Chapter 2 – Culture and Structures of Organizations

2.3. Culture

Photo by Brooke Cagle, Unsplash Licence

What Is Organizational Culture?

When working with internal and external customers on a project, it is essential to pay close attention to relationships, context, history, and the organizational culture. Organizational culture refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and values that the organization’s members share and the behaviours consistent with them. Also, called corporate culture, it is what sets one organization apart from another, and dictates how members of the organization will see you, interact with you, and sometimes judge you. Often, projects  have a specific culture, work norms, and social conventions.

Some aspects of corporate culture are easily observed; others are more difficult to discern. You can easily observe the office environment and how people dress and speak. In one company, individuals work separately in closed offices; in another, teams may work in a shared environment. The more subtle components of corporate culture, such as the values and overarching business philosophy, may not be readily apparent, but they are reflected in member behaviours, symbols, and conventions used.

Values are stable, evaluative beliefs that guide a person or an organization in our preferences for outcomes or a certain course of action to be taken. It is about what is believed to be good or bad, right or wrong in the eye’s of the person or organization.  When organizational culture is being discussed, it is often referred to as shared values or the values that everyone within the organization work toward as common goals.  Also, it refers to shared assumptions which is seen as the real essence of the organization.  Shared assumptions are unconscious perceptions of people’s behaviour that is considered the “right way to think, act and behave.” They are ingrained within people and not easy to see.

This is where trained HR Specialists are able to observe employee’s behaviours and actions, and then support them to “do” the right thing, to act and behave in correct ways.  As well, HR Specialists provide training for Management in how to observe these behaviours. Or, even provide training for employees to self-identify with their own actions and behaviours.

Core values are often defined in a company’s mission and/or vision statement.  Some examples of core values could include responsibility meaning a “green” working environment; accountability to employees and our customers; we are an inclusive work environment; we are a leader through our innovation of products; and we are a work-life balance company.

Sometimes, the values statements do not align with what is actually practiced in the organization.  The values are what organizations want employees to believe and aspire to in the organization.  Some employees may have conflicting values with the organization.  The way to influence employees to follow the values of the organization is for senior management to guide and practice the organization’s values.  In turn, it is hoped that employees will model the same behaviours and act in the same way.

Human Resources trainers can have a huge influence over aligning the employees with the organization’s values; and result in an organizational culture that is supported by its employees.

HR in Focus: Human Resources and Culture

Human Resources departments are strongly connected to corporate culture and helping to develop and strong culture within the organization.  According to Cabera and and Bonache (1999), “two key factors for success in today’s competitive environment are continuously espoused to be an organization’s culture and its HR practices, both of which influence the behaviour or organizational members” (p. 2).  A continuous changing work environment contributes to a changing corporate culture.  As the demographics, competition, work force norms and values change, the HR role continues to evolve.  It is HR’s responsibility to facilitate the changes.  They provide training for all employees, create communication channels between and among all the internal stakeholders, involve the employees in change, help employees to set clear goals and design fair and equitable compensation and benefits systems.

Another role HR plays is developing strategies that help coordinate the business strategy with the HR strategy that focuses on improved performance, knowledge sharing, building trust and creating learning opportunities.  HR wants to align the employees with senior management’s vision and mission through education and awareness.   To understand the culture of an organization, several factors need to be taken into consideration.

Recruitment and selection of employees by HR Specialists is a way for an organization to increase corporate culture.  When HR recruits and selects and retains people with values and beliefs that align with the organization’s values and beliefs, this results in a harmonious organization and a strong culture.  When interviewing, HR Specialists will look for artifacts, ask about a person’s personal values and beliefs, and ask behavioural questions.  They are looking for a “fit” with the organization’s culture.

Culture and Environments

There are many factors that need to be understood within your project environment (Figure 2-7). At one level, you need to think in terms of the cultural and social environments (i.e., people, demographics, and education). The international and political environment is where you need to understand about different countries’ cultural influences. Furthermore, the physical environment of the project requires you to consider the impact of time zones. Think about how your project will be executed differently whether it is just in your country or if it involves an international project team that is distributed throughout the world in five different countries.

Of all the factors, the physical ones are the easiest to understand, and it is the cultural and international factors that are often misunderstood or ignored. How we deal with clients, customers, or project members from other countries can be critical to the success of the project. For example, the culture of the United States values accomplishments and individualism. Americans tend to be informal and call each other by first names, even if having just met. Europeans tend to be more formal, using surnames instead of first names in a business setting, even if they know each other well. In addition, their communication style is more formal than in the United States, and while they tend to value individualism, they also value history, hierarchy, and loyalty. The Japanese, on the other hand, tend to communicate indirectly and consider themselves part of a group, not as individuals. The Japanese value hard work and success, as most of us do.

Project environment factors: cultural, social, international, political, physical
Figure 2‑7: The important factors to consider within the project environment. Table from “Project Management for Scientists and Engineers” by Barron & Barron, CC BY 4.0

The importance of understanding the organizational culture and strategy is important to projects. HR Specialists can play a role in assisting project managers in identifying the relationship between organizational culture and selection of projects.  If the project does not align with the corporate culture and strategy, it could fail.  When independent decisions are made by different departments there is confusion and often conflict.  This can lead to unhappy customers.  Projects must be aligned with strategy that evolves from the corporate culture.  A selection process of priorities to the organization, and that align with its strategy and the project are the success markers.  Otherwise, companies waste people’s time, energy and money.   Products and services need to be of high quality for customers.

