In which I seek to shed some light on the early history of organisational culture so that we can see where our ideas about the problematic concept of culture have come from.
Changing your organisation is often thought of as meaning changing organisational culture. The term "organizational cultures" first was used by Pettigrew in 1979 in an article titled "On Studying Organizational Cultures" in the scholarly journal Administrative Science Quarterly.
To me it is quite significant that he used the plural, denoting that there are many cultures within an organisation. It is a more recent thing to talk about an organisation as having one culture only (a "corporate culture"). I think it is more accurate to think of there being multiple cultures within an organisation, as there are many groups that people in your organisation belong to, and people are included and excluded from these groups as they are in all social groupings.
Pettigrew brought concepts from anthropology and sociology to his studies of organisations. He was interested in studying organisations over time through continuous processes ("longitudinal" or "processual" studies). In particular, he wanted to link the history and future of the organisation to the present (other discussions of this can be found here, here, and here). Pettigrew studied the birth and evolution of a boarding school from 1934 to 1972, and he came to see this history as a series of what he called social dramas (I might call them narratives), anchored by the reigns of three particular headmasters and a structural change that altered the school’s population.
Pettigrew saw culture as the source of a family of concepts – symbols, language, ideology, belief, ritual and myth.
The concept of organisational culture is thus relatively recent (since 1979) and went through its faddish period where everything was seen as being about culture.
From the way the knowledge management and IT people talk, it seems that nowadays, the concept of organisational culture still retains some mystery about it and is seen as difficult to change. It is common in my experience for knowledge management and IT people to articulate elegant technical solutions and then to wrap up all the reasons why these lovely technical solutions don’t or might not work as the human element of "culture," quite outside their expertise to address.
It wasn’t long before Peters and Waterman in "In Search of Excellence" were claiming that shared values represented the core of corporate culture. The empirical work (i.e. quantitative research) of Hofstede et al in "Measuring Organizational Cultures" showed that, to the contrary, it was shared perceptions of daily practices that were the core of culture. This reinforces my constant catch cry to reflect on your practices and those of the others in your organisation if you want to change your organisation.
Hofstede et al identified six characteristics of the corporate culture construct:
- Culture is holistic – it involves a group and cannot be reduced to single individuals.
- Culture is historically determined – it emerges over time and is manifest in traditions and customs.
- Antropological terms such as "myth," "ritual," "symbols" are commonly used to describe culture.
- Culture is socially constructed, meaning that it arises from processes of interaction of different people – not from any universal characteristics of human beings (hence different groups can be said to have different cultures).
- Culture is soft – difficult to catch hold of and difficult to measure.
- Culture is inert and difficult to change. People tend to hold on to their values and traditions.
It didn’t take long before organisational culture was seen as something that could be managed and subjected to the wills of the domininat coalitions of the organisation. The articulation of the concept of organisational culture meant that it soon came to be seen as something that could be manipulated in service of the organisation’s objectives.