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Understanding Culture: Examining Dairy Operations’ Culture

Spring 2016

This article is adapted from the first in a series of articles published in Progressive Dairyman magazine, (see below for link to full article). Context Senior Associate Monty Miller explores the importance of culture and the role it plays in helping us get work done effectively within our organizations and in this case, the dairy industry.

Miller explores an initiative called AgCulture, research and programs with producers supported by Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition. In subsequent articles, Miller shares data and insights collected from 37 dairies, including more than 600 participants. A tool called Organizational Culture Inventory helps evaluate culture within an organization, and teaches how to create more constructive cultures while reducing defensive behaviors.

People live and work in cultures. In fact, you’ve spent your whole life in various cultures, whether you realize it or not. For instance, agriculture – the practices passed down through the ages to care for livestock, produce forages and grains, preserve natural resources and be sustainable – is, as the name implies, a culture. In its simplest form, culture is how you get things done.

Culture is a set of practices and behaviors woven together to create procedures for accomplishing the needed work in your dairy. It also includes employees’ perceptions of their work environment. Culture is how you know what to do and how you get it done. But how well do you understand this concept and its potential impact on your dairy?

When you visit a neighbor’s dairy or a dairy in another part of the country or world, after a few minutes, you probably say to yourself, “they do things differently around here.” That’s the difference between your dairy’s culture and their dairy’s culture.

Before you can influence and change your dairy’s culture, it will be helpful to understand a little more about culture. Understanding culture, where it comes from and how it is measured, allows an operation the opportunity to improve.

Where does culture come from?

Culture comes from what is learned from prior generations as well as what individuals learn from their own experience and then pass to others. The vast majority of dairy farms are multi-generational, meaning significant practices have been passed down from previous generations.

By assessing where we learned to do what we do, we have an opportunity to understand where our culture comes from. Who taught you how to care for cows, calves and heifers; how to feed your animals; how to milk a cow; and more? It was most likely a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, some family member – or maybe an employee you were teamed up with on your first dairy job. People do a lot of learning by watching others, doing it themselves and discussing. Plus, people obtain an emotional high when they do it themselves and get it right, which reinforces culture – the way you get things done.

A more formal, academic definition of culture offers addititional insight. Author Edger Schein defines culture as, “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that has worked well enough to be considered valid. Therefore, (these basic assumptions are) to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.”

Changing culture – challenge or opportunity?

Note the phrase in the definition above, “taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel.” This is the challenge or opportunity to create, enhance, modify or destroy culture in your own dairy.

Many factors influence your dairy’s culture. Climate and weather dictate facilities, housing and cow comfort. These conditions create traditions like the idealized red dairy barn. Environment and weather also influence your protocols and behaviors. Hence, they impact the behaviors of employees, managers and owners. Your decisions to raise forages and other crops also have a bearing on your culture.

All dairies have unique characteristics that support or detract from the operation’s productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. The key is to understand and then guide your dairy’s culture so the work gets done while personal team member growth is fostered and encouraged.

It is one thing to know what culture is and quite another to assess and measure culture on individual operations. Although culture is an abstract concept, it can be measured with the right tools.

An objective assessment tool is available to delve into the behaviors and attitudes that impact a dairy’s culture to help understand it. Only once this data has been obtained can a dairy really begin to evaluate the impact of its culture and determine where improvements can or should be made.

The steps taken to tackle the situation and the resulting outcome will be shared in future articles in this series. Miller will present the Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI) model, a culture assessment tool. OCI evaluates the 12 styles representing three types, of cultures.

Look for more on organizational culture in the next issue of Thinking in Context or find the original article at the link below.

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