How a product or service is received can be very dependent on the international cultural differences. For example, in the 1990s, when many large American and European telecommunications companies were cultivating new markets in Asia, their customer’s cultural differences often produced unexpected situations. Western companies planned their telephone systems to work the same way in Asia as they did in Europe and the United States. But the protocol of conversation was different. Call-waiting, a popular feature in the West, is considered impolite in some parts of Asia. This cultural blunder could have been avoided had the team captured the project environment requirements and involved the customer.

It is often the simplest things that can cause trouble since, unsurprisingly, in different countries, people do things differently. One of the most notorious examples of this is also one of the simplest: date formats. What day and month is 2/8/2021? Of course, it depends where you come from: in North America, it is February 8th while in Europe (and much of the rest of the world) it is 2nd August. Clearly, when schedules and deadlines are being defined it is important that everyone is clear on the format used.

The diversity of practices and cultures and its impact on products in general and on software in particular goes well beyond the date issue. You may be managing a project to create a new website for a company that sells products worldwide. There are language and presentation style issues to take into consideration; converting the site into different languages isn’t enough. It is obvious that you need to ensure the translation is correct; however, the presentation layer will have its own set of requirements for different cultures. The left side of a website may be the first focus of attention for a Canadian; the right side would be the initial focus for anyone from the Middle East, as both Arabic and Hebrew are written from right to left. Colours also have different meanings in different cultures. White, which is a sign of purity in North America (e.g., a bride’s wedding dress), and thus would be a favoured background colour in North America, signifies death in Japan (e.g., a burial shroud).

Table 2‑1 The meaning of colons in various cultures (Russo & Boor, 1993).
Colour Canada China Japan Egypt France
Red Danger, stop Happiness Anger, danger Death Aristocracy
Blue Sadness, melancholy Heavens, clouds Villainy Virtue, faith, truth Freedom, peace
Green Novice, apprentice Ming dynasty, heavens Future, youth, energy Fertility, strength Criminality
Yellow Cowardice Birth, wealth Grace, nobility Happiness, prosperity Temporary
White Purity Death, purity Death Joy Naturality

Project managers in multicultural projects must appreciate the culture dimensions and try to learn relevant customs, courtesies, and business protocols before taking responsibility for managing an international project. A project manager must take into consideration these various cultural influences and how they may affect the project’s completion, schedule, scope, completion and cost.   How the team meets and when they meet must be factored into the project timeline and deliverables.

Creating a Project Culture

Human Resources and Project Managers have a unique opportunity during the start-up of a project. They create a project culture, something organizational managers seldom have a chance to do. In most organizations, the corporate or organizational culture has developed over the life of the organization, and people associated with the organization understand what is valued, what has status, and what behaviors are expected. Edgar Schein identified three distinct levels in organizational culture.

  1. Artifacts and behaviours: something valued by a certain culture .  They are symbols and signs of an organization’s culture. They are observable. ie. country’s flag, how people dress; how people conduct themselves around others, how people are greeted when entering a building.
  2. Espoused values: values expressed by an organization, standards, what does the organization stand for (for example: mission statement, tag lines; honesty, trust, consistency, integrity).
  3. Assumptions:  unknown and generally not written down, employee’s beliefs, perceptions, feelings.


Can you think of artifacts that are in Canadian culture, or the culture of your home country?


Artifacts are the visible elements in a culture and they can be recognized by people not part of the culture. Espoused values are the organization’s stated values and rules of behaviour. Shared basic assumptions are the deeply embedded, taken-for-granted behaviours that are usually unconscious, but constitute the essence of culture.

Characteristics of Project Culture

A project culture represents the shared norms, beliefs, values, and assumptions of the project team. This is very similar to the corporate culture. Understanding the unique aspects of a project culture and developing an appropriate culture to match the complexity profile of the project are important project management abilities.

Culture is developed through the communication of:

  • The priority
  • The given status
  • The alignment of official and operational rules

Official rules are the rules that are stated, and operational rules are the rules that are enforced. Project managers who align official and operational rules are more effective in developing a clear and strong project culture because the project rules are among the first aspects of the project culture to which team members are exposed when assigned to the project.

Creating a Culture of Collaboration within and Instructional Design team in Human Resources

A Project Manager met with his team prior to the beginning of an instructional design project in Human Resources. The team was excited about the prestigious project and the potential for career advancement involved. With this increased competitive aspect came the danger of selfishness and backstabbing. The project leadership team told stories of previous projects where people were fired for breaking down the team efforts and often shared inspirational examples of how teamwork created unprecedented successes—an example of storytelling. Every project meeting started with team-building exercises (a ritual) and any display of hostility or separatism was forbidden (taboo) and was quickly and strongly cut off by the project leadership if it occurred.

Culture guides behaviour and communicates what is important and is useful for establishing priorities. On projects that have a strong culture of trust, team members feel free to challenge anyone who breaks a confidence, even managers. The culture of integrity is stronger than the cultural aspects of the power of management.

Create a Great Project Culture

Project culture is important to the project and to Human Resources.  Developing high-performing teams results in better projects.  Standards is the organization’s culture, bringing in people who will work together understanding various culture differences and the work within the project itself.

Watch this video: Create a Great Project Culture – 5 Ways That We Can Help You by ProjectSkillsMentor [6:30] below. The transcript is available on YouTube.

2.3. Culture” from Essentials of Project Management by Adam Farag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Strategic Project Management Copyright © 2022 by Debra Patterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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