Cultural Web

The cultural web is a way of looking at the factors that influence an organisation’s culture and the interplay between them.
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What is the Cultural Web model?

All organisations have a culture, whether it’s intended or not. It’s evident in the way they do things, how they work, what they focus on and how they treat their customers and employees. The Cultural Web is a way of codifying the aspects that affect the culture and the impact they have on the way the organisation behaves.

The Cultural Web is one of many ways of looking at organisational culture and focuses on six attributes – it then uses these to explore how each may affect the culture of an organisation.

How is the Cultural Web model used?

Cultural Web Model

The Cultural Web model can be used as an exploratory template to uncover what the culture of an organisation is. It’s useful in understanding where an organisation is before building a plan to change.

When looking to create organisational change, culture will play a big role in:

  • the approach you take,
  • how easy it is to implement and,
  • the likely success of any changes.

Understanding where the culture currently stands and what’s likely to help or hinder is a useful tool.

The Cultural Web looks at the “actual” culture of an organisation, rather than the promoted one. It’s less focused on what a business says it is and more on what is observable. In this way, the Cultural Web can give a more accurate picture of where a business is.

Uses for the Cultural web Model in Organisational Change

  • As a diagnostic tool when planning organisational change.
  • A way to gather and document the factors influencing culture.
  • To access change readiness and likely obstacles.
  • To build a compelling picture to communicate back to the business.

How to use the Cultural Web Model

I’ve outlined the six areas of the cultural web and offered some ideas on how to explore and document each.

The 6 areas of the Cultural Web

The Cultural Web is broken down into six categories. Each paints another piece of the picture of the true culture of the organisation.

The six areas are:

  1. Stories – the narrative, stories and examples spoken about within the business.
  2. Rituals and routines – The unspoken rules and ways of doing things.
  3. Symbols – The physical and metaphorical symbols used in the organisations.
  4. Organisational structure – The way an organisation is explicitly and implicitly structured.
  5. Power structures – The way power is managed and handled. The pockets of power within the organisation.
  6. Control Systems – The control mechanisms within the organisation, from finance, to performance management, results, rewards etc.

Need support with your culture change?

I’m James. A freelance change consultant with 15 years experience helping organisations and causes create positive cultural change. If you’d like to explore how I could help you make your cultural change plans a success, drop me a note.

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1. Stories – Cultural Web

Stories can tell you a lot about an organisation. They paint a picture of moments, events and characters the organisation and its staff see as important.

Cultural Web Model - 1. Stories

These are the stories told in the corridors, or at afterwork drinks, or in the canteen. They paint a picture of events that have stuck in the hearts and minds of employees. They’ll give an indication of what the organisation values and how it perceives the heroes and villains in the stories. You may also be able to spot themes that arise regularly.

The stories told will give you an indication of what the organisation deems important or memorable, and give you an insight into the behaviours and characters at play.

Story is heavily related to what we choose to talk about, so it’s worth noting the themes and topics that seem to crop up most often.

How culture shows through the stories we tell

  • How we talk about each other – inter-team, cross team, departmentally.
  • How we talk about our customers – how we see them, how they’re discussed, who talks about them.
  • How we’re allowed to talk to authority – the ways story shape how we talk to authority.
  • The stories which get repeated again and again.
  • What we rarely talk about – the off-limits or rarely considered topics.
  • What we see are important and memorable.
  • How we paint the past, talk about the now and imagine the future.

Characteristics

  • Are there particular stories that crop up often?
  • What do these suggest about the organisation?
  • How do these stories relate to the promoted culture (values, etc)?

Observed Themes

  • Are there particular themes in the stories that are told?
  • Do you notice common characters or events?
  • What do these themes say about the organisation’s culture?

Inferred Values

  • What are the moral outcomes of the stories?
  • What do they suggest the organisation sees as virtuous?
  • If it was a person, what values would this business have?

2. Rituals & Routines – Cultural Web

These are the overt and covert ways the organisation does things. There’s a useful measurement of what the organisation values or holds dear.

Cultural Web Model - 2. Rituals and Routines

Rituals tend to be unspoken expectations or behaviours – like dress code or, more recently, how remote working is perceived. The way the organisation considers meetings, solving problems and working across departments is also ritualistic.

Routines are the schedules and consistent behaviours you’ll notice on a day to day basis.

How culture shows through our rituals and routines

  • Which rituals we value most, and which we value least.
  • Where rituals improve productivity and where they detract from it.
  • Routines we follow because “we’ve always done it this way”.
  • How routines are championed
  • What happens when people question unhelpful rituals?
  • How easy is it for someone to change things for the better.
  • Your gatekeepers for rituals, and how easy are they to challenge.

Characteristics

  • What can the rituals and routines tell you about the organisational culture?
  • How do these rituals impact the way people work?

Observed Themes

  • Are there common themes that keep showing up?
  • What do they suggest about the culture of the organisation?
  • Are they likely to enable or hinder change?

Inferred Values

  • Are the values demonstrated in line with the promoted culture?
  • Do you observe a disjoint between what an organisation says it is and the behaviours you see?

3. Symbols – Cultural Web

These are the physical and metaphorical symbols used across the organisations. They may be overt (posters on the walls and pictures) or unspoken – ways of doing things that everyone adheres to.

Cultural Web Model - 3. Symbols

Symbols are useful because they represent what the organisation hold dear, and the overt displays the organisation uses to promote a culture and way of working.

The symbols can also suggest a cultural dissonance between what the organisation promotes and how it actually behaves. In this scenario you may notice a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude from senior leaders.

Symbols can also be the way an organisation considers success or achievement. An organisation’s entire measurement strategy is a symbol of what they value. Equally, how they choose to define, measure and celebrate success are also useful symbols.

How culture shows through symbols

  • What we choose to measure, and what we choose not to.
  • How we value quantitate and qualitative indicators of how we’re working.
  • How our leadership is viewed, communicated with and rewarded.
  • What behaviours are explicitly and implicitly championed.

Characteristics

  • What do the symbols used suggest about the organisational culture?
  • How are these symbols used?
  • Is there any dissonance between what these symbols represent and how the organisation behaves?

Observed Themes

  • What are the key themes that these symbols represent?
  • How are these symbols used within the organisation?
  • What themes can we draw from the symbols used?

Inferred Values

  • What values do these symbols represent or promote?
  • How to these align to the promoted values?

4. Organisational structure – Cultural Web

Organisational structures can vary from organisations to organisation. Some will be flat or adaptive, others will be highly hierarchical.

Cultural Web Model - 4. Organisational Structures

Organisational structure can suggest certain characteristics about an organisation. Does their structure imply a traditional set of values, or one where people are expected to adapt their roles at the need demands.

It can also suggest disparities between what an organisation says it stands for versus what the structure suggests. For example, one that promotes an innovative approach but has a traditional structure that doesn’t allow for that.

Characteristics

  • How does the organisational structure affect the way people work?
  • Are there disparities between the promoted culture and the structure?

Observed Themes

  • How will the organisational structure help or hinder change?
  • How adaptive is the structure to supporting cultural change?

Inferred Values

  • What values does the organisational structure imply?
  • How do these align with the promoted culture of the organisation?

5. Power structures – Cultural Web

This refers to where the real power in the organisation is, aside from the stated organisational structure.

Cultural Web Model - 5. Power Structures

Are there departments or leaders in the business who tend to have more control, say or persuasive power than others. For example, in do sales tend to control the agenda more than operations?

Understanding where these power bases are can be useful in knowing what the organisation values most, what obstacles are likely to prevent change and how to navigate these power structures. It can also highlight power struggles between departments which may make change harder.

Characteristics

  • What are the overt and unspoken power structures in the organisation?
  • How do these power structures influence decision making and productivity?

Observed Themes

  • How do these power structures influence culture?
  • Are particular areas or themes that are influenced by them?

Inferred Values

  • What do these power structures suggest about the organisational values?
  • How do these examples illustrate certain values and ways of working?

6. Control Systems – Cultural Web

These are control mechanisms within the organisation and can include anything from finance to performance management, the way results are measured and how issues are dealt with.

Cultural Web Model - 6. Control Systems

Similar to Organisational Structure – this can tell us about the way risk, reward and punishment are seen within the organisation. It can also give an indication to the level of trust, autonomy and freedom given to staff.

This is useful as it can reinforce or challenge the stated culture. For example, if Empowerment is a key part of the stated culture but the control systems suggest otherwise. Or customer-focus is a core part of the value proposition but looking after customers isn’t adequately planned for in reward systems.

Characteristics

  • How do the control systems support or challenge the stated culture?
  • What do these control systems imply about the traits of the organisation?

Observed Themes

  • Do these control systems help and support the desired culture?
  • Are there any contradictions in how these control systems impact the desired culture?

Inferred values

  • What does these control systems infer is important in the organisation?
  • How do they influence behaviour?

Summary of the Cultural Web Model

The Cultural Web model is a useful tool in diagnostics and analysis of an organisations existing culture. It can help us understand the interplay between different aspects and how they may affect the culture.

Free Cultural Web Model PDF Template

Click the link to download this Cultural Web PDF template and use it to explore your own organisational culture.

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 James Freeman-Gray 

I'm James. A change consultant and organisational development specialist. I've been working in people-centred change for over 15 years. I partner with causes, champions, teams & leaders on projects for social, environmental, technological & human good. If you think I can support in making your change a success, drop me a message. 

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