needs to occur with a minimum of disruption to the operation – both for the sake of the organization’s ongoing work, and to ensure accuracy and thoroughness in the data gathering phase.

Scans tend to cost between $15,000 to $50,000 depending upon the size and complexity of the company. The larger amount being what it might cost if you have 10 to 20,000 employees. Interestingly enough, going over 20,000 employees adds very little to the scan cost.

Getting at Organizational Culture: The Heart of the Matter

The literature abounds with descriptions and definitions of organizational or corporate culture. Kotter and Heskett reference two different levels of culture in Corporate Culture and Performance. Others have described this phenomenon in terms of a culture’s visible and invisible aspects. A very common analogy for describing cultures is an iceberg:

cultural due diligence iceberg - The Vector View of the Consultant’s Challenge: Conducting an Organizational Assessment Focusing on the Culture

As you view this iceberg, consider how much of it is below the surface. In terms of organizational culture, we find only 10 – 20% of cultural indicators above the surface. These include such things as:

• Dress
• Language
• Work environment
• Location/geography
• Rites/rituals
• Publicized or espoused values and ethics
• Formal organizational structure and systems
• Public image/annual report
• Advertising/brand

The rest of the organization (80 – 90%) is beneath the surface and is much more difficult (if not impossible) to articulate without in-depth analysis of the culture and how it operates. Some describe it as the shadow side or more explicitly stated as the invisible or deeper level of organizational culture. What we find here includes such things as:

• Personally held beliefs
• Actual values (values may be subconscious to the holder while beliefs are conscious)
• Actual ethics
• Informal organization and systems
• Real power structure
• The undiscussed
• The undiscussable
• The ignored or overlooked
• Politics
• Legends/organizational lore
• Expectations
• Anticipations
• Variable and selective recall of similar events
• Communication patterns
• Perceptions of management by staff (rank and file)
• Perceptions of staff by management

In the context of cultural assessment, those who conduct the assessment must clearly understand that an accurate assessment cannot rely only on the surface data. Even though the deeper level can be murky, it is well worth the effort to assess what is truly there. A consultant can find the real thoughts about leadership within the organization, who really runs the show or if people actually live the espoused values.

Qualitative or Quantitative Data?

Gathering both qualitative and quantitative data remains a critical approach in assessing organizations. Our premise is that each organization is unique and has a unique culture. Use of generic, off-the-shelf instruments, although on the surface they are low in cost and easy to use, does not bring the quality data needed to fully and accurately assess the culture. Years of experience mandate that we must gather both qualitative and quantitative data but the initial emphasis must be on the qualitative side. Quantitative survey instruments, to be accurate for any given population, must reflect the language and concept definitions that are normally utilized within the organization, which makes them unique to each organization. The content for a survey must be based upon what was uncovered in the interviews and focus groups.

There are probably hundreds of survey instruments available. Some of the best-known ones measure only handful of cultural indicators. The better surveys available will also have validation data for their questions—and this all by itself makes it clear why an off-the-shelf instrument is not the way to go.

A few years back we looked into all the “validated” surveys we could find and identified just over 20 with good validation data. However, there was no correlation, and often not even any superficial similarities, between the validated items in different surveys. In other words, each validated survey appeared to measure different things. That being the case, how do you know which validated survey to use for any given organization? On top of that, we have seen no surveys that will gather the granularity and uniqueness of many aspects of organizational functions. How can a prepackaged survey of even 100 items (and that would be a very large survey indeed) uncover the unique aspects and operational distinctions of a company composed of 10,000 people spread across 10 locations in 8 different countries?

One of the major selling points of prepackaged surveys is that they compare results from one company to a database of several hundred other organizations representing different industries, locations, sizes, etc. Using a percentile scoring approach, the survey compares a specific company’s results to some set of other companies to demonstrate where one company stands against the rest. While interesting, we have to ask “So what?”

Most companies are trying to achieve a competitive edge over their specific competition in their specific industry. As we know from the work of Michael Porter, competitive edge usually resides in the particular, and often unique, “value add” that a particular company can deliver. This is the kind of detail that does not, and cannot, exist in prepackaged surveys.

Giving a culture survey based on a host of possible cultural indicators to each employee on the surface appears to be very cost-effective. However, insufficient and incorrect data is generally useless if not dangerous. Force-fitting results into pre-ordained categories distort the reality and further confuse the situation. It is imperative that the consultant, as part of the analysis, secures living examples and anecdotes that most closely describe the culture and the changes needed.

In short, the use of a generic instrument will not find many of the nuances and subtleties of a specific organization. The same holds true for off-the-shelf 360° management feedback surveys. This amounts to comparing the behaviors of a select set of managers or executives at a specific company at a specific time to a homogenized group of other managers from many different companies. These management responses collected in a generic and broad multi-company database gathered over a wide period will rarely yield any useful and applicable information regarding how to fine-tune the management systems to deliver hoped for results in the current circumstances.

Consultant Skills

The consultant needs some highly developed critical skills to conduct highly effective interviews and secure the necessary data to describe an organization’s culture. The practice of interviewing individuals, groups and focus groups takes years of finesse in such areas as:

  • Establishing rapport and gaining trust quickly
  • Behavioral sciences
    • Organizational behavior (individual, group, inter-group)
    • Psychology
    • Group dynamics
    • Organizational behavior
  • Listening skills
  • Storytelling
  • Assessment of non-verbal behavior
  • Systemic view
  • Business acumen
  • Ability to change demeanor between the shop floor and the executive suite
  • Adaptable language (very proper to not so proper depending on the audience)
  • Unobtrusive note-taking
  • Air of confidence
  • Sense of humor
  • Rigor in asking open-ended questions
  • Finely-tuned ability to ask the “dumb” questions
  • Look for driving problems and not symptoms
  • Analyze processes, tasks, procedures and systems
  • Leveling and confronting skills
  • Risk taker
  • Persuasive and persistent
  • Relationship building skills
  • Facilitation skills
  • Pragmatic
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-discipline
  • Good rational and emotional balance
  • Comfort with contentious issues
  • Competence in gathering data from a variety of sources (the organizational environment, documents, etc.)
  • Synthesize data and report-writing

That is quite a list. As I look at the list and the rest of what I’ve written here, I can’t help but think about how fragile the qualitative interviewing process really is. Even the demeanor of the interviewer (consultant) can skew the results. This is why having very well trained and experienced interviewers involved in this diagnostic process is so critical and admittedly, people of this caliber are extremely hard to find.

The client is not paying for skewed results—they are paying for a realistic picture of their business reality. That is what we deliver and our clients would agree. ©Vector Group, Inc., 2015


Gary W. Craig is Managing Partner and COO for Vector Group, Inc. You may reach him at [email protected]. Vector Group is a global consulting firm specializing in systematic organizational diagnosis and interventions to ensure that corporate strategy, culture, and infrastructure are aligned to achieve breakthrough success. Visit our website at or call us at (800) 566-0877.

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