When one thinks about the word "culture," one tends to think about some far-away, exotic place where people in elaborate costumes perform mysterious rituals. While it is certainly true that people on the other side of the world from wherever one lives certainly have their own culture, it is vital to remember that all people have their lives deeply influenced by culture. We each live in a number of different cultures: The culture of our family, of our neighborhood, of the place where we work, sometimes of a religious and ethnic community. Culture is simply an agreement among the members of a group about how they will behave, what their values are, and how they will communicate with each other. Culture determines how we each interact with each other on a daily basis.
The paper examines the organizational culture of a family-owned business, using a model developed by Gareth Morgan. The idea of organizational culture -- as opposed to organic culture, which is the kind of culture that develops spontaneously among people who live together in a geographically defined community. Organizational culture is defined by the habitual way of doing things in various types of groups, including workplaces, schools, hospitals, armies -- even prisons. Whenever a group of people spend a large percentage of their time together, they create a culture, a common way of doing things. This is certainly true in the family business that I participate in.
The following provides a good overview of what organizational culture is and how it functions:
The culture of a group can now be defined as: A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. (Schein 373-374)
This definition summarizes how organizational culture comprises both values and cognitive strategies.
An important point must be made before proceeding to an explanation of Morgan's concept of the cultural metaphor and how it applies to organizational culture in general and to my family's business in particular. While culture is a set of shared behaviors and values, this does not mean that everyone in a culture has the same amount of power to determine the rules of that culture. In fact, democratic processes within a cultural group are the exception rather than the rule. In most cultures, some individuals (or institutions) have far greater power than do others.
In essentially every natural culture (that is, one that arises in an unpremeditated way), men have more (and often substantially more) power than do women, and older people often have more power than younger people. Both of these conditions are true in my family business: My father has the most power to determine how the company is run, what will be the rules and values of the organization by virtue of being the patriarch. While there are certainly good reasons to honor those who have experience in a field, there are also good reasons to honor those who are bringing fresh ideas into a company. While the former is true in my family's company, the latter is not.
The result of the way in which my father controls the organizational culture of our company is that the company is not able to be as flexible as it needs to be to keep up with its competitors. This is a source of frustration to many of us. This paper presents an analysis of the specific ways in which the organizational culture of the company might be changed through a better understanding of the way in which organizational culture is created and maintained. The theoretical model that I will be using throughout this paper is that of Morgan, who brought a number of anthropological and ethnographic concepts to his analysis of how organizations work over time.
It's All in Your Head -- Except That It's Not
Morgan's model of how organizations establish and replicate their particular culture draws heavily from central concepts in anthropology. One of these is that culture is often carried out on a subconscious level: We are often not consciously aware of the reason that we do what we do until we are challenged about it. For example, most Westerners have never questioned why it is in their cultures that women can wear both pants and dresses while men can only wear pants. There is nothing natural about such a distinction: Nothing about the way human bodies are constructed makes it impossible for men to wear dresses, and of course in many cultures men wear various forms of skirts, dressers, or robes.
However, if a man shows up to his office in London or New York or Moscow wearing a dress, he will get a significantly negative reaction, demonstrating the fact that while most of us would find it hard to put words to exactly what the rules of their culture are, we are all made aware by others exactly when we break cultural rules. Trying to do something that is outside of the culture's tolerance brings various kinds of punishments, from being teased to being shunned to being imprisoned or even executed.
Cultures -- which is to say, those with the largest amount of power in a relationship -- universally struggle to balance change and continuity:
In other words, as groups evolve over time, they face two basic challenges: integrating individuals into an effective whole, and adapting effectively to the external environment in order to survive. As groups find solutions to these problems over time, they engage in a kind of collective learning that creates the set of shared assumptions and beliefs we call "culture." (Organizational culture, 2005)
The above quote makes the point that one of the chief functions of culture is to bring new members in and to ensure that they fit in.
Sometimes this process of enculturation is gentle and subtle, sometimes it is brutal. This dynamic is a little different in a family-based organization because the entrance into the organization is essentially mandatory: We cannot choose our families, as the saying goes, and if our family runs a business, then one has very little choice about one's job or career either. This can feel very oppressive, even if the business is ideally organized and run. When the business is struggling because of a refusal to change or be flexible, having to participate in the family business simply because it is the family business can be both frustrating and stressful (Kouzes & