Theory About Organizational Culture

Culture is an abstract concept. It explains an impalpable and ephemeral state of affairs within an organization, its values and beliefs, for example (Schwartz, 1994). As Van Maanen (1988, p.3) states, culture ‘is made visible only through representation and created by writing'. There is no universally applicable theory about organizational culture (OC); hence, there is no single definition of this phenomenon. Special literature offers an embarrassment of definitional riches (Schein, 1992; Morgan, 1997; Hofstede, 2001; Gold, 1982; Pacanowsky and O'Donell-Trujillo, 1982; Meyerson and Martin, 1987; Martin, 2001; Kanter, 1995; Ashkanasy, 2003; Hatch and Schultz, 2005; Gannon and Newman, 2001; Hickon and Pugh, 2002; Scholtz, 1987 et al.).

Firstly, this paper observes two contrasting theoretical paradigms of OC. The debate includes the managerial approach that organization ‘has' a culture versus the social science point of view that organization ‘is' the culture (Smircich, 1983).

Secondly, this paper provides the evidence against concept simplification and presents the importance of knowing OC by using system thinking and dynamic system theories (Stancey, 2007). While the functionalist attempts to find ‘one best universal culture' is widely adopted by managers and popular writers, this paper supports the hypothesis that this approach has some limitations. OC is a very complicated phenomenon and it cannot be easily measured or managed. OC can be viewed as a complex system (Martin, 2002). Systems can be regarded as nodes inserted in a giant network in which everything is connected (Sterman, 2000). Most of previous researches are based on linear thinking born of logical positivism. Organizations and human systems are studied from deterministic, reductionistic and equilibrium-oriented perspectives (Mendenhall and Macomber, 1997; Capra, 1996; Dooley, 1997). Social scientists also proceed from the assumption that human systems are composed of relationships between variables that exist and function according to linear, cause-and-effect laws (Mendenhall and Macomber, 1997). However, according to the dynamical system thinking an alternative approach exists and many systems are constructed nonlinearly, consequently the managers have not really such a degree of control over the systems that they think they have (Stacey, 2007).

Simplification can have negative impact for future generations. The organization is responsible for sustainable development, thus the managers should be very careful making their strategic choices (Adams, 2006).

Finally, the conclusion is made that it is important to view OC holistically. Nonlinear thinking can bring a new perspective on this research.

What is the Organizational Culture?

The attempts to find 'one best way' theory lead to disagreements among cultural researchers. Smircich (1983) distinguishes five different currents in research connecting the concepts of culture and organization. Although these all have their own fundamental assumptions, she also remarks that they can be divided into two strongly contrasting schools.

The functionalist concept of culture forms the theoretical basis for comparative management research (e.g. Hofstede, 1991) and has inspired many OC researchers (e.g. Schein, 1985). The writers mostly supporting this view are management academics and consultants (Deal and Kennedy, 1982; Schein, 1985; Ouchi, 1981; Peters and Waterman, 1982; Pascale and Athos, 1982).

The key presupposition of functionalist approach is that culture is a crucial component of successful organizational performance. According to his view, every organization possesses a culture, just as it has a strategy, technology, structure and employees. Thus, OC represents an objective reality of values, artifacts and meanings that can be quantified and measured. The culture, being an organization attribute, is ‘given' to its members when they join, and they don't participate in its shaping.

Functionalists reckon that business-specific and well-developed culture in which employees and managers are absolutely socialized underpins more effective performance, higher moral, stronger organizational commitment and higher productivity' (Furnham and Gunter, 1993). This concept considers culture as an empirical category, a rather stable, homogeneous, internally coherent system of assumptions, norms, and values, which can be objectively described (Hastrup, 1995); something that members of a group, an organization, or a nation possess or bear collectively. Hence, it is possible to reach the core (the basic assumptions and values) of any culture by examining and systematizing behavior and stated attitudes of individual members.

