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Understanding open organizational culture

Most leaders today rely on hierarchy to run their day-to-day operations. But by working from the top down, they may be missing out on the collaboration, communication, and innovation that often come with working in an environment that supports an open organizational culture. Learn how embracing this type of culture—where transparency, inclusivity, and adaptability rule—can help spur new ideas at every level.

What does open culture mean?

Culture is often considered the personality of an organization. It’s what people experience when they walk into an office, sit down for a meeting, and see people at work. An open culture is no different. It is one where open values and open principles both represent and reinforce an organization’s processes, communication, structures, and even technologies. Many elements of an open organizational culture can be found within thriving open source communities.

How else is open culture defined?

Open culture as a concept may also refer to a broader social and political movement focused on opening access to cultural artifacts and resources. Open culture advocates, for example, will champion things like the use of Creative Commons licenses for making creative works more accessible, the digitization of texts so they’re accessible to new audiences and the visually impaired, the funding of institutions like the Internet Archive that democratize access to cultural artifacts, and legislation that curtails excessive copyright protections. Some consider open source—with its emphasis on accessible source code—to be a subset of the broader open culture movement. The same is true for open organizational culture.

What does an open culture look like?

While open culture can look different from organization to organization, all open environments share one common characteristic: All members of the organization—from leaders to individual contributors—adopt these core values and principles.

They practice inclusivity to open channels of communication across departments, welcome diverse perspectives, and cultivate an environment in which ideas are not only heard but also thoughtfully considered. They work on cross-functional teams to collaborate and share ideas, give and receive constructive feedback, and create better outcomes. They take risks, adapt to inevitable changes, and are not afraid to make mistakes—in many ways making them agile.

Organizations supporting an open culture encourage lively debate to work through ideas and challenges, and they manage by example to help strengthen relationships and build a more cohesive community. They also share and build upon knowledge to become more engaged and innovative, and they use transparency as a way to empower and inspire employees.

An open culture is rewarding—and challenging

Employees at all levels of an organization can benefit from working in an environment that supports an open culture. They know that achievement matters more than title, so the best ideas win and the best projects succeed. They use collective rather than hierarchical decision-making to inform their work. And while they are held accountable for their actions, they have the freedom to control their own work conditions and choose the projects that best suit their skills and interests. This balance can inspire and empower them to do their best work.

While cultivating an open culture can be rewarding, doing so remains a challenge for many organizations. This is because culture is strongly influenced by management behavior—and in order for an open culture to flourish, leaders may need to rethink some of their habits. 

To be open, managers must break down barriers to communication, mentor rather than dictate, and change their attitudes about what it means to lead. They must shift from making top-down decisions to sharing their ideas and soliciting input. They must be open and transparent, allowing for the free exchange of information and ideas. And they must openly make mistakes—and own those mistakes—so employees can feel safe to do the same.

This type of organizational transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to adapt to a new mindset and new processes. There are many open management practices to consider, from designing an open decision framework to scaling operations. But it is possible. By embracing the values and principles that represent an open culture, leaders can better tap into the knowledge of their associates, allow for new and creative ways to collaborate with customers and vendors, and create stronger outcomes for all.

BOOKS ON OPEN CULTURE

Explore what it means to be open

BOOK OF RED HAT

Read about our shared history and purpose—and how they've shaped our open culture.

ORGANIZE FOR INNOVATION

Understand how to create a culture of innovation within your own organization.

THE OPEN ORGANIZATION

See the connection between open leadership and organizational success.