Culture is a term that is used in workplaces discussions but it is taken for granted that we understand what it means. In their publication In Search of Excellence, Peters and Waterman (1982) drew a lot of attention to the importance of culture to achieve high levels of organisational effectiveness. They made use of over 100 years of theory and research in cultural anthropology and folklore studies to inspire and legitimise their efforts. This generated many subsequent publications on how to manage organisational culture (e.g. Deal & Kennedy 1982; Ott 1989; Bate 1994).
If organisational culture is to be managed it helps first to be able to define it. However defining culture is not an easy task due to the many different perspectives taken by the diverse numbers of writers on the subject. There is general agreement about the components of culture as a broad construct but there is a considerable disagreement about what constitutes organisational culture, whether the culture of an organisational can be adequately described, whether culture management can ever be truly effective and, if so, which management strategies are most likely to succeed.
Taylor describes culture as ‘the complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.’ Taylor (1871/1958:1). Considering the early days of anthropology, culture was the understanding of what was distinctively human, what separates humans from other animals and hence what defines our similarities. Growing interest within this field brought about an association of culture with particular groups of people. This association caused anthropologists to talk about groups as if they were cultures and shifted the focus of anthropology from the general understanding of human kind as species, to the distinctive characteristics of particular groups, and thus to human differences. A comparison of the definition of Taylor and a definition from American anthropologist Melville Herskowitz helps illustrate this shift, ‘a construct describing the total body of belief, behaviour, knowledge, sanctions, values, and goals that make up the way of life of a people.’ Herskowitz (1948:625).
The shift that refocused culture to the culture of groups, in anthropology, has been repeated within organizational culture studies, there has been a shift from culture as an organisational unity, to culture as a means of explaining differences between various subgroups of the organisation.
Considering different perspectives on organisational culture, researchers who take an ‘anthropological’ stance, organisations are cultures (Bate 1994) describing something that an organisation is (Smircich 1983) and thus, Schein explains:
‘an organisation comprises a pattern of shared assumptions invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that has worked well enough to be considered valued, and therefore is to be taught to new members of the group as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.’ (Schein 1992, p.247)
In this paradigm, organisational culture is both defined and restricted by group parameters, for example concepts or ideologies, and by normative criteria that provides the basis for allocating status, power, rewards, friendship, punishment, authority and respect. Culture determines what a group pays attention to and monitors in the external environment and how it responds to this environment. Thus, as Bate (1994) notes, for those who take an anthropological stance, organisational culture and organisational strategy are linked and interdependent. Culture, therefore, is not a separable facet of an organisation, it is not readily manipulated or changed, and it is not created or influenced by leaders.
For the writers described by Bate (1994) as ‘scientific rationalists’, organisational...
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