Schein, one of the most famous researchers within this approach, defines culture as ‘a pattern of basic assumptions- invented, discovered or developed by a given group learning to cope with its problems of external adjustment and internal integration-that has worked well enough to be regarded valuable and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in connection with those problems' (Schein, 1992: 9). Schein (2004) analyzes OC at three levels: artifacts (visible part of the culture such as physical environment, technology, language, dress-code), adopted values and beliefs (articulated statements that can be discussed) and fundamental assumptions (thoughts and feelings, the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs). The sharing of meanings, of ‘deep' assumptions, is considered to be what culture ‘fundamentally' is and, as a result, these depths can be controlled from above, if their underlying structure is understood. He states that culture is stable, inserted in deep and often unconscious parts of the group, rather than simply in observable behavior. He also argues that a leader's beliefs can be converted into collective beliefs (1995). This position has provoked three debates. First, it raises a discussion between ‘week' and ‘strong' cultures, considering how managers can turn their company's culture from the former into the latter. Second, it stimulates a related discussion concerning ‘inefficient' and ‘efficient' cultures, which evaluate the ability of an OC to innovate and to adapt rapidly and appropriately to changes in the strategy of the firm. Third, it assumes that leaders' views make a considerable contribution to culture, and that they play a vital role in ‘culture management'. Changing organizational culture is an outcome of transformational leadership which influences followers' level of efforts and performance (Bass, 1985: Bass and Avolio, 1990).

This view presumes that senior company executives can and should execute cultural leadership functions. Leaders may be requested to maintain and reinforce the original culture settled by a company's founder. Or, they may be required to alter (and consequently innovate) that culture if it becomes a liability in changed environmental circumstances. The original founder's visions, as modified by the organization's current senior management (Schein, 1983), are another source of values. First, a single person (founder) has an idea for a new organization and brings in other key people to create a core group sharing a common view with the founder. This group creates an organization, brings in others and starts building a common history. Robbinson (2005) describes senior management as an OC carriers'. Thus one can agree that organizational values are the values of the current company elite (senior managers), rather like ‘organizational goals' constitute the preferred aims of the same group. Values are operationalized into organization practices and procedures. Although senior managers might like their employees to adopt the organization's values, this is not unlikely but also unnecessary. Employees only need to follow the specified, values-based practices and display expected reactions.

However, trust in this prescriptive approach was shaken because many of the so-called ‘excellent' companies began to manifest performance problems (Alvesson, 2002).Methodologically speaking, many functionalist studies use a range of quasi-scientific techniques for extracting these fundamental rules, generally following Schein's injunction that the concept can be best operationalized with ‘precise empirical measurement' and ‘hypothesis testing' (Schein, 1990:109). Academically legitimate versions of a scientific method, however, seem to end up providing very statistic pictures of consensus within organizations. For instance, Reynolds (1986) employs survey techniques to evaluate perceived work context in different organizations. He concludes that there is no statistical relationship between culture and organizational performance. Graves (1986) and Amsa (1986) use Likert scale methods to operationalize culture in a similar way, the former stating that it is a variable that should be inserted in social-technical system analysis, the latter that culture is the adopted and disseminated beliefs of top managers and executives.

Many anthropologists dispute the essentialist ways of thinking. This leads to the social constructionist conception. Sociologists Berger and Luckmann (1966) claim: reality is socially constructed, and everything belonging to a culture, including science and technology, presupposes human beings, human language and actions. Authors distinguish society as subjective reality including people's beliefs about the world, and the material world. Social objects are inherently meaningful, whereas material objects are only meaningful when they are integrated into the social. However, people have no direct access to any reality, neither the material nor the social.

From social constructionist perspective, OC is an organization and presents a subjective reality of rituals and meanings. It is viewed as social interaction result, as is a root metaphor for conceptualizing organizations (Smircich, 1983). As such, there is no place or time from which it can be finally captured and presented as the truth (Parker, 2000); culture is a living and evolving reality (Morgan, 1997) and exists only as a pattern of symbolic relationships and meanings maintained through the continued processes of human interactions (Smircich, 1983).

This approach researches do not admit that culture may be controlled or manipulated (Ackoyd and Cowley, 1990; Gargiardi, 1986; Anthony, 1990; Knights and Willmott, 1987; Harris and Ogbonna, 1999; Krefting and Frost; 1985; Meyerson and Martin, 1987; Legge, 1994; Martin 1985, 1992; Willmott, 1993; Weick, 1979).

They argue that culture exists objectively and independently imposing itself on employees. Culture is produced and reproduced incessantly through routine interactions of organization members. It shapes both their actions, and the outcome of social creation and reproduction process. However, this view takes into consideration the influence of leaders, since they themselves are engaged in interactions and thus contribute to culture formation. Morgan (1997) states that in the process of constructing reality people could see and understand particular events, objects, utterances, or situations in distinctive ways. From this point of view, if different people attribute different meanings to the same phenomena (Schultz, 1995), one can conclude that it is unlikely to find a culture based only on shared values, beliefs and understandings.

