Can Traditional Organizational Culture Models Describe the Modern Working World?

Can Traditional Organizational Culture Models Describe the Modern Working World-I came of age in the time of the tech bubble. I graduated college in the middle of the dot-com crash, and my professional career has coincided with the rise of the modern startup (and lately, the somewhat odd concept of the unicorn, or the startup company valued at $1 billion or higher. There are at least 131 of them.). In my opinion, the working world has changed quite a bit since many of the foundational theories about how organizations function were developed. Do they still work to describe the modern corporate world?

Take for example the theories used to look at corporate culture. There are many ways to characterize a company’s culture, psychologically speaking: You can look at a company similar to the way you might look at a country, for example, by applying Hofstede’s dimensions of cultural difference.

One type of model looks at the values that a company has along various continua (sorry, that’s the correct plural of continuum and my respect for grammar outweighs my need to be liked, I guess). By comparing how companies fall along dimension 1 and dimension 2, the model helps predict what types of tools and techniques might be most effective in a particular organization based on its culture.

The key model of this type is Cameron and Quinn’s competing values framework (CVF) which compares organizations on whether they are internally or externally focused, and whether they are flexible or goal-focused. Based on these two dimensions, a company can be classified as collaborative, creative, controlling, or competing:

Cameron and Quinn's Competing Values Framework
Cameron and Quinn’s Competing Values Framework

This model was first published around 1999 and has been updated as recently as the last few years. It’s also served as the inspiration for several models I’ve seen used by private consultants, which tells me it has some legs. And, it’s the model my colleague and I used in a project looking at the optimal office layouts for different organizational culture types. But does it adequately explain what culture looks like in the startup world?

My guess? I think it might be a better guide to organizational change rather than a descriptive tool in the startup world. I think many startups fall on the right side of the model, having an external focus. Whether it’s about being first to market or quick to innovate, the competitive edge is critical for startup success. But as they grow (not just in size, also in market share, visibility, etc.), it becomes increasingly important to also do things right and to focus on the long term. So perhaps the challenge for startups as they mature is to move from the right side of the CVF model to the left.

What do you think? Can these traditional models hold their own amongst the unicorns?


Cameron, K. S. & Quinn, R. E. (2011). Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture (3rd Edition). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.