Defining Culture

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

ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE WHITE PAPER

04.09

ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE WHITE PAPER

Defining “Culture” and “Organizational Culture”:
From Anthropology to the Office
The topic of organizational culture is increasingly understood as a company asset that can be used to increase business performance. While important, organizational culture is a slippery concept to concretely define. This paper deals with the historical development and foundational understandings of both the term culture, from anthropology, and its appropriation by industrial organization researchers to organizational culture. A foundational definition by Edgar Schein of MIT’s Sloan School of Management is arrived at as well as the notion that culture can be observed at three levels of the organization: artifacts, espoused values, and basic assumptions. Contents: • Anthropological Origins of “Culture” • Understanding Culture • Origins of “Organizational Culture” • Understanding Organizational Culture

Usually the domain of top executives and uppermanagement, for most within an organization its culture remains implicit — often with only its effects and implications discussed. Despite this, as decades of research suggest, an explicit, integrated, accepted, and consistent organizational culture seems important in achieving long-term health and other performance successes. Yet, as in most arenas of social science where the intricate webs of various and varying human influences exist, distinct and conclusive causal links are difficult to establish. Keeping this in mind, it is still very likely that the richness and dynamism of organizational activity—the life of an organization— may be seen, and therefore shaped and improved, through the lens of culture. ANTHROPOLOGICAL ORIGINS OF “CULTURE” What exactly is culture? Unfortunately a fixed, universal understanding does not exist; there is little consensus within, let alone, across disciplines. Often “culture” is applied so broadly, merely as “social pattern,” that it means very little. Highly specific, idiosyncratic definitions also abound where the term is used in various contexts in support of any agenda. When “culture” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary around 1430 it meant “cultivation” or “tending the soil,” based on the Latin culture. Into the 19th 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 century when its meaning shifted toward its present American Heritage English Dictionary definition: “The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.” ASPECTS OF CULTURE INVISIBLE VALUE . ATTITUDE . ASSUMPTIONS . BELIEFS VISIBLE ARTIFACTS: EMPLOYEE DRESS PRODUCT LINE SIGNAGE PUBLICATIONS INTERIOR ARCHITECTURE FURNITURE BEHAVIORS: FINANCIAL REPORTING HIRING / FIRING PRACTICES EMPLOYEE TRAINING RECYCLING PROGRAMS

For some, culture is considered the “glue” that holds an organization together and for others, the “compass” that provides direction. The culture of an organization eminently influences its myriad decisions and actions. A company’s prevailing ideas, values, attitudes, and beliefs guide the way in which its employees think, feel, and act—quite often unconsciously. Therefore, understanding culture is fundamental to the description and analysis of organizational phenomena. For some, culture is considered the “glue” that holds an organization together and for others, the “compass” that provides direction. These are but two of many such metaphors (e.g., magnet, lighthouse, exchange-regulator, affect-regulator, need satisfier, sacred cow), illustrating that organizational culture is indeed very important, but whose definition is slippery and often contested.

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