The Impact of Organic vs. Mechanistic Corporate Culture

Corporate Culture

Is your workplace culture mechanistic — or is it organic? According to Kelly Ann Smith, DBA, the answer to that question reveals a lot about your office.

Although her research is recent, the inspiration for it goes back years, to when Dr. Smith first served as a liaison between leadership and employees in an IT setting.

“Each year, I would conduct focus groups with IT employees, asking for their input,” Dr. Smith said. “Then I would take that feedback and present it to our leadership for their review and decisioning.”

As a result of this process, concrete changes to the work environment included remodeling a break room, instituting casual days in the summer, and repainting the office.

“It’s amazing how seemingly small changes can make a huge difference in the workplace!” Dr. Smith said.

While her interest may have started with concrete changes that improved quality of life for IT employees, it didn’t stop there.

“Having a nice break room made employees feel that the company cared about them,” she said. “Listening to employee feedback and implementing change was crucial in building employee relations. Actions speak louder than words.”

And over time, her interest in those opinions — and their effects on retention and other essential metrics — continued to grow.

Eventually, Dr. Smith’s interest in corporate culture and its impact went far beyond a better break room to the root of it all: understanding what kind of cultures contributed to employee trust.

“When you have trust in an organization, so many other aspects are impacted,” she said. “Performance, satisfaction, commitment, and ultimately overall revenue.”

Conducting Research at Interop

For her research, Dr. Smith knew right away that she wanted to focus on IT professionals.

“I’ve worked in many different IT positions,” Dr. Smith said. “I also have a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology, a master’s degree in Information Technology and Management, and a doctorate in Business and Technology.”

But those aren’t the only reasons that drew her toward studying IT professionals.

“I know that IT employees are valuable to their organization. Corporations invest a lot in their IT resources, so it is to the benefit of an organization to ensure that IT employees are happy. My research focused specifically on the IT population, but I believe this research could apply to many types of departments and lines of business.”

To study the topic of employee trust — and the types of cultures that contribute to it — Dr. Smith reached out to the organizers of Interop, an annual IT conference.

“I connected with Jennifer Jessup [VP and GM of Interop] and her incredible team, and can’t say enough good things about everyone that I worked with there,” she said.

“I spent a week at their national conference, Interop Las Vegas, introducing myself to people and inviting IT professionals to take my survey,” Dr. Smith said. “A lot of time was spent talking to people, hearing about their workplace cultures. My survey research and conclusions were based on quantitative data. However, from these conversations, I was able to gather a great deal of qualitative data as well.”

“They were all in IT, but they were in a wide range of different industries, so it was fascinating to learn more about what the culture was like where they worked.”

Following the Interop conference in Las Vegas, Dr. Smith analyzed survey results from more than 150 respondents. Stark differences emerged in IT departments from various industries with different kinds of cultures.

Organic vs. Mechanistic: What’s the difference?

In her initial research leading up to Interop, Dr. Smith had been inspired by the work of Tom Burns and G.M. Stalker (The Management of Innovation) contrasting organic and mechanistic characteristics of a corporate culture.

“With organic corporate culture, the communication is multidirectional,” she explained. “Both vertical and horizontal. Employees are empowered to make decisions. There’s a lot of collaboration.”

A mechanistic culture, on the other hand, is very different.

“With a mechanistic culture, there’s a closer adherence to a chain of command,” Dr. Smith said. “The communication is vertical in nature. Decisions are made from the top down.”

“If you have leaders who don’t listen to their employees, or don’t allow their employees to voice feedback or concerns, people start asking about the stability of the company, about the stability of their employment. That’s when you don’t have that trust. And that’s when you also see the impact on performance, satisfaction, commitment, and revenue.”

So her findings made a lot of intuitive sense: “My research determined that an organic culture has higher levels of trust than a mechanistic culture,” Dr. Smith said.

And when departments and organizations realize that trust can have a dramatic impact on everything from retention to revenue, they become more willing to take a hard look at their own culture as well.

Taking the first steps

So if you’re running a business with a top-down, traditionally hierarchical, mechanistic culture and you’re curious about change, where should you start? Turns out awareness is where change begins.

“My research was in the screening of types of corporate cultures. So I always go back to first understanding your culture. And what I’ve found is that there are people who never really thought much about it before,” Dr. Smith said.

As she interviewed IT professionals at Interop, Dr. Smith noticed an unexpected phenomenon: many of them thanked her for the opportunity to reflect on where they worked.

“Now they could go back and try to understand their culture better,” she said. “That’s the first step.”

After that, it’s important to be mindful with what happens next.

“My suggestion would be to assemble a team of both leaders and non-leaders to look carefully at what kind of culture you’re promoting,” she said. “It’s important that they work together. That kind of collaboration at all levels is significant.”

“As you start to look at possibly changing your culture to incorporate greater collaboration, greater trust will occur,” said Dr. Smith. “Communication is key.”

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