Organizational Culture Assessment:
Public Safety Operational Communications
Author: Victor McCraw
June 27, 2020
A 911 dispatch workgroup, with well-established processes and policies gets a new information management system. An Organizational Culture Assessment reveals opportunities to influence the workgroup’s culture as part of a change management strategy.
Note: This is information from an actual organizational culture assessment project. Several portions of the original report have been removed for brevity and to protect the privacy of the client. No associations are claimed, nor should be assumed, from any images, data or information herein. This is meant to be a general example of the scope and depth of Victor McCraw’s work in this area.
This organizational culture assessment focuses on the Operational Communications (OpComm) workgroup of a State Police agency. This state level agency provides police and public safety law enforcement services. OpComm, a subdivision of the agency’s Technical Services Division, operates two regional communications (dispatch) centers. These centers provide statewide radio dispatch services to State Troopers, emergency medical services and other law enforcement dispatch centers, and they operate two 911 call centers.
Organizational Mission. The agency mission is: “To protect human life and property by enforcing state laws, deterring criminal activity, and providing vital support to the State…and its citizens.”
Organizational Employee Profile.
The agency has a total of 2,071 employees; 1,171 of whom are Troopers, and 900 civilian professional staff, with the demographic breakdown shown in Figure 1. The OpComm personnel are civilian professional staff, numbering about 110.
Figure 1. Department Demographics as of July 2018
The OpComm workgroup is in the midst of a transition where it absorbed the recently-closed Northern OpComm center’s personnel and workload into the Central and Southern centers, and it is attempting to standardize operations between those two centers. With up to twenty new employees being hired, this is an opportune time to examine the current culture and consider culture changes which will benefit the future workforce.
The cultural clues indicated in the following analysis are some of the most significant aspects of the current culture as perceived by OpComm management.
Levels of Cultural Analysis
The observations in Table 1 list clues from the current culture as they relate to the following levels of analysis: Implicit Assumptions, Conscious Contracts and Norms, Artifacts, and Explicit Behaviors (Cameron & Quinn, 2011).
Table 1. Levels of Cultural Analysis
The clues listed in Table 1 are the result of many years of conscious and unconscious management decisions, actions, and inactions. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, agency leadership and OpComm management embed elements of culture into the workplace.
“Embedding mechanisms” may be leveraged as “‘tools’ that leaders have available to them to teach [the organization] how to perceive, think, feel and behave based on their own conscious and unconscious convictions” (Schein, 2017, p. 183). If approached in a more conscious and deliberate manner, these mechanisms may be used to influence culture in positive ways. An exploration of two common primary embedding mechanisms, and two secondary reinforcing and stabilizing mechanisms, provides valuable insight for the OpComm cultural assessment.
Primary: How leaders react to critical incidents and organizational crises. The agency is in the business of responding to critical incidents, which can turn challenges into organizational crises more frequently than in other types of organizations. The COVID-19 crisis, for example, has resulted in a focus of manpower and overtime funding for “essential workers” in OpComm, who cannot do their jobs from home. Other civilian employees have not gotten the same attention, mostly due to the critical nature of the OpComm function. Schein (2017) suggests that “no better opportunity exists for leaders to send signals about their own assumptions about human nature and relationships than when they themselves are challenged” (p. 191). This response by leadership reinforces the value placed on the work of OpComm, and its contribution to the agency’s mission.
Primary: How leaders allocate resources. Over the years, OpComm funding has surged and suffered depending upon the general economy and state funding levels. Consistently, short term skimping on OpComm has resulted in long term agency performance issues, greater long-term spending in other areas, and eventually necessitated the appropriate funding OpComm after the fact. Supporting OpComm up front, when the need arises, helps the entire agency. Short-sighted leaders have gotten this wrong too often. The fiscal-year nature of state funding, grant allocation and politics all play a part. Bright shiny new patrol cars are a lot more visible to the governor and legislators than a new radio console in the dispatch center, or a communications antenna on a remote mountain top.
Secondary: Design of physical space, façades, and buildings. Upon the completion of a new headquarters building in the late 1980’s, OpComm was moved from one of the older buildings, into a prominent and more visible location in the new building. The physical space has changed and expanded over the years. The “open areas, cubicles, and mixed-use space” identified as significant by Schein (2017, p. 201), are operational necessities in OpComm, not just aesthetic design choices. The fact that OpComm workspace changes are driven by operational need and not by whims of leadership demonstrates a respect and understanding for the work being done. Inefficient and unpopular changes have been made in other areas from time to time, but rarely in OpComm.
