organizational culture

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organizational culture

the particular configuration of norms, values, beliefs and ways of behaving that characterise the manner in which groups and individuals collaborate within organisations.

Controlling organizational culture became a prominent concern within British and American management schools in the 1980s as a result of three main factors:

  1. the challenge of Japanese competition;
  2. concern over the economic recovery of industry;
  3. the failure of previous methods of organizational design to overcome corporations inefficiencies, e.g. matrix structures. See also ORGANIZATION.

This concern with organizational culture was principally a prescriptive one, exemplified in the works of the American authors Deal and Kennedy (1982) and in the UK by Handy's four-part cultural schema (1984). Deal and Kennedy's (1982) analysis is prescriptive in intent and sets out to identify the particular rites and rituals of corporate life that constitute corporate cultures and they argue that business success relies on what they refer to as ‘strong culture’. Successful corporations have ‘values and beliefs to pass along – not just products‘ (ibid.). The authors describe organizational culture as possessing five elements: (i) business environment, (ii) values, (iii) heroes, (iv) rituals and (v) cultural network (i.e. informal communications). This model does have the merit of specifying what the dimensions of organizational culture are believed to be. Its main limitation is its assumption that organizational cultures need to be of a particular kind if the organization is to be successful. This conclusion results from a preparedness to over-generalize from research on a sample of powerful corporations. Such conclusions may be less applicable for organizations operating in different markets, with different technologies and employing lower numbers of highly qualified staff (see CONTINGENCY THEORY).

Handy (1985) offers a more complex model that is able to distinguish between different cultural forms and organizational types. This model is based on an earlier one designed to distinguish between organizational ideologies. Handy's view of organizational culture is, in general terms, similar to that of Deal and Kennedy (1982) in that organizational culture is ‘…founded and built over the years by the dominant groups in an organization’ (ibid.). He, however, differs from them in arguing that there are four main types of culture, not just ‘strong’and ‘weak’ cultures. The Handy schema lists power, role, task and person cultures as viable alternatives, each of which can be an effective culture within the appropriate context (1985).

One has to look elsewhere for sociologically informed and critical analyses. Casey's (1995) study of the US company she calls ‘Hephaestus’ (1995) and Watson's study of ZTC Ryland in the UK (1994) are such examples as is Parker's (2000) study of three organizations drawn from the public, service and manufacturing sectors of the UK economy. Within the managerialist literature generally it is difficult, however, to escape the sense that concern with culture shares some affinity with Orwellian brainwashing, a view argued strongly by Willmott (1993). Managerial discourse is not the only form. Sociologists have been actively interested in the phenomena for far longer whether as ‘ideology’ (MARX) or ‘discourse’ (FOUCAULT). There is, for example, a strong research tradition in the study of organizational cultures within the work of SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISTS, for example Strauss et al's (1963) study of a hospital as a negotiated order.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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