Understanding custodians of Organizatonal Culture from IIM, Tiruchi experts

Three experts, one a teacher and the other two research scholars from the IIM, Tiruchirapalli, have come out with a really insightful article on Organizational culture, published in Indian Management. The most important points on custodians of organizational culture as explained by the authors are sought to be discussed in some detail in this article.


Three experts from the Indian Institute of Mangement, Tiruchirapalli, have written a good article on Organizational Culture in the June 2019 issue of Indian Management, a monthly management journal of the All India Management Association. (Volume 58, Issue 6, pages 71-74). In this article, the authors talk about the important concept of "custodians of Organizational culture". The experts are Dr. Abhishek Totawar an Asst Professor in Organizational Behavior at IIM, Tiruchirapalli and Mr. Manu Prasad and Nidheesh are research scholars in the same discipline at the same institution.

As usual, we will pick up relevant quotes from the article and then anchor them in the Indian context. "Culture, at a fundamental level is about the values, rituals, and practices of an organization that makes it what it is, and the continuous interaction between its members that reinforce these patterns of behaviors. Culture is the fabric that binds the organizational members together, providing them with a shared awareness and understanding of not only the "what is" of organizational actions, but also their "why is"."(page72).

"In short, culture serves as a guiding mechanism for organizational members to evaluate their actions (and those of others as well) at the workplace, failing which decision-making at different levels risks becoming disjointed and chaotic"(page 72).

As regards the Custodians of organizational culture, the authors have made it abundantly clear that when a major change like a merger and acquisition takes place or for some reason and an outsider becomes the CEO the real "custodians of culture" are very important to the change process. These custodians are a) the outgoing leader b) the key influencers c) the incoming leader and d) Organizational members.

The outgoing leader as custodian of organizational culture

"The first custodian is the outgoing leader. He has the responsibility of carefully embedding and articulating the cultural assumptions into the organizational systems. Often the leaders ensure that documents, systems, and procedures are in place but fail to weave together these formal mechanisms with informal ones like stories, unofficial routines, and other traditions through which culture grows stronger with each passing day".(page 73)

This is exactly what happened in an auto-component organization in a semi-urban location. A particular Personnel Manager had stayed on far beyond this regular retirement age as he had a powerful Godfather at the Corporate Office. When his term ended he was able to brief the incoming person on the so-called systems of the department. The mistake in communication and induction of the new incumbent happened when the outgoing person failed to give him an insight into the strong welfare base that he had built over the period of so many years and the details of the rituals and the appropriate body language that was so important for sustaining the organizational culture. Also missing was the insightful details of the local trade union leaders and their attitudes and their influence and such other details. The new Personnel Manager understood every small detail of how the department worked. But he had other ideas. He sought to impose his age-old thinking on how to "control" labor. His ideas were based on his experience and understanding of a different organizational context where the adversarial relationship with trade unions and labor was appreciated. He brought in a totally new way of working in the Personnel department. As long as the organization made profits his mistakes were never taken seriously. This new incumbent also had two powerful Godfathers at the Corporate Office.

The new Personnel Manager sought to influence the local trade union members through a personalized approach. But when the individual workman would approach the department even for a loan from his PF balance he would be treated so shabbily and the behavior of the department staff was rude. The boss did not care a bit. The matters reached a boiling point and the trade union leader at the Corporate Office would intervene. The boss would change a bit and then go back to his old ways. The same manager was sent out after there was a big strike in the plant. It was too late by then.

It is extremely important that the outgoing person briefs the new person on the soft aspects of culture. The stories that carry the intimate elements of the culture should be clearly explained by the outgoing manager.

The key influencers as custodians of organizational culture

As rightly pointed out by the authors, these are the functional or divisional heads. These are the people who are the key figures in the organizational change process. They would normally focus more on the bottom line and the figures and the strategies. The new CEO would also give maximum emphasis to these aspects. However, the functional and department heads should also give him a total briefing on the informal norms of behavior, the rituals, and the stories. This is extremely important so that the new leader gets totally integrated into the established cultural fabric.

The functional and divisional heads would have had extensive discussions with various people at all levels. They would have understood every aspect of the informal culture in the minutest detail. They should clearly explain each of these aspects and allow the new leader to soak in the culture in its totality.

The incoming leader as custodian of organizational culture

The incoming leader is the most important person. He should be a keen observer and a good listener. He should listen to every single person and interact with people at all levels, including those on the shop floor. He should get an accurate idea of what needs to be done and how. Once this information is available with him, it becomes easy for him to go ahead with doing what he perceives as right, given all the realities of the situation.

We have had a wonderful example of a grand revival plan of the once ailing SAIL, by Mr.V.Krishnamurthi. This remarkable leader had done similar work at BHEL and at Maruti Udyog. He held extensive interviews with employees at all levels and he understood that quality was the main problem. He conducted 80 workshops with groups of employees at all levels, and then prepared a document called "priorities for action" which was translated into all Indian languages and then circulated to all employees in their own mother tongues. This reached all the hundreds of thousands of employees.

Since the employees were made part of the change process, Mr. Krishnamurthi was able to get the buy-in from all employees. He would monitor each stage of improvement in the quality improvement process. The organization totally revamped its customer interface and the turnaround was quite fast indeed. SAIL became a prestigious organization in the public sector. He had taken some strong steps too. He just told the trade unions that they could no longer enjoy any overtime and was firm on it. The trade unions had to co-operate.

Organizational members as custodians of organizational culture

"Members of the organization should keep living that way of life, which they would have perfected over the years as followers of its culture. This steadfast adherence to organizational practices and norms in the midst of change would reflect the essence of the culture to the new leadership. Their everyday actions and behaviors collectively demonstrate the organization's cultural strength to the new leader, who is then able to comprehend it better"

In the TVS group, a common cultural practice is that within specified limits of expenditure, any kaizen can be done by autonomous groups of workmen. Kaizen is the Japanese word for continuous improvement. This is done religiously and the details are documented in great detail. The workmen are part and parcel of this process, which makes a huge difference. When a new leader arrives, he is totally briefed on all aspects of this culture. He immediately gets to see and experience everything at close quarters.


Given the complexities of today's business organizations, it augurs well for everyone to understand that only people make a huge difference to the success or failure of the organization in both the short term and long term. In as much as the culture has to sustain itself for decades to come, it is important that various custodians carry forward this culture in all aspects.


Guest Author: Raghu13 Nov 2019

A very well written article which brings the significant impact of culture in an organization. Given the space of disruptions that occur in very industry sectors due to forces of change, the ability to sustain a given culture and also the nimbleness to change as warranted by context are emerging as critical organizational capabilities.

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