To What Extent Can Organisational Culture Be Managed? Is It Critical to Organisational Success?

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To what extent can organisational culture be managed? Is organisational culture critical to the success of an organisation?

Peter Anthony (1994) asserts that the pursuit of change in a cultural sense has been considered synonymous with the pursuit of excellence for organisations. It is true that a wide variety of management practitioners view the control of organisational culture as something both possible and necessary for organisational success (Brown 1993). A survey of organisational practices of a range of firms revealed that 94% of the firms had engaged in ‘culture management’ of some sort (IRS 1997). However, despite the apparent popularity of these practices and the strong level of importance placed upon these activities, it can be seen that there is no factual evidence that supports the assertion that organisational culture as a whole can be managed, or that such a culture is critical to the success of an organisation. An examination of the various theoretical and practical pieces that both support and reject these ideas reveals that the truth of the theories are at best overstated, and possibly completely incorrect altogether.

An evaluation of the extent to which organisational culture can be managed must first be given a groundwork definition of ‘culture’ from which management efforts to change this phenomenon can be assessed. A major issue that academics and practitioners alike have faced is this definitional problem. There are a wide range of definitions that can be applied, and in many cases the definition utilised is paired with a most suitable methodology according to the researcher (Burrell and Morgan 1979, Ogbonna 1990 and Smircich 1983). These disagreements on the nature and scope of organisational culture have contributed strongly to the inconclusiveness of research conducted on the subject (Harris and Ogbonna 2000, Lim 1995).

In order to examine the extent to which culture can be managed however, a generalised concept of ‘culture’ must be utilised. One of the most widely accepted frameworks was promulgated by Schein (1984 and 1985), which categorizes culture into three levels - artifacts, espoused values and basic underlying assumptions. By applying this definition of culture, it is possible to examine a variety of studies that have claimed to have both proven and disproven the ability of managers to exert control over organisational culture.

There does exist a plethora of studies that claim organisational culture can be successfully managed (Anderson 2003, Bae, Sohn and Rowley 2002, Jackson and Tax 1995, Risher 2007, Soupata 2001, Troy 1994). However, the reported ‘changes’ of these studies do not extend beyond the first level of Schein’s culture framework. Graves (1986) identifies these different levels of culture and distinguishes between changing deeper level cultural values and simply altering surface behaviours. The danger of changing only surface actions is that this would simply encourage extrinsic motivation and not lead to a permanent change in culture (Sathe 1985). Such a problem was identified in the study by Ogbonna and Wilkinson (1990) of organisational culture change strategies adopted by major UK supermarkets. Despite the apparent adoption of the desired ‘culture’ by the staff of the organisations, further research revealed that the behaviours that were supposed to exemplify a change in culture were instead only brought about as a result of the threat of increased sanctions and greater surveillance. Even in those organisations where the culture appears to have been managed successfully, there is the issue of properly being able to measure a change in said culture. Anthony (1994) establishes that in two major companies (Shell Petroleum and British Air), ‘culture changes’ were championed as integral to the companies success without any concrete evidence that the underlying values of the staff had changed in line with the noticeable behavioural changes.

Smith (2003) conducted...
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