Managing Change Toolkit


Culture - Handy

Organisational culture has been given a lot of attention in recent years. Culture consists of the shared values of an organisation - the beliefs and norms that affect every aspect of work life, from how people greet each other to how major policy decisions are made. The strength of a culture determines how difficult or easy it is to know how to behave in the organisation.

This note is a summary of Charles Handy's model describing the 4 main types of corporate culture, taken from his book "Gods of Management".

Handy - Gods of Management

Handy suggests that we can classify organisations into a broad range of four cultures. The formation of ‘culture’ will depend upon a whole host of factors including company history, ownership, organisation structure, technology, critical business incidents and environment, etc.

The four cultures he discusses are Power’, ‘Role’, ‘Task’ and 'People’. The purpose of the analysis is to assess the degree to which the predominant culture reflects the real needs and constraints of the organisation. Handy uses diagrammatic representation to illustrate his ideas:

The power culture,

Power Culture the web

Handy describes the power culture as a ‘web’. He suggests that this reflects the concentration of power of a family-owned business, which can either be extremely large or small. The family operation with strict responsibilities going to family members responsibility given to personalities rather than expertise creates the power structure of the ‘web’.

Examples to which Handy refers include the massive institutions in the USA, run as a small family business at the top and known as ‘robber barons’. Power is concentrated in a small area, the centre of which is the wheel or the centre of the web. Power radiates out from the centre, usually a key personality, to others in the family who send information down to either departments, functions or units.

The important point to note is that, because power and decision-making is concentrated in so few hands, the strategists and key family members create situations which others have to implement. It is difficult for others outside the ‘family network’ to influence events. (‘Dallas’, the long running TV soap displays this culture with the Ewing family.)

The ability of the power culture to adapt to changes in the environment is very much determined by the perception and ability of those who occupy the positions of power within it. The power culture has more faith in individuals than committees and can either change very rapidly and adapt or ‘fail to see the need for change’ and die.

The role culture,

Role Culture the greek temple

This has been typified as a Greek temple and has often been stereotyped as portraying bureaucracy in its purest form. The apex of the temple is where the decision making takes place, the pillars of the temple reflect the functional units of the organisation which have to implement the decisions from the apex. The strength of the culture lies in specialisation within its pillars. Interaction takes place between the functional specialism by job descriptions, procedures, rules and systems. This is very much an organisation culture run by a paper system. An authority is not based on personal initiative but is dictated by job descriptions.

Co-ordination is by a narrow band of senior staff. This is the only coordination required as the system provides the necessary integration.

Handy states that the job description is more important than the skills and abilities of those who people the culture. Performance beyond the role prescription is not required or encouraged.

The authority of position power is legitimate. Personal power is not. This reflects Weber’s pure theory of bureaucracy. System effectiveness depends upon adherence to principles rather than personalities.

Handy suggests that this culture is appropriate in organisations which are not subject to constant change. The culture functions well in a steady-state environment, but is insecure in times of change. The role culture is typified in government departments, local authorities, public utilities and the public sector in general. This sort of culture finds it extremely difficult to change rapidly. The role culture is typified by rationality and size. You will have experienced this culture if you have ever worked with a large, state enterprise.

The task culture,

task culture the lattice

This is characteristic of organisations which are involved in extensive research and development activities they are much more dynamic. They are constantly subject to change and have to create temporary task teams to meet their future needs. Information and expertise are the skills that are of value here. The culture is represented best by a net or lattice work. There is close liaison between departments, functions and specialities, liaison, communication and integration are the means whereby the organisation can anticipate and adapt to change quickly.

Influence in this team culture is based upon expertise and up-to-date information where the culture is most in tune with results. The dangers for this culture exist when there is a restriction in resources causing it to become more power’ or ‘role’ orientated.

The person culture,

person culture the cluster

This is characteristic of the consensus model of management, where the individuals within the structure determine collectively the path which the organisation pursues. If there is a formalised structure, it tends to service the needs of the individuals within the structure. Organisations which portray this culture reject formal hierarchies for ‘getting things done’ and exist solely to meet the needs of their members. The rejection of formal ‘management control’ and ‘reporting relationships’ suggests that this may be a suitable culture for a self-help group or a commune, etc., but it is not appropriate for business organisations.

Appropriate cultures

Handy’s typologies of organisation structures suggest that we should try, whenever possible, to match the culture with the external demands and constraints on the organisation. Different operating units require different cultures. 

One factor that must be borne in mind is that different operating units within the organisation require different structures. Some units or functions will be operating in a steady-state environment, where there are very few changes and the future is reasonably predictable, whereas others are subject to a great deal of change not just in what they do but also in how they do it. Consequently, it is desirable to have different approaches to managing and different "cultures’ in different units.