Secondary: Formal statements of organizational philosophy, creeds, and charters. The agency mission, “To protect human life and property by enforcing state laws, deterring criminal activity, and providing vital support to the State…and its citizens,” is a fairly generic statement, and consistent with Schein’s (2017) point that such a statement “cannot be viewed as a way of defining the organization’s whole culture” (p. 203). The agency vision statement reads: “To be the national model in providing customer-oriented state-level law enforcement services.” As described in the book, this statement is “useful to publish as an ideology or focus for the organization” (Schein, 2017, p. 203), however, the agency leaders have frequently made decisions which do not serve to promote this vision. This is especially disheartening when a workgroup, like OpComm, knows that they have the ability and capacity to be one of the best units in the nation, but no support is forthcoming from leadership beyond meeting standard expectations. This secondary reinforcing and stabilizing mechanism is tied to the primary embedding mechanism, “What leaders pay attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis.” It is not measured or pursued by the leaders, so it becomes less relevant to the culture, and losses its ability to motivate performance.
Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) for OpComm
Based on the levels of analysis and related background information, the OCAI provides an objective, measurable representation of the OpComm culture as it exists, compared with the desired future culture. The OCAI process, described by (Cameron & Quinn, 2011, l. 643), measures six dimensions using what is called the “competing values” framework (l. 695). Because the aspects of each dimension must be balanced one against the others using a numerical rating process, whole dimensions may not be arbitrarily designated as more or less important. As a result, the process requires organizational introspection, evaluation, and prioritization. The following OCAI assessment tool contains numeric information for four aspects each of six dimensions, and supporting information related to the levels of analysis.
OpComm Cultural Profile
Graphical representations of the OCAI results for OpComm create visual depictions of the competing values framework based on Cameron and Quinn (2011).
OpComm Competing Values Framework Graphs
The “Now” and “Preferred” graph segments for OpComm appear in Figure 2. The “Now” state segment shows the current culture based on the four values related to the Clan, Adhocracy, Hierarchy, and Market aspects. Similarly, the “Preferred” state segment depicts the desired culture. The intersection of the two is highlighted in yellow.
OpComm management recognizes both a need to pursue cultural change to better meet the needs of their changing workforce and work environment, and the opportunities presented with 80% of the workforce being relatively new to the job, and 20 (18%) potential new hires coming on board.
A post-analysis discussion with the OpComm manager revealed the following opportunities to strengthen the workgroup culture, related to the four competing values categories.
Clan. The present sense of teamwork and family within the workgroup is strong, and when push come to shove, the employees pull together to address challenges. However, the day to day interaction among employees is less cooperative, with in-groups and outliers, and at times “mean” behavior. The relationships in the workgroup are not inherently bad, however they do not advance the team toward the mission.
Improvements in the Clan aspect, facilitated through supervisor training geared towards facilitating productive socialization, are anticipated to improve everyday teamwork, cooperation and inclusiveness as new and newer employees become a more significant part of the workgroup.
Adhocracy. This aspect needs the most change. Currently, there is a lack of speed and agility in adapting to changes in the external environment. The more innovative employees experience frustration when they feel they are stifled by veteran employees and supervisors.
Management has already begun to address this aspect by exploring non-threatening ways to introduce innovation. In one example, a newer progressive employee used the form of an older data management program within a newly introduced system adopted by the workgroup. By reducing the learning anxiety for the veteran employees to transition, productivity was increased without disruption or feelings of alienation. As similar opportunities arise, management intends to move forward with innovation while taking into consideration the emotional aspects of change for some employees.
Hierarchy. The fact that the hierarchy aspect of the current culture extended beyond the scale of the “Now” graph, and remained prominent in the “Preferred” graph emphasized management’s need to make prudent changes in this aspect without reducing the importance of policy, rules and order in the workgroup. A “better balance” must be achieved. At present, hierarchy is a double-edged sword. Many of the necessary changes can simply be ordered, especially if they are critical. However, the less critical, but no less important, cultural changes cannot be mandated if sufficient buy-in is to be achieved.
Strict hierarchical practices need to be reduced; employees tend to stick to the rules when it benefits their purpose and disadvantages opposing viewpoints, but treat policies as general guidelines when the benefit lies in ambiguity and flexibility. If flexibility becomes the norm, within strict boundaries, the workgroup can become more agile and responsive to changing conditions without disorder.
Market. The market aspect requires minimal change according to the analysis, and management agrees. The work product serves the internal users and external customers (primarily Troopers and citizens). At present, there are adequate quality control measures in place which are administered well by most of the supervisory staff. Improvements in this area are less likely to involve cultural change. Work product quality is a direct result of training effectiveness, and those issues are already being addressed.
During our conversation, the OpComm manager referenced a Cameron and Quinn (2011) comment regarding the value of the OCAI process in initiating these difficult conversations:
Cameron, K. S., & Quinn, R. E. (2011). Diagnosing and changing organizational culture (3rd ed.). [Kindle]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Schein, E. H. (2017). Organizational culture and leadership (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.