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					Defining “Culture” and “Organizational Culture”:
From Anthropology to the Office
by: Bruce M. Tharp
                                        Defining “Culture” and “Organizational Culture”: From Anthropology to the Office / 04.09

                  The topic of organizational culture is                       Usually the domain of top executives and upper-
                                                                               management, for most within an organization its
                  increasingly understood as a company                         culture remains implicit — often with only its effects
                  asset that can be used to increase                           and implications discussed. Despite this, as decades of
                  business performance. While important,                       research suggest, an explicit, integrated, accepted, and
                                                                               consistent organizational culture seems important in
                  organizational culture is a slippery concept                 achieving long-term health and other performance
                  to concretely define. This paper deals with                  successes. Yet, as in most arenas of social science
                                                                               where the intricate webs of various and varying human
                  the historical development and foundational
                                                                               influences exist, distinct and conclusive causal links are
                  understandings of both the term culture,                     difficult to establish. Keeping this in mind, it is still very
                  from anthropology, and its appropriation                     likely that the richness and dynamism of organizational
                                                                               activity—the life of an organization—may be seen, and
                  by industrial organization researchers to                    therefore shaped and improved, through the lens of
                  organizational culture. A foundational                       culture.
                  definition by Edgar Schein of MIT’s Sloan                    Anthropological Origins of “Culture”
                  School of Management is arrived at as well
                  as the notion that culture can be observed                   What exactly is culture? Unfortunately a fixed, universal
                                                                               understanding does not exist; there is little consensus
                  at three levels of the organization: artifacts,              within, let alone, across disciplines. Often “culture” is
                  espoused values, and basic assumptions.                      applied so broadly, merely as “social pattern,” that it
                                                                               means very little. Highly specific, idiosyncratic definitions
                  Contents:                                                    also abound where the term is used in various contexts
                                                                               in support of any agenda.
                  • Anthropological Origins of “Culture”
                  • Understanding Culture                                      When “culture” first appeared in the Oxford English
                  • Origins of “Organizational Culture”                        Dictionary around 1430 it meant “cultivation” or “tending
                                                                               the soil,” based on the Latin culture. Into the 19th
                  • Understanding Organizational Culture                       century “culture” was associated with the phrase “high
                                                                               culture,” meaning the cultivation or “refinement of mind,
                                                                               taste, and manners.” This generally held to the mid-20th
    For some, culture is considered the “glue” that holds                      century when its meaning shifted toward its present
    an organization together and for others, the “compass”                     American Heritage English Dictionary definition: “The
                                                                               totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts,
    that provides directions.                                                  beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human
                                                                               work and thought.”
                 The culture of an organization eminently influences its
                 myriad decisions and actions. A company’s prevailing          Aspects of Culture
                 ideas, values, attitudes, and beliefs guide the way in
                 which its employees think, feel, and act—quite often             INVISIBLE
                 unconsciously. Therefore, understanding culture is               VALUE . ATTITUDE . ASSUMPTIONS . BELIEFS
                 fundamental to the description and analysis of
                 organizational phenomena. For some, culture is
                 considered the “glue” that holds an organization                VISIBLE                     BEHAVIORS:
                 together and for others, the “compass” that provides            ARTIFACTS:                  FINANCIAL REPORTING
                 direction. These are but two of many such metaphors                                         HIRING /
                 (e.g., magnet, lighthouse, exchange-regulator,                  EMPLOYEE DRESS              FIRING PRACTICES
                 affect-regulator, need satisfier, sacred cow), illustrating     PRODUCT LINE                EMPLOYEE TRAINING
                 that organizational culture is indeed very important,           SIGNAGE                     RECYCLING PROGRAMS
                 but whose definition is slippery and often contested.           PUBLICATIONS

                                            Defining “Culture” and “Organizational Culture”: From Anthropology to the Office / 04.09

    While the dictionary definition helps to       Understanding Culture                         In 1973 anthropologist Clifford Geertz
    close in on its meaning in general                                                           published, The Interpretation of
    parlance, the term is also used by many        While the complexities of the culture         Cultures, in which he writes: “Culture
    disciplines in unique ways. To move            concept were being debated in the             is the fabric of meaning in terms of
    toward a more specific and applied             mid-20th century, surveys of its              which human beings interpret their
    understanding of “culture,” anthropology       different definitions yielded a few           experience and guide their action” and
    can be helpful. It is this social scientific   common threads that are helpful in            that culture is “an ordered system of
    discipline that has contributed the most       organizational research. Most simply,         meaning and of symbols in terms of
    to its practical application within the        culture involves three basic human            which social interaction takes place.”
    field of organizational research.              activities: what people think, what           This semiotic (symbolic or language
    Originally the notion of culture               people do, and what people make.              based) notion of culture gained great
    described the rituals, myths, languages,       Further, several common properties            popularity in the postmodern
    values, beliefs, and practices of distant      arise: culture is shared, learned,            movement of the 1980’s, when the
    peoples often in exotic places—the             transmitted crossgenerationally,              relatively mature discipline of
    objects of traditional anthropological         symbolic, adaptive, and integrated.           organizational behavior first began
    inquiry. Even within the field however,                                                      to talk broadly about “organizational
    numerous approaches to culture                 To speak of culture as being shared           culture.” Geertz’s anthropological
    abound as evident in one seminal 1952          narrows the field of relevant activity to     definition was the most cited in the
    study that identified 164 different            that which is common and social. A            literature at that time and still has great
    definitions.                                   particular action is not cultural if it is    purchase in contemporary research.
                                                   unique to one or relatively insignificant
    British anthropologist Edward Tyler is         number of individuals. Also, culture is       Origins of “Organizational Culture”
    widely credited with the first (1871)          learned (actively or passively) and is
    “modern” definition of culture: “that          transmitted cross-generationally              The field of organizational behavior and
    complex whole which includes                   through formal or informal social             the related discipline of management
    knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law,          interaction—we are not born with the          science began investigating
    custom, and any other capabilities and         understanding that stealing is wrong or       organizations in terms of culture as
    habits acquired by man as a member of          that “diamonds show you care.”                early as the 1930s. The final phase of
    society.” Undoubtedly this definition                                                        the famous Hawthorne studies at the
    influenced the shift toward current            One of the primary characteristics of         Western Electric Company marked the
    dictionary definitions.                        human life, over animal life, is that we      first systematic attempt to use a
                                                   assign symbolic meaning to ideas,             concept of culture to understand the
                                                   behavior, and objects, as well as have        work environment. While an important
    For some, culture is considered                language and speech. We say that              step forward in qualitative research, the
                                                   humans have culture while animals do          investigation was rather blunt and the
    the “glue” that holds an                       not. This is largely due to their inability   understanding of organizational culture
    organization together and                      to ascribe arbitrary symbolic meaning         remained fairly primitive during the
                                                   to their world—a chimpanzee could             following decades. Most mid-century
    for others, the “compass” that                 not designate his banana to signify           attempts at understanding were
                                                   honesty, for example. Culture is also         conducted by scholars steeped in
    provides directions.                           adaptive in that it can and does change       quantitative psychology and sociology,
                                                   in response to various influences and         though by the 1970s researchers more
                                                   conditions. No culture is truly static—       explicitly and emphatically appropriated
    Subsequent to this new interpretation          many aspects of American culture are          the theories and methods of
    and vision of a “complex whole,”               radically different in the wake of the        anthropology. The late-century upsurge
    academics attempted to build upon              Internet, the dot-com bubble, and             of interest in organizational culture is
    this by creating universal lists of all        global terrorism. And finally, culture is     credited largely to the economic
    of the elements of culture, the most           integrated in the sense that it               conditions of the 1970s when
    exhaustive of which (first published in        permeates society and becomes                 international competition had
    1938) lists 79 major divisions and 637         part of the social machinery. Culture         heightened and more foreign
    subdivisions. While comprehensive and          is the ever-present, ethereal medium          companies were operating factories
    still useful for social science researchers    in which members live and through             in the United States. Specifically, the
    today, it is ineffectual for most general      which they act.                               success of the Japanese in many
    applications as well as corporations and                                                     industries sparked curiosity about
    other organizations.

                              Defining “Culture” and “Organizational Culture”: From Anthropology to the Office / 04.09

                                    whether their differing corporate values,      • Pascale and Athos, 1982, The Art of
                                    attitudes, and behaviors were responsible      Japanese Management: Applications for
                                    for their often superior performance.          American Executives

                                    The 1982 publication of Peters &               • Deal and Kennedy, 1982, Corporate
                                    Wasserman’s In Search of Excellence stirred    Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of
                                    both popular and professional interest         Corporate Life
                                    through its suggestion that organizations
                                    with strong cultures were more effective.      Since the early 1980s, academic and
                                                                                   applied exploration of organizational
                                    Corporate culture was offered as an asset      culture has steadily increased and
                                    that could be managed to improve               even now there is little indication
                                    business performance. While definitely          of abatement as changes in data
                                    the most popular book on the subject           management, work organization, values,
                                    (outselling all other non-fiction books for    lifestyles, demographics, knowledge-
                                    the year), three others were seminal to        intensive work, outsourcing, and a
                                    the development of the field:                  host of other social, economic, and
                                                                                   technological factors continue to impact
                                    • Ouchi, 1981, Theory Z: How American          the relationship between organizations,
                                    Business Can Meet the Japanese Challenge       workers, and the workplace.


                                                                                       OBSERVABLE ARTIFACTS:
       ESPOUSED VALUES:                                                                Architecture & Physical Surroundings
       Those values championed                                                         Products
       by a company’s leadership.                                                      Technologies
                                                                                       Style (clothing - art - publications)
                                                                                       Published Values / Mission Statements
                                                                                       Myths / Stories / Rituals

                                    BASIC ASSUMPTIONS:
                                    Underlying (often unconscious)
                                    determinants of an organization’s attitudes,
                                    thought processes and actions.

    Defining “Culture” and “Organizational Culture”: From Anthropology to the Office / 04.09

          Understanding Organizational                  Espoused values are those championed
          Culture                                       by a company’s leadership and
                                                        management. They are distinguished
          Definitions of “organizational culture”       from enacted values, which are those
          are almost as numerous as those               that employees’ actual behavior reflects
          of “culture”— a 1998 study identified 54      (just because the CEO claims that her
          different definitions within the academic     company values its customers does not
          literature between 1960 and 1993. One         mean that the employees necessarily
          helpful, though general, definition           act accordingly). While the role that
          offered by Edgar Schein of MIT’s Sloan        values play in organizational culture is
          School of Management is that                  undeniable, many scholars claim that it
          organizational culture is:                    is erroneous to ascribe values, which are
          a pattern of shared basic assumptions         inherently human and located only in
          that the group learned as it solved its       individuals, to a corporate entity or to a
          problems of external adaptation and           group of individuals. Such a position
          internal integration, that has worked well    maintains that the values of a few
          enough to be considered valid and,            particularly influential leaders are what
          therefore, to be taught to new members        rally other employees and subsequently
          as the correct way to perceive, think,        influences company behavior. Basic
          and feel in relation to those problems.       assumptions are underlying, often
                                                        unconscious, determinants of an
          Delving deeper, three common attributes       organization’s attitudes, thought
          seem to arise across the varying              processes, and actions. These
          perspectives within sociology,                assumptions are central to its culture.
          psychology, anthropology, and                 Values that gain long-term acceptance
          management science. One is that the           often become so ingrained and
          concept of shared meaning is critical;        taken-for-granted that individuals are
          secondly, is the notion that organizational   usually unaware of their influence. They
          culture is constructed socially and is        usually provide a tacit sense of security
          affected by environment and history. The      and an unquestioned impetus for
          third common feature among the many           perceptions and behavior.
          definitions is that organizational culture
          has many symbolic and cognitive               Scholarly understanding the social
          layers—culture is thick and resides at        and symbolic processes of the
          all levels.                                   workplace continues to expand in
                                                        breadth and refine in depth as
          To help understand these symbolic and         organizational behavior and
          cognitive layers, Schein has categorized      organizational management scholars
          the places where culture is found             build upon social scientific theories and
          into three fundamental categories:            methodologies. A function of industry
          observable artifacts, espoused values,        type, national culture, environmental
          and basic underlying assumptions.             factors, as well as the vision, goals, and
          Observable artifacts represent an             strategy, an organization’s culture affects
          organization’s attitudes, behaviors,          its structure, practices, policies, and
          and beliefs— how it sees things, what         routines. Evaluating and understanding
          is important and meaningful. These            organizational culture holds perhaps
          include the architecture and physical         the best promise for corporate
          surroundings; its products; its               leadership being able to influence
          technologies; its style (shown through        individual and group performance,
          clothing, art, publications, etc.);           facilities performance, organizational
          its published values and mission              performance, and ultimately the
          statement; its language, gossip, jargon,      ever-important financial components
          and humor;its myths and stories;              of business performance.
          and its practices, rituals, ceremonies,
          and taboos.


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