“The language of organisation theory has, in the past, been that of engineering and more recently of electrical engineering (with its talk of feedback loops, pulses and currents)… The new words in the organisational literature are words like ‘culture’, ‘shared values’, ‘networks and alliances’, ‘power and influence’, ‘federalism’, ‘compromise and consent’ and, most crucially, ‘leadership’ not ‘management’. These are not the metaphors of engineering but those of political theory, and they symbolise a new way of thinking about organisations – as societies and communities rather than as machines or warehouses.”
(Handy 1988, pp. 20 – 21)
Culture. It is a word we hear so much in our day-to-day enactment as employees and managers. Inflationary application of the term, its indeterminacy, its constructive vagueness make the value of such vocabulary questionable. I have not met any person associating it with the same thing as another. As I am not interested if my work colleagues eat fish on a Friday or in the general pasta consumption in Europe, I will dive into the topic of ‘organisational culture’. A problem with understanding organisations is that the language we use to conceptualise them is often dated, as Handy (ibid.) points it out.
A description of organisational culture has been given as “the way we do things around here” (Deal and Kennedy, 1982). It captures both the power and and informality of organisational culture. But often culture is also about what is not done in an organisation. And while the ‘we’ highlights that it is people, past and present, who shape and enforce culture, it understates the impersonal character of culture (similar to Adam Smith’s (1776) “invisible hand”). McLean and Marshall (1993, p. 74) offer a more detailed definition of culture:
“The collection of traditions, values, policies, beliefs, and attitudes that constitute a pervasive context for everything we do and think in an organisation.”
From Wilson and Rosenfeld (1990, p. 229) comes a suggestion as to how culture manifests itself:
“The basic values, ideologies and assumptions […] which guide and fashion individual and business behaviour. These values are evident in more tangible factors such as stories, ritual, language and jargon, office decoration and layout and prevailing modes of dress among the staff.”
There will be ways of working and behaving which run alongside, or even displace, the official policies and procedures. Real, experienced organisational culture can (and often does) differ from the formally defined one. Culture is increasingly claimed to be a critical element of organisational identity and performance. In the early 1980s Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, partners at McKinsey, explored what made for ‘excellence’ in large commercial companies in the USA. They concluded that success was based on a strong corporate culture, on core values of customer service, innovation and quality, and on managers who wanted to work and to succeed. While the work of Peters and Waterman (1982) has been criticised and some of their models have hit hard times, it was the spur for managers to embark on ‘cultural change’ programmes. However flawed some of these attempts proved and still do prove (especially when deriving from an HR initiative), it is generally accepted that culture is a significant factor in how organisations behave and perform – even survive.