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Organizations have mostly been thought of as being a rational means by which to coordinate and control a group of people. Organizations are more than vertical and horizontal compartments, and authority relationships; they have personalities just like individuals.  They can be thought of as living organisms.  This article undertakes the subject of organizational culture.  It covers a definition of organizational culture, what cultures do, how employees learn culture, some examples   of organizational culture in action, and implications for performance and satisfaction.

Organisational Culture

The discussion on culture confirms that it a dynamic concept embodying learning and group dynamics. Culture is always in the process of formation and change. It tends to cover all aspects of human functioning. It is learned around the major issues of external adaptation and internal integration; and is ultimately embodied in an interrelated, patterned set of basic assumptions that deal with ultimate issues, such as the nature of humanity, human relationships, time space and the nature of reality and truth itself.

The notion of culture in everyday usage refers to tastes, or liking for the arts and the way people conduct themselves in their daily living. The social scientists make a more specific distinction based on common conduct, custom and practice. Distinctive world views and values that set groups of people apart fall into that area of their ‘culture’.


CORPORATE CULTURE – Use it with care, ignore it at your peril.

Changes in South African organisations are occurring as a result of inter alia, organisational life cycle evolutions, the reinvention of core structures and processes, culturally diverse workforce talent, and a highly unionised workforce.  Indeed, changes in the cultural make-up of workforce demographics and leadership, mainly because of affirmative action and equal opportunity programs, are forcing organisations to re-examine their human relations and employment practices (Manning 1996)

Leaders must, on the one hand, meet the needs of a culturally diverse workforce comprising illiterate, unskilled and semi-skilled people, while on the other, leading an educated and highly skilled workforce. This challenge requires and understanding of ‘organisational culture’ and how it impacts on organisational effectiveness.

The notion of culture in everyday usage refers to tastes, or liking for the arts and the way people conduct themselves in their daily living. The social scientists make a more specific distinction based on common conduct, custom and practice. Distinctive world views and values that set groups of people apart fall into that area of their ‘culture’

The word culture has its origins in anthropology and sociology. An anthropologist, Tyler, in Brown (1995) is accorded with having been the first to describe the phenomenon. He described the concept as being that “complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society” (Brown, 1995:3)

Others including sociologist Durkheim in the late 19th century gave prominence to symbols, myths and rituals in understanding social reality. Max Weber’s studies of organisation at a similar time into leadership and organisation began to identify aspects of organisational life such as informal norms, ambiguity and apparent irrationality that are still with us at the start of the new millennium.

The increasing volatility and turbulence experienced in the late 60’s and 70’s prompted research into how employees felt about their places of work. According to Tagiuri (1968) ‘organisational climate’ was about the enduring quality of an organisation emplyees experienced and how it influenced their behaviour. Brown (1995) suggests that it was out of this fascination for ‘climate’ that a more sophisticated approach was needed to fully understand organisation. The reduced predictability and stability of organisation and environment, growing levels of expectations and the move toward a ‘democratic’ workplace according to Kanter (1983) required management to align their businesses with these trends. This could only be achieved by developing a ‘culture’ supportive of these trends.

Schmickl (1985) argues that organisations are human institutions and that they are ‘living’ to the extent that they take on values, beliefs and behaviours of their own. He further suggests that organisations with a long record of success, potentially have their existence rooted in ‘the hearts and minds’ of their employees. Work by Bennis & Nanus (1985), Deal & Kennedy (1982), Hickman & Siva (1984), Peters & Waterman (1982) and Viljoen (1987) suggests further that ‘like societal cultures, organisational culture are learned, predominantly through experience, over long periods of time’. This is reflected in internal adaptation to environmental influence and change.

Earlier work by Jaques (1951), Selznik (1957), and Dalton (1959) did not focus specifically on culture but was analysed in the broader context of an organisational study. Significantly, no attempts at that stage were made to define precisely what is referred to as organisation culture. What then is organisational culture?

Definitons of organisation culture

Writings about a people or notion ten to refer to distinctive ways of doing things, to how they think and perceive themselves and the world, what they strive for and what they abhor, and what they have produced by way of material, artistic, spiritual, and theoretical things of value. Organisations also, will, over time, produce their distinctive sets of values, and ways of doing things, all of which give them a ‘corporate personality’.

Brown (1995) suggests that how we define concepts in understanding organisations determines how we think about the phenomena they refer to. There is consensus on most issues. However, on the subject of organisation culture there are widely differing definitions. Kroeber & Kluckhohn (1952) identified 164 different definitions of culture and it would be safe to assume that this has increased since then. Pieterson (1991:28) is prompted to note that “there are ad many formulations of corporate culture as researches”. It is a phenomenon according to Pieterson (1991), Robbins (1996) and Schmikl (1985) that has been described as elusive, sometimes vague, taking on different meanings to different people and yet known when seen.

There are some writers such as Segall (1984), Bieshiuwel (1987) and Moola (1998), who argue that attempts to define culture precisely are restrictive. They question the return on the effort to seek clarity, universal consensus and that may lead to focussing on the ‘wrong’ things.

Jahoda (1980) holds a contrary view, arguing that weakness of theory of culture is inadequate operationalising of the concept. He acknowledges that the notion is not clear, is elusive and often varied in the social science literature. But is of the view that to effectively research the topic definition of the construct is vital for measurement. Too narrow a definition would also be limiting and to this end, it is argued that a conceptual framework is needed.

The following are a few of the definitions offered in the literature. It is by no means an exhaustive exposition but an attempt to highlight the disparate views in this regard.

