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How Do You Use The Cultural Web Model To Define Corporate Culture?

A company’s strategic direction, and success, is very often a byproduct of its culture. That’s because how a company succeeds is tied to its most important asset: its people. More importantly, how well those people are able to perform within the company’s culture.

So, it benefits companies not only to think about culture but to analyze it. While that can take various forms, there are a variety of helpful models to break down culture to better understand it. That includes both what makes it unique, but also what makes it a help (or a hindrance) to performance and success.

The cultural web model is just one way to understand company culture. In this article, we will introduce it, break it down into its essential elements, and show you how you can use it to help envision and interrogate your own corporate culture.

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What is the Cultural Web Model?

Developed in 1992 by Gerry Johnson and Kevan Scholes, the cultural web model helps define the ‘paradigm,’ or the lived reality, of working within an organization. Moreover, it’s a method of exploring the different elements of a company and how these elements can shape people’s experiences working for them (or for customers working with them).

In addition to that, it is also a way to explore:

  • What power structures exist within a company
  • The collective ‘history’ of a company
  • How behaviors or ‘rituals’ are formed

When it comes down to it, though, the cultural web model is a way to understand a company’s present culture and the elements that can help define it moving forward. It is both a collection of where a company has been, where it wants to go, and how far it has to travel to get there.

cultural web model visual

The Six Elements of the Cultural Web Model

As evidenced by the above illustration, the cultural web is centered around the ‘paradigm,’ which is the reality of the company.

Surrounding it are six elements that help illustrate that reality. These include…

1. Stories

Think of this as the collective ‘memory’ of an organization. For this element, it is helpful to think about the stories that organizations tell.

This could include how the company was founded, how it got this far, the key players and their actions, and how employees describe working at that organization.

The thinking here is that these stories often illuminate what a company values, and what behaviors they determine worthy of exemplifying. A company’s memory encourages employees to follow certain paths to become part of company history.

2. Ritual and Routines

These are the various behaviors and actions that are acceptable in a company. Routines can also be understood as expectations, which could include what an employee can expect coming into work every day, leaving work, or what activities throughout the day look like.

In various recurring scenarios, employees learn how they are expected to behave and what constitutes ‘normal’ behavior. Whether or not that behavior is productive is up for debate, but it is what has become normalized as part of corporate culture.

3. Symbols

Symbols play their role in the cultural web model as part of employer branding, or organizational branding, more generally.

Think of it as anything visual: logos, branding, the way the office looks, dress codes at work, advertisements, and more. Both internal and external, it is the visual communication of a company that influences this element.

So, ask yourself: When you think of your organization in your mind’s eye, what comes to mind? What images do you imagine? How does your company ‘look’ to you?

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4. Organization Structures

There are two key elements at play in this element of the cultural web, so let’s define them right out of the gate. We have:

  • Written influence
  • Unwritten influence

The first is as simple as an organizational chart. Whether flat or hierarchical, this is the very clear organizational structure of who works where, who reports to who, and ultimately has final decision-making power.

Beyond that, things get a bit more unclear. That’s because Johnson and Scholes were also careful to define the idea of ‘unwritten influence’ in an organization. This can include people who have incredible amounts of influence that are not reflected in an organizational chart.

Ultimately, this determines whose contributions carry the most value, who can be looked to for decision making and acknowledges some of the political elements that may be in play, at the same time. For that reason, this element can be the most revealing for organizations.

5. Control Systems

The next element is based on how control is exerted in an organization. We may also think about this in terms of performance management, and how employees are graded on how they work and how they succeed in their various roles.

Think about things like financial systems, quality control, and rewards. These are the ways in which good performance is encouraged, and the way poor performance is handled, corrected, and dealt with (whether effectively or ineffectively).

6. Power Structures

Last, but not least, we have power structures completing the cultural web model.

This is what some call ‘real power’ within an organization. It is essentially the center or power, and it can take many different forms. It could be one person, a handful of executives, an entire group, or a department that has influence over the entire company.

When thinking about it, the key here is knowing which people have the greatest say, how an organization runs, and how their opinions dictate strategic direction.

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How Do You Use The Cultural Web Model?

Now that you know a bit more about it, how do you put the cultural web into practice?

The cultural web is best used when it starts by looking at an organization’s culture as it stands. That means running through each of the important elements and aligning it with how the company currently operates.

Then, you need to think about the culture that you want your organization to have. While this may encompass some things you’ve already mentioned, the idea is to skew a bit more aspirational when it comes to your corporate culture.

Now, you have to determine the differences between the two. Where are you succeeding? Where are you lacking? And how can you make up the difference between the two?

The cultural web is designed as an illuminating exercise, but it isn’t the end of the journey. Now, you need to act on it and put some form of a plan into place.

Developing Strategy from the Cultural Web

After you have developed a better idea of where you stand, where you want to go, and the space in between each, you can develop a way to get there.

This could include working on your corporate values or figuring out the best ways to prioritize and promote behaviors you want to see in your organization moving forward.

Taken together, the cultural web can help provide a holistic vision and roadmap, based on key areas, to bring about real change in your corporate culture.

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