Managerial perspective regards culture as monolith, characterized by consistency, organization-wide consensus and clarity. According to the integration perspective, an organization possesses a single unified culture and that its integrating features will lead to improved organizational efficiency through greater employee commitment and control (Martin, 2002). Ambiguities must be eliminated in favor of a dominant and stable set of values (Meyerson, 1991). Fragmentation and differentiation are considered as problems. Homogeneity is important to prevent attachment to ideas that do not conform to and strengthen the authority of the core organization values. It is critical that there is an adjustment of ‘employees' purposes with the normative framework created by the corporation cultural engineers (Willmott, 1993). Functionalists are advocates of what is called strong culture (Peters and Waterman, 1982). The controversial notion of a ‘strong' culture has three characteristics: a clear set of values, norms and beliefs; the sharing of these by the majority of members; and the guidance of employees' behavior. Schein (2004) states that managers have to find ways of coordinating, aligning, or integrating different subcultures. Functionalists do not take into account contradictions, disputes and ambiguities.

In contrast, according to the social science approach or differentiation perspective, an organization comprises subcultures, each with its own characteristics differing from those of its neighbours (Martin, 2002). It sees organizational culture as pluralistic and organizations as consisting of various interests with different objectives. The goal is to understand the lack of cultural consensus within organizations. Interest is focused upon the way in which organizational reality is constructed and reconstructed. Thus, the differentiation perspectives view ‘cultural pluralism' as a fundamental aspect of all organizations: seek to understand the complexity and the interaction between frequently conflicting subcultures; and therefore stands in direct contrast to the managerial unitary or integrationist perspective. Diversity is important for organizations that want to help individuals to react more effectively to extremely complex information and to allow and perhaps appreciate more "fuzzy" technologies (Meyerson, 1991:262). This could be viewed as a competitive advantage if one considers that ambiguity and chaos are inherent in the innovation process (opt.cit:261).

Culture is regarded as the product of group experience and is found wherever there is a determinable group with significant shared history, values and beliefs. Given the existence of many different groups within a single organization, one can expect there to be many different subcultures. Schein acknowledges the existence of a managerial culture: various occupation-based subcultures within functional units and worker cultures based on shared hierarchical experiences. The social science perspective sees organizations as composed of interacting subcultures divided both laterally and vertically.

From fragmentation perspective, ambiguity is a norm, where consensus and disagreement co-exist in a constantly changing pattern influenced by events and specific areas of decision making (Martin, 1992). Rather than the clear unity of the integration perspective, or the clear conflicts of the differentiation viewpoint, fragmentation concentrates on that is vague. Many OC studies concentrate on only one of these perspectives. For instance, Meyerson (1991) remarks that much of the popular literature (Peters and Waterman,1982; Deal and Kennedy, 1982) assumes mistakenly that organizational culture consists of shared meanings and commonalities that are monolithic, homogeneous and organization-wide. The potential existence of subcultures or controversy is considered only as a weak culture indicator. There are also major methodological differences between the three perspectives. Much of the research identifying consensus has engaged small-scale qualitative research where only the senior levels of selected organizations have been interviewed (Peters and Waterman, 1982; Deal and Kennedy, 1982; Barley, 1983). This approach has been criticized for providing an incomplete picture of an organization's culture, reflecting only management hopes (Martin et al., 1983 ).

Most of the studies identifying differentiation perspective have tended to be quantitative, questioning large number of subjects, using some form of standardized research instrument (Martin and Frost, 1995). This approach has been reproved for its lack of depth and its inability to evaluate the unique characteristics of an organization (Schein, 1991). Martin and Meyerson (1988) argue, using data from a variety of case studies, that any culture contains elements that can be understood only when all three perspectives are used.

The managerial view of culture emphasizes consensus. The possibility of conflict is acknowledged, but is imputed to failures in communication and capable of being managed through interventions. It is presupposed that senior managers' articulation of their organization's culture is identical to the actual culture. The focus is on what the culture should be (in management view) rather than explaining what the culture actually is, and evaluating its significance. Most problematically, it stimulates managers to act if their preferred culture (with its attributes) already existed, making them to believe that representing their cultural myth would create their desired organizational reality (Martin, 1992).

The social science view, in contrast, regards organization as a collection of frequently opposed groups which are rarely reconciled. It thus assumes the inevitability of conflicts and focuses on the variety of interests and opinions between different groups. It therefore is important for managers and management consultants who underplay the differences existing between individuals, groups and departments within a company. The fragmentation (or conflict) perspective sees organizations as being in constant flux with reality being constantly constructed and reconstructed, due to human interactions and environmental changes. This view offers no comfort for either managers or academics who seek clarity (Cohen et al., 1972; Becker, 1982).

Overall, this comparison can be represented as a table below.

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