Over the last two decades, business leaders have gained a greater appreciation for the impact of organizational culture on important performance outcomes (e.g., financial performance, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, innovation).

As awareness of the importance of organizational culture has grown, questions about how to measure this valuable, but often difficult to define aspect of an organization have been raised. Surveys and interviews are two common vehicles that have traditionally been used to understand an organizations culture, but there are others. An explosion of “big data” has created opportunities for using qualitative and quantitative information from a variety of sources to better understand an organization’s culture.

Qualitative analysis (the collection and analysis of themes uncovered through interviews, focus groups, open-ended survey questions, social media, etc.) is a powerful, albeit potentially time consuming, way of gaining insight into an organization’s culture. Qualitative analysis can provide a great amount of detail about specific issues that may be disrupting an organization’s ability to operate at full potential.

Qualitative analysis can be conducted on a variety of data sources and can range significantly in depth and quality. To effectively conduct a qualitative analysis, it is important to have the right tools and the right knowledge. If not, qualitative results can quickly become overwhelming, especially when there are hundreds or even thousands of comments to make sense of on a topic as complex as culture. Here are some key tips for better utilizing this information:

  • Condense your information into key themes. In the face of several hundred or several thousand comments, identify the topics that are regularly referred to across individuals. Identifying these major themes allows you to prioritize the issues to work on. Sure, a few people might be talking about a better parking space, but you may want to address the goal alignment issues that the majority of people commented on before that.
  • Use a framework to understand the significance of key themes. It is common to see positive and negative comments about certain themes such as communication, leadership, and pay & benefits. For example, “we need better communication,” or “the leaders are great” are commonly seen responses. By themselves, these themes may be difficult to interpret into anything actionable. However, viewing these topics in the context of what is important in driving a high performance organizational culture may bring about a few more clues. Here are a couple of example follow-up questions that can be asked within the context of culture:
    • What type of communication can be improved? Communication around goals & objectives, or for reaching agreement on how things are done?
    • How can we leverage our positive leader-employee relations toward communicating and aligning the company strategy?
  • Use the right tools for the job. Reviewing and theming comments can be time consuming work. So why not get help with the heavy lifting? The right tools (including coding software and a comprehensive keyword library with important and frequently cited themes) can help you identify important themes faster and better. For a large volume of comments, this can help you quickly and consistently identify themes across groups. It also helps you see which common themes are missing – what people aren’t talking about can be just as compelling and insightful as what they are talking about.

Ultimately, all efforts to define and understand organizational culture serve the same purpose – to act with more awareness and identify areas for improvement. The deepest part of the cultural iceberg is often manifested in habits, rituals, and routines performed semi-consciously by their constituents. A growing number of data sources, qualitative and quantitative, are giving us greater views into the culture of organizations. So tell us, what are your employees telling you?


Written by Ken Uehara, M.A. and Alice Wastag, M.S.

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