What is organisational culture? Ask an anthropologist.

Jane Watson accuses HR of “Sloppy Thinking on Culture“. This is grossly unfair! CEOs, marketing executives, PR luvvies, business journalists, management consultants, politicians and motivational speakers have all been at it for years too.

Ever since the concept emerged in the 1980s, it has been seized upon by those who want it to mean whatever it is they are trying to promote in their latest board paper or management pot-boiler. Whether you are trying to reform a public sector body, merge organisations, revitalise an uncompetitive company or create a world-beating investment bank, culture, it seems, is the key.

Organisational culture seems to offer a magic bullet. If you could just change people’s attitudes then they would, you know, just get on and do all the right things without having to be asked. Then you could stop doing all that boring managing and monitoring stuff. And if you didn’t need to do all that, you could sack a load of middle managers and supervisors, saving the company a fortune. It is no coincidence that organisational culture came into vogue at around the same time as delayering.

The trouble is, it’s all a bit more complicated than that. It always is, isn’t it?

As I said four years ago:

If I hear one more person say that ‘Culture is the way we do things around here’ I will be sick. As a definition of culture it is all but useless. If that’s all it is, you’d just change the way you do things and be done with it.

To really understand culture, you need to understand where the concept comes from. Like almost everything else in the study of organisations, it comes from another behavioural academic discipline. Not from psychology or economics, like most of what we optimistically call management science, but from anthropology. For, as Gareth Morgan said, when we talk about organisational culture, we are trying to understand an organisation as if it were a society or a tribe. Just as, to understand a society, you would study its rituals, artefacts and unwritten rules, to understand an organisation’s culture, you need to do the same.

I still think some of the earliest writing on organisational culture is most useful for understanding the concept. (I’m not sure if much really new on the concept, as opposed to its application, has been said over the past two decades but I’m happy to be corrected.)

Edgar Schein told us, a quarter of a century ago, that culture is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions”. (Must-reads here and here.) Because these are unspoken, those who share them don’t realise they are doing so. They just carry on assuming. They only stop assuming when the beliefs they have taken for granted are challenged. Even then, they will cling to these beliefs even in the face of powerful evidence. These assumptions and beliefs underpin the behaviour that produces the unwritten rules, the rituals and the visible artifacts that define the society. Or, in our case, the organisation.

Another key question, again raised by one of the early writers, Linda Smircich, is whether culture is something an organisation has or something an organisation is. (This paper is 30 years old but it’s worth reading if you are interested in the subject.) If culture is something an organisation has, then you can just dump it and get a new one. If it is something an organisation is, then changing it means deep surgery (or therapy) for the whole organisation.

I’m very much in the ‘is’ camp. Organisations don’t have hierarchical cultures, they are hierarchical cultures. The people make up the organisation so it behaves as it does because of the assumptions the people inside it carry. To say culture is something an organisation has externalises it – makes it somehow separate from the people who are part of it. “We’re not bullies. We just work in an organisation that has a bullying culture.”

OK, I’m lapsing into my annoying habit of being facetious again, but I’m sure you get what I mean.

So given that culture is subconscious and assumed, and that it is as much a part of the organisation as blood and nerves are of an animal, changing it isn’t going to be as easy as the glib prescriptions would have us believe.

Which is why anthropologists are invaluable to the study of organisations. They actually understand culture and what it really means. (I’m not one; I had to play catch-up with all this stuff when I did my master’s degree.) Jane Watson is an anthropologist, though, which is why I’m looking forward to her future posts on organisational culture, the second installment of which appeared yesterday. So is the brilliant Gillian Tett. Her study of the tribe that gave us the financial crisis is a must-read.

We may not immediately think of anthropology as a good grounding for managing organisations but the discipline brings some useful insights. If we really want to understand an organisation as a culture, which presumably we do, given how often we use the word, recruiting some people who know about this stuff is a good place to start. After all, culture was part of their field of study a long time before it became a management buzz-word. The business world just nicked it from them.

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8 Responses to What is organisational culture? Ask an anthropologist.

  1. Pingback: What is organisational culture? Ask an anthropologist. - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Charles Cotton says:

    An interesting blog, Rick. I’m not sure if you had chance to listen to the BBC series on culture last week, but if not here’s the link http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pmg02/episodes/guide

  3. For years I’ve found Edgar Schein’s levels to be the most helpful guide to me in my work. As the saying goes, “there’s nothing so practical as a good theory”.

  4. Jane Watson says:

    Rick, I am definitely on board with your belief that understanding where a concept comes from is integral if it’s going to be anything more than a corporate buzzword (which we already have enough of). Much of the really compelling reading on org culture, org theory and related topics is in fact decades old, but thankfully stands up rather well. I am checcking out Gillian Tett’s writing as we speak, but thought I’d mention another great (though rather challenging) book that sounds relevant- Liquidated (Karen Ho) is an ethnography of Wall street, published in ’09- fascinating stuff. Thanks for a great post, and for mentioning my recent writing on thsi topic :)

  5. The concept of organisational culture existed long before the 80s, however it was seen in negative terms as an autonomous manifestation of the workers and thus something that needed to be challenged and tamed. This attitude ranged from the caricature of “I’m Alright Jack” to the infamous “canteen culture” of the Met police. It is no coincidence that the appearance of workplace culture as an organisational strategy occurs at the start of the successful campaign to disempower organised labour.

    One of the defining characteristics of workplace culture (which is amply evidenced in Jane Watson’s pieces) is that it is coterminus with the boundaries of the business. This might appear self-evident until you consider the extent to which earlier cultures extended beyond the boundary of the firm, in the form of union solidarity and shared industry norms. Today’s “workplace culture” denies any wider social context – every business is its own city-state – hence the assumption of job applicants that what they are about to experience is somehow unique and strange, rather than common and predictable, as if they were off on a gap-year up the Amazon.

    In this light, the employment of anthropological and ethnographic tropes is clearly ideological, particularly when in practice huge areas of lived experience are excluded (i.e. everything outside of work, bar office parties). There is value in using anthropological techniques, to the extent that you can subtly reveals forces of power and control, however we shouldn’t fail to appreciate that the practice itself is a means to exercise power and control, just as ethnography was originally a means of practising imperialism.

  6. MaryMary says:

    Great post. I wonder if you’ve read any of Bruno Latour’s work?

  7. Reblogged this on Get "fit for randomness" [with Ontonix UK] and commented:
    An excellent, enjoyable, insight into a subject matter that too many “experts” underestimate. Although, from a ‘complexity perspective’, the hierarchical structure too is a significant factor.

  8. Pingback: Gillian Tett, managing editor at FT, considers the cultural side of finance | Tim Batchelder.com

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