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Essay: Comments on Edgar Schein’s corporate culture

Edgar Schein’s perspective on corporate culture

Recognizing and realizing innovation potentials does not only mean opening action spaces, but also understanding the more profound, meaningful layers in which these potentials are to be realized and realized: „Highly specialized skills do not simply consist of a list of procedures but of a whole Culture that has been built around such skills. „[2] Successful companies are formed by equally accumulating skills and experiences that establish themselves over time as values ​​and cultures.

A number of studies have addressed this important aspect of corporate culture and its relationship to innovation and creativity processes, [3] most notably Edgar Schein’s seminal study. [4] Schein explains the importance of understanding corporate values ​​as the „result of a common learning process.“ [5] Individual achievements, attitudes and behaviors arise in the interaction of the group and in the context of cultural identities: „To explain one’s individual behavior one has to ask beyond the personality for belonging to groups and for the culture of these groups.“ [6]

This „group affiliation“ in the sense of corporate culture is, on the one hand, characterized by the maturity of the company. Start-ups strive to consolidate values ​​that they see as the basis of success.

Established companies, however, already look back on a success story that equips their corporate culture with a wealth of „experience“. In this context, the questions arise:

  • how to sustain and promote viable and adaptive elements of a corporate culture
  • how to deal with subcultures
  • and how dysfunctional aspects can be identified and changed.

An aging business shows that this process of developing, adapting and changing corporate cultures is not being implemented effectively. Corporate values ​​that once established and secured the company’s success paralyze the ability to react when the starting position changes. Cultural values ​​support and stabilize the company. However, if they lose the adaptability and flexibility in terms of market and business environment, they prove to be inhibitory and resistant to change.

In addition, the values ​​and beliefs that make up the corporate culture manifest themselves on different levels. Partly on superficial, seemingly easy to decode levels, but mostly in deep, inaccessible layers.

From Schein’s perspective, three levels can be distinguished, which must be identified, understood and made adaptively open (see Fig.).

Cultural level modell by Edgar Schein

Since these are action contexts or communicative contents (manners, beliefs, traditions, etc.), conscious, representative exaggerations and unconsciously mediated signals, decision-making processes and courses of action overlap that manifest and manifest themselves over time and with the maturity of the company.

Both of them – deliberate aggravations and deeper contents – are inseparably linked in their behavior and communicative dimension.

For example, a person reacts emotionally and intuitively to behaviors or content that is reflected in the architecture or common clothing code of a business; or she deals rationally and intuitively with the external benefits and goals that promise a product, a service and an entrepreneurial approach. These „open“ patterns of behavior or content – which, on the one hand, are strategically aimed at generating certain emotional reactions, on the other hand encounter personal horizons of experience and expectation – these „immediate [n] emotional effects“ [7 ], however, do not yet explain why certain behaviors and processes have adapted to this „open“ content and whether they are doing so at all (that is, whether representative strategy and given culture are consistent). Schein suggests that in understanding corporate cultural values, it is essential to consider a company’s history. According to Schein, it is important to be aware of two things:

that they are extremely stable and change-resistant structures that they have accumulated and developed over a period of time and in the group as skills and knowledge, and
that „the important components of culture are essentially invisible“ in the sense of a shared „mental model“ [8]

Edgar Schein’s theses serve here to describe the term „corporate culture“ and are relevant for the discussion of Christensen’s perspective. Schein’s theses are not further examined at this point, but his description of „corporate cultural stratifications“ make it possible to take the „values“ concept to the level of „basic, unspoken assumptions“.

Besides Schein, there are numerous studies on corporate culture, as noted at the beginning of the chapter in the end. For example, reference should be made to the theses on the corporate culture of Richard Bachinger.

Thus, Richard Bachinger describes in corporate culture and tribal culture that reminded him in the context of his work for an international group there much of the behavior of tribal peoples and that this association took the operations in the group the „animal seriousness“. When comparing characters and symbols between business enterprises and tribal cultures, Bachinger states that there are significant differences in their use, referring to the standardization in the corporate CI handbook for the use of signs, patterns and symbols. This standardization would not be found in tribal cultures. [10]

This would be an indication of the deep roots of these symbols among the tribe members and the – not assumed – intrinsic rooting of these symbols among the employees of a company. Thus, the process of normalization of values ​​described by Bachinger in the paragraph „On Corporate Culture“ [11] is reversed and a process for the formation of values ​​from norms is initiated. Not without consequences, so that considered by Artur Wollert also in „corporate culture and tribal culture“ example 12 for the successful change of the established corporate culture in the Herti department store group, considered ex post as an involuntary proof to the contrary.

Bachinger continues: „The affiliation of objects to a particular material tribal culture can be recognized by design features: they are as unmistakable as if they had a common“ design theory „behind them.“ As further elaborated in the essay „Case Study MP3“, the „common“ indeed an essential design aspect, namely the commonality in the meaning of artefacts. The reverse process in companies comes after Bachinger „[…] a straitjacket that is worn as a uniform“ [14].

The success of the process of „standardization before values“ [15] must be questioned, as the Hertie example in Bachinger demonstrates. In particular, this approach leads, in addition to high costs for implementation and controlling, to a rigidity and statics that, in their immobility, provide for the inflexible handling of „opportunities that have not yet come to fruition“, which documents entrepreneurial „un“ assets.

Entrepreneurial „Un“ Assets: Understand and deal with „not yet become“ possibilities

Understanding and dealing with these latently invisible structures that tend to be resistant to change, which decisively influence actions and decision-making within a company, is therefore a challenge. How can a corporate culture, which by its very nature pushes into the evolutionary direction of gravity, be open and adaptive to innovative ones and creative powers are kept? Christensen explores this aspect of dealing with and understanding entrepreneurial values ​​or organizational skills related to innovation in depth in his texts. [16]
In The Challenge of sudden, decisive changes – Christensen and Michael Oberdorf distinguish between three factors: resources, processes and values ​​(see Fig.).

These factors overlap with the resources and strategies previously described in connection with Christensen’s concept of technology. While resources describe the level of resources, the level of processes „includes the patterns of behavior,
according to which interaction, cooperation, communication and decision-making take place „[17]. The level of values, on the other hand, refers to the basic assumptions and beliefs that prioritize processes. Christensen and Oberdorf present processes (concrete actions) and values ​​(communicative content that sets priorities) as closely related. The level of values ​​that outlines the corporate culture primarily describes a reflexive level that deals with the ability or inability to undertake business processes to understand and to steer, deals.
That’s not a lot of news. The statements by Christensen and Oberdorf are interesting at this point because they emphasize the aspect of „not yet become“ possibilities.

In order to adaptively and creatively „open“ the corporate structures and the corporate culture that grows with them to the market and customer needs, it is necessary to deal with the essentially invisible components of the corporate culture, specifically in the direction of „entrepreneurial opportunities that have not yet become“ – Innovation: „As long as the organization is constantly confronted with the same problems that it has come to master in its processes and values, it can be managed purposefully. But because these factors determine what an organization can not accomplish, at the moment they create inefficiencies in which the problems facing the enterprise radically different. „[18]

This „radially different“ or the „not yet become“ possibilities, which lie beyond the core competencies of the enterprise, the enterprise management must open, if it wants to keep the culture in the productive exchange with changing realities, conditions and conditions. If the company faces the challenge of disruptive innovation, solutions must be sought and offered that address the entrepreneurial aspects of „inability“ or „opportunities that have not yet come“. In order to reach this point, it is important to keep an eye on four aspects:

  • An intuitive and in-depth understanding of corporate cultural values ​​serves as a prerequisite for understanding and dealing with „unrealized“ opportunities, ie innovation potential in the company.
  • An intuitive and in-depth understanding of the circumstances and developments of market and customer needs in order to define or design frameworks and value systems.
  • „Possibilities and potential to be realized“ can not be analyzed and organized in advance. Orientation provide use values. They provide information on corporate culture-based „resistance to change“ (internal business frameworks: why do certain technologies and their innovation appear „more possible“ than others in relation to existing corporate structures and cultures, which customer needs, ie utility values, are closer to one’s own corporate culture than others and why)? , On the other hand, there are (still) unrealized innovation potentials in close relation to usage thresholds. Market-given scope of action: customer needs; it is not for nothing that disruptive innovations are often characterized by technically simplified functions.
  • Dealing with innovation opportunities requires decoupled structures in order to counteract the inherent problem of inhibiting innovation or resistance to change „within“ established value structures and process flows. Innovations create new value systems that need to be given space.


Thus, in the context of disruptive innovations, explorative approaches and potentials are required that closely link action-oriented and meaning-giving instances to one another.

For this reason, dealing with disruptive innovations requires autonomous structures. Not only that well-established corporate values ​​seem to inhibit innovation; Autonomous structures also allow interaction between action- and skill-oriented dimensions



[2] Sennet, Richard: Handwerk: Berlin Verlag, Berlin, 2009, S. 147.

[3] Martin, Joanne: Organizational culture, Mapping the terrain. McLean, Laird D.: Organizational culture’s influence on creativity and innovation. Amabile, Teresa M./Conti, Regina/Coon, Heather/Lazenby, Jeffry/Herron, Michael: Assessing the Work Environment for Creativity, in: The Academy of Management Journal. Kanter, Rosabeth M.: The change masters. Innovation for productivity in the American corporation. Oldham, Greg R./Cummings, Anne: Employee creativity. Personal and contextual factors at work, in: Academy of Management Journal. Van de Ven, Andrew H./Angle, Harold L./Poole, Marshall S.: Research on the management of innovation. The Minnesota studies. Williams, Wendy M./Yang, Lana T.: Organizational creativity, in: Sternberg, Robert J. (Hrsg): Handbook of creativity. Shalley, Christina E./Zhou, Jing/Oldham, Greg R.: The Effects of Personal and Contextual Characteristics on Creativity. Where Should We Go from Here?, in: Journal of Management.

[4] Schein, Edgar H.: Organisationskultur. The Ed Schein Corporate Culture Survival Guide: EHP, Bergisch Gladbach, 2000.

[5] ebd, S. 35.

[6] ebd, S. 29.

[7] ebd, S. 34.

[8] ebd, S. 36.

[9] Richard Bachinger: Assoziation zur Unternehmenskultur und Stammeskultur

[10] ebd, S. 64.

[11] ebd, S. 64.

[12] ebd, S. 19-29.

[13] A list of measures by Artur Wollert, with which from 1984 a „Hertie-specific corporate culture“ should be established as an „integral part of our human resources concept“. As proof of the success, a „balanced business“ is quoted for 1987. In fact, this is primarily the result of a consistent spin-off of non-profitable lines of business. 1994 Hertie is insolvent and is taken over by the Karstadt AG.

[14] Richard Bachinger: Assoziation zur Unternehmenskultur und Stammeskultur

[15] „Standardization before values“ here stands in contrast to „normalization of values“ for the approach to set a corporate culture from the outside as a corporate cultural framework. As a result, the employees in the company would have to adjust their values to this framework.

[16] Vgl. Christensen, Clayton, M.: The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen, Clayton M./Raynor, Michael E.: Marktorientierte Innovation. Geniale Produktideen für mehr Wachstum. Christensen, Clayton M./Oberdorf, Michael: Die Herausforderung plötzlicher, einschneidender Veränderungen. Wie man einen brisanten Marktumbruch erfolgreich meistert.

[17] Christensen, Clayton M./Raynor, Michael E.: Marktorientierte Innovation. Geniale Produktideen für mehr Wachstum

[18] Christensen, Clayton M./Oberdorf, Michael: Die Herausforderung plötzlicher, einschneidender Veränderungen.

© Dr. K.Kuenen, 2018



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