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What is culture?

Culture is a complex social phenomenon that, over the years, has attracted a wide range of definitions.

Consider the following definition offered by Ogbonna and Harris (2002: 34), who say culture is:

The collective sum of beliefs, values, meanings and assumptions that are shared by a social group and that help to shape the ways in which they respond to each other and their external environment.

This definition can be applied to every aspect of our personal and professional lives.

At a personal level, consider how you would describe your family’s culture or the culture of a social group that you’re a part of, such as a sports team or interest group.

At a professional level, you might engage with not just an overall organisational culture but also with different subcultures depending on the size and structure of that organisation. How one team operates (in terms of their behaviours and actions) will be different from another.

You then have the role of national cultures, which will influence (to varying degrees) how personal and professional cultures play out (we’ll explore this more in the next step).

Schein (2004) developed a framework as a way of thinking about organisational culture on three levels. These include:

  • Basic assumptions – these are deeply embedded beliefs and values that are invisible and reflect the more informal aspects of a culture.

  • Espoused values – these are stated values and rules of behaviour.

  • Artefacts and creations – these are what an outsider sees: technology, art, dress code, office jokes, and visible/audible behaviour patterns.

The latter two levels are more formal and tangible aspects of a culture.

This can be neatly presented using the cultural iceberg model developed by Herman (1970, as cited in French & Bell, 1978, 16).

Visual of the cultural iceberg. The iceberg above the water represents the formal (overt) aspects of culture – the way we say we get things done. This includes goals, technology, structure, policies and procedures, services and products, and financial resources. Beneath the surface represents the informal (covert aspects) – the way we really get things done. This includes beliefs and assumptions, perceptions, attitudes, feelings (such as anger, fear, liking, despair etc) about the informal and formal systems. Also included are values, informal interactions and group norms.

Select image to expand the size.

Here, you can see the distinction between the formal and informal aspects of a culture.

Your task

Consider and share your responses to the following questions:

  • What other formal and informal aspects of culture can you think of?
  • Why do you think it’s important to think about culture when considering a career abroad?


French, W., & Bell, C. (1978). Organisational development: Behavioural science interventions for organisational improvement. (2nd ed.). Prentice-Hall

Ogbonna, E., & Harris, L. C. (2002). Managing organisational culture: Insights from the hospitality industry. Human Resource Management Journal, 12(1), 33–53.

Schein, E. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership (3rd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

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This article is from the free online course:

International Career Development: Pursuing A Career Abroad

Coventry University