THE ABC, 123 of CORPORATE CULTURE
Dr Stephanie Jones
What is corporate culture? For many, it’s hard to define exactly, but it’s blamed when people don’t “fit in” to a new company, when two companies merge and have difficulties integrating with each other, and when a company tries to introduce a major change program. Yet culture is seen is intangible, indefinable, woolly and imprecise, described in vague terms of being “tough”, “soft”, “strong”, “weak” – but is somehow always there.
Organizational Behavior textbooks*, in describing strong cultures, refer to the cohesive sets of values and norms binding staff members together and fostering goal-oriented employee commitment. With positive employment practices demonstrating their commitment to employees, these companies gain in return supportive work attitudes and high performance. Companies like Dell, Microsoft, Intel and Motorola are quoted for developing career paths and investing heavily in training and development to increase employees’ value to the organization and build a strong culture.
One way of building a strong culture adopted by many companies (some deliberately, some accidentally) is to develop organizational ceremonies, rites and language. These help people to learn about and take on board aspects of an organization’s values and norms. Ceremonies celebrating high performing employees, company social gatherings, internal newsletters and publicized promotions all contribute to this culture-building.
So, how may this be defined in a more concrete, ABC, 123 sort of way? In culture-building, we can identify:
1. Rites of passage
2. Integration, and
Rites of passage, such as graduation, determine how individuals enter, move up in, or leave an organization. This also includes the way that organizations groom people for promotion, such as fast-tracking. Rites of integration, such as office parties and shared announcements of organizational successes, build and reinforce common bonds between organizational members. Annual meetings are used to communicate an organization’s values to its managers, employees and shareholders. Thirdly, rites of enhancement, such as awards dinners, newspaper releases and employee promotions, give an organization the opportunity to publicly acknowledge and reward employees’ contributions and thereby to enhance employees’ commitment to organizational values.
This may be a way of looking at building cultures, but what sort of culture are you trying to build? And what are some of the influences on the ways that cultures are shaped? Some of the most insightful and valuable work in this field is from the prolific pen of Charles Handy, particularly from the classic Understanding Organizations**. Handy, seeking a suitable metaphor, described a journey driving from Britain across the Channel and through continental Europe and observing the differing cultures and traditions of the different countries and regions passed on the way. They have different habits, ways of enjoying themselves, of organizing work, and of carrying-out their daily lives. As Handy remarked, anyone who has spent time in a country other than their own (which probably includes the majority of readers of Human Assets magazine) will appreciate how values, beliefs and cherished philosophies affect the way society is organized. They will appreciate too how these values and beliefs are shaped by history and tradition, by the climate, the kinds of work people do, the size of the country and its prosperity.
The same applies to organizations, with their differing atmospheres, ways of doing things, levels of energy, of individual freedom, and of kinds of personality. Their differing values, norms and beliefs are reflected in the different structures and systems they develop. Company cultures are influenced dramatically by their ownership and the personality of their founder, by the current economic environment, by their industry sector, by the...
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