, Research Paper
What is the nature and substance of organisational culture? To what extent can it be changed?
Culture, “the acquired knowledge that people use to interpret experience and generate social behaviour” (Spradley, 1979, p. 5), provides people with a way of seeing the world. It categorizes, encodes, and otherwise defines the world in which they live. Whenever people learn a culture, they are to some extent imprisoned without knowing it. Anthropologists talk of this as being “culture bound”–i.e., living inside a particular reality. References to culture have long abounded in professional literature. However, it is only fairly recently that the literature shows references to culture as a lens through which to interpret and understand organizations, their customers, and the working relationships therein (Lee & Clack, 1966; Shaughnessy, 1988). The “cultural analysis” of organizations, therefore, is the use of organizational culture as a lens through which to examine what is going on in an organization.
Management theory in the 1980s underwent a sea of change in its realization that an understanding of an organization’s culture(s) could be a major step on the road to changing or controlling the direction of that organization. There are both positive and negative sides to how an understanding of culture can be used within an organization. For instance, Edgar Schein (1992) considers the process of creating culture and management to be the essence of leadership, while Gideon Kunda (1992) describes a culture which embodies both the implicit and explicit rules and behaviour of a particular group of people and the conscious efforts of management to “engineer” the culture to its own goals.
There is a fundamental distinction between those who think of culture as a metaphor (Morgan, 1986) and those who see culture as an objective entity. (Gold 1982) Metaphors allow us to understand organisations in terms of other complex entities such as the machine and the organism. By observing the similarities, scholars attempt to explain the essence of human organisations. The dangers of such an approach is distinguishing when the metaphor is no longer valid. That is why most commentators have chosen to think of culture as an objective entity. This view have ranged from viewing the organisation literally as a culture with all features of an organisations including its systems, policies procedures and processes as elements of its cultural life (Paconowsky & O Donnell-Trujillo 1982) to suggesting that culture is best thought of as a set of psychological predispositions, called basic assumptions , that members of an organisation possess that leads them to think and act in a certain way.(Schein 1985). The former view presents problems in using the concept to explain other aspects of organisational activity. Indeed if everything is culture, this view becomes indistinguishable from the view that culture is a metaphor. This leaves us with Schein s view of culture as an essentially cognitive phenomena that resides in the psychology of organisational participants, with the acknowledgement that patterns of behaviour are equally important (Eldridge & Crombie 1974)
The contents of an organisational culture has several levels. At the basic and superficial level, it takes the form of artefacts like stories, jokes metaphors and symbols. Examples of artefacts would be Material objects like mission statements, corporate logos , Physical layout of the office space etc.
At a deeper level, culture takes the form of values beliefs and attitudes. Values determine what people ought to do while beliefs are what people think is or is not true. In practice, beliefs and values are often hard to distinguish, because beliefs frequently involve values. Moreover, there is considerable merit to viewing values as a particular sort of belief. (Rokeach 1973: 5) Attitudes connect beliefs and values with feelings. An attitude is a learned predisposition to respond consistently to a particular thing or idea. Attitudes are developed over time and unlike opinions, are held relatively consistently.
At the deepest level, culture in an organisation takes the form of basic assumptions, a solution to an identifiable problem that is taken for granted. These are implicit, deep-rooted assumptions that people share, and which guides their perception, feelings and emotions about things. (Schein, 1981) Basic assumptions are held unconsciously and are very difficult to surface. Basic assumptions are by definition neither confront able nor debatable. Basic assumptions are also very complex interactions between beliefs values and emotions. Analysing these complex interactions is made more difficult by the fact that cultures change over time.
Organisations rarely possess a single homogenous culture. There is often a subculture within parts of the organisations and even countercultures in parts.(Gregory 1983:365) There is also marked difference between espoused culture and the culture-in practise. Thus culture in organisations have to be viewed in terms of multiple, cross-cutting contexts changing through time rather than stable bounded and homogenous.(Argyris & Schon 1978)
The question then arises as to whether it is possible to manipulate and mould the culture of an organisation. In large organisations, it is quite difficult for a single individual to change the culture. In General Motors John DoLorean tried to change the culture by starting a counter-culture. He failed and left to found his own company. (Martin & Siehl 1983) Indeed the work of Schein, Beyer and Trice suggests that organisational change is a complex task involving distinct stages. The current culture has to go an unfreezing mechanism where the current culture is questioned and purged. This process often requires outsider, usually in the form of consultants who are supposed to bring unbiased opinions. The firm then undergoes an experimetation phase where there is considerable conflict and degradation. The resulting changed culture then undergoes a refreezing mechanism where the culture is then slowly assimilated and integrated in the firm. The process usually requires the replacement of senior managers.(Goodstein & Burke 1991)
The degree of malleability of the organisation depends on the type of firm. In industries where speedy reactions and constant change are a necessity for survival, change may be much easier to implement. For example at Microsoft, there is a web of culture and counter-cultures. Indeed every star-programmer tends to bring an element of his culture to the organisation. Some have a culture where names are forbidden and people are know by code names only. Others bring a culture where any practical joke, however costly or disruptive, is tolerated. For example, colleagues vacating their office temporarily can expect unpleasant things like a farm complete with pigs to be there when they return. One could argue that the culture is one that allows new culture to be integrated. The simpler explanation could be that the culture at Microsoft does not exist. The diverse cultures that one observes are simply the cultures of the individuals that are currently employed at Microsoft. In such an organisation, is culture easy to change? Certainly one can bring elements of ones culture into Microsoft. But apart from Bill Gates himself, it would be difficult to persuade co-workers whom one only knows as Radeon to adopt one culture, no matter how great that culture maybe.
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