  • According to Eldridge & Combie (1974) The culture of an organisation refers to the unique set of norms, values, beliefs, ways of behaving, and their configuration that uniquely characterises the way groups in an organisation get things done. It is linked to history, the past leadership and decisions, all of which reflect in the folklore, the ideology and strategic direction in the organisation.
  • Gold (1982) describes organisational culture as a kind of ‘specialness’ or quality that sets one organisation apart from another.
  • Paconowsky & o’ Donnell – Trujillo (1982) take a holistic view – describing organisation culture as not just a piece of the puzzle but ‘the ‘ puzzle – culture is not something the organisation has but something the organisation is.
  • Morgan (1986) describes culture as a metaphor that creates organised activity: by influencing the language and various other ways that communicate the important ideology, values, beliefs, and guiding action.
  • According to Drennan (1992) culture is what is typical of the organisation, the habits, the prevailing attitudes, and the grown – up pattern of accepted and expected behaviour. It is about “how things are done around here”.

Schein (1985) says that he means culture to be, a pattern of basic 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 valid and, therefore to be passed on to new members as the accepted way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

These definitions all reflect a range of meanings of the notion of culture. Brown (1995) suggests that these can be classified in terms of fundamental distinctions. His system identifies two broad categories. Firstly there is the view that culture is a series of metaphors that describe or enable understanding of organisation.

The example cited are the use of the metaphors ‘machine’ or ‘organism’ to explain organisation. Secondly there is the more popular thought that culture is an objective entity which comprised a set of behavioural or cognitive characteristics. In this category some would argue that the organisation is the culture. This holistic view is criticised on the basis that it does not allow for deeper study of the concept. Peterson (1991) argues additionally that while these differences may not be as marked, they are viewed and studied from different perspectives.

Robbins (1996) suggests that in an organisational context certain characteristics capture the essence of culture. These cover, innovation, risk taking and attention to detail, and focus on results or outcome, people orientation, team orientation, aggressiveness, and stability.  Weisbord (1976) in considering organisational functioning and effectiveness, identifies a set of different variables, which together he considered as a reflection of how and organisation is managed. These are organisation purpose, structure, relationships, rewards, leadership, coordinating technology and attitude toward change, These are used in his Six Box Model from which he developed his widely used Organisational Diagnosis Questionnaire.

Brown (1995) argues further that the choice of definition determines how it is studied further. This study uses his proposition that “ organisational culture refers to the pattern of beliefs, learned values and ways of coping with experience that have developed during the course of an organisation’s history, and which ten to be manifested in its material arrangements and in the behaviour of its members”. (Brown 1995:8)

Furthermore culture has also been described in terms of its parts or components and Baligh (1994) makes a distinction between them. Firstly he lists among others language, communication, and business related economic structures and activities as parts. Components on the other hand he identifies as including truth, beliefs, values, and logic.

Allaire & Firsiraotu (1984:196), in a detailed study of theories of organisational culture, identify two streams of thought, The first of these postulates that culture in organisation derives from an ‘ideational system’ that locates culture in the ‘minds of the culture bearers’ and the ‘shared meanings and symbols’ thereof. The second view is that of a ‘sociocultrual system’ with culture being a component of the social system. It then manifests in behaviour (ways of life) and products of behaviour. They conclude that these views paradoxically lead to divergent and mutually exclusive notions of the concept. They propose an integrated model that embodies three interrelated components. The first of these the ‘sociocultural system’, comprises the policies, structures and processes. Secondly a ‘cultural system’ including myths, ideology, and values, embodies the expressive and affective dimensions. The third component relates to the individuals in the organisation and their influence on, and interpretation of, the meaning attached to the first two components of the model.

It seems therefore that definition on its own is incomplete without some consideration of the components of culture.

 Culture and its components.

In an effort to give some system to the attempts at defining the concept and components of culture various authors have built the elements into a model. Scheinc (1985) and Hofstede et al (1990) suggest models that reflect the manifestations of culture in terms of deeper levels.

These begin with the most visible, namely ‘artefacts’ such as material objects, physical layouts, symbols, stories, rules and procedures, and technology. They are generally the outward indications of the essence of the culture.

At an intermediate level Schein (1985) identifies “values, beliefs, and attitudes” as being part of the cognitive substructure of the organisational culture. This very real psychological existence guides and influences daily activities in the organisation. Pieterson (1991) suggests that in this respect values are about what out to be done in the belief that it is the right thing to do. An example of this is that valuing honesty and integrity should be followed by actions that are honest and have integrity. Attitudes then connect values and beliefs with feelings, and are relatively consistent over time.

The deepest level is about the shared “core or central assumptions” that are made about human nature, activity and relationships. “This is the implicit level of the organisation’s inner being – it’s basic nature and faith, the source of its uniqueness in all other areas” Perterson (1991:30)

A discussion on the components of culture leads logically onto what Brown (1995) refers to as a classification of culture types. Referring to the work of among others Harrison (1972) and Handy (1985) he notes that these typologies describe how organisations work. Robbins (1996) also makes reference to a more recent classification by Sonnenfeld, which suggests that people and culture b matched, and that certain cultures will attract certain personality types.

The literature suggests that these ‘types’ are useful to the extent that they provide a broad understanding of the different variations between cultures and indeed organisations. They offer possibilities of dimensions, how they react and interact with each other – covering issues such as power, roles, tasks, response to people and part played by these in the handling of conflict, reduction of uncertainty, motivation and competitive advantage. Briges (1992), who writes about the character of organisations in terms of Jungian typology, suggests that the organisation’s cultural roots are related to the founders and indeed to the industry in which they exist. Of importance to this study is the organisation’s ability to respond to change and concomitantly its staff.


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DBA, MBL, MBA, BTech Academic Team Leader and Senior Lecturer Regenesys Business School


DBA, MBL, MBA, BTech Academic Team Leader and Senior Lecturer Regenesys Business School

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