The Culture Detective Shannon Sterling Was A New Employee At A Large State Depar


Shannon Sterling was a new employee at a large state Department of Education. She had just received her degree in communication and taken a position as a “community liaison.” Her job consisted mostly of attempting to enhance the relationship between the Department of Education and parent groups and businesses. Shannon, for the most part, loved her job. She got to meet a lot of people and was challenged because the requirements of the job were constantly shifting. However, she hadn’t been on the job long when she realized that she was apparently an island of satisfaction within a sea of discontent. Few of the people she worked with seemed happy, and there was a high level of apathy throughout the department.

In college, Shannon had taken several courses in organizational communication and behavior, and she had learned a great deal about “organizational culture.” Though Shannon didn’t really believe that there was such a thing as a “good” organizational culture, she also realized that she could gain a better understanding of the place she worked in if she could come to some kind of conclusion about the cultural values and assumptions that made it tick. As a new employee, she decided that she was in a perfect position to be a “culture detective.” She figured that by carefully observing the daily activities around the Department of Education, she might shed some light on the place she had chosen to work.

So, for the next few weeks, Shannon spent her workdays with one eye on her job and the other on her surroundings. She tried to observe as much about the Department of Education as she could, taking notes in a small notebook she kept with her at all times. She also tried to get her coworkers to tell her stories about the place she was coming to call home. In no time, her notebook was bulging with observations about the people, activities, and things that made up the department. Here is a small sampling of the observations from her notebook:

  • I arrived at work early today (7:30) and the parking lot was empty. Even the reserved spots for the various directors and assistant directors were empty. I watched out my window as I drank a cup of coffee. It was incredible how many people flooded the lot between 7:50 and 8:10.
  • The “open office” setup here is supposed to facilitate communication among employees, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. It gets so loud that no one can hear themselves think. Of course, this doesn’t bother the managers, who have offices with doors around the perimeter.
  • Fred told me that there were big hassles when the department moved into this building with open offices. Everyone was told that it was to “democratize” the office, but administrators were treated differently from the masses. He told me that they had a lottery for parking spaces, but when the administrators realized that they might actually have to walk through the snow from their cars, they exempted themselves from the system!
  • Everyone really tries to personalize their own cubbyhole with pictures from home, knickknacks, plants, etc. And people take great pride in their coffee mugs as a form of communication.
  • One of the most popular gathering spots around here is the copy center. Part of the reason it’s so popular is the amount of paperwork that must be done (and hence photocopied). It’s also one of the few places people are allowed to congregate and can talk without bothering people in adjacent offices.
  • We just had a memo circulated in our mailboxes requesting that we all use electronic mail for routine business. No one but me seemed to see the irony in this.
  • Friday is “jeans day,” when everyone in the office can dress casually (except people like me who have to meet with business and community representatives). Most people really seem to get into this, though none of the administrators forgo their suits.
  • I went to schedule a meeting in one of the conference rooms and found that there wasn’t a conference room available for any of the times that could have worked for me next week. Betty said the rooms were usually totally booked two weeks in advance for all the times after 9 a.m. and before 4 p.m.
  • Following our memo edict, I sent an e‑mail message to an administrator in the special‑education section about a public hearing I wanted him to attend. After several follow‑ups with no response, I finally sent him a (paper) memo on it and heard from his secretary within the day.
  • Rumors are going around that the administrators are getting hot to try out “total quality management.” No one seems to think much will come of it, though, or that it would make much of a difference if instituted. Gene told me that they had already had one go‑round with quality circles, but that it didn’t last.
  • We had a big party today for Carmen (in data processing), who’s quitting the department to have a baby. I don’t know her very well, but she seemed thrilled. Perhaps just the glow of pregnancy.
  • I rode up the elevator today with Dr. Lewis, the assistant superintendent I interviewed with. I said, “Good morning, Dr. Lewis.” He said, “Good morning, Sharon.” Oh well, close enough.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can you help Shannon make sense of her observations as a culture detective? Using Schein’s model of organizational culture, what values do you think underlie the behaviors and artifacts Shannon observed? What assumptions might underlie these values?
  2. Is there any evidence of subcultures or countercultures at the Department of Education? Given what you know, how would you assess the level of cultural penetration (historical, sociological, and psychological)?
  3. If you were retained by the Department of Education as a consultant with the task of “changing” the culture, what would you do? Is cultural change possible? If so, what kind of changes would you recommend, and how would you go about encouraging or instituting these cultural changes?
  4. Include at least 2 outside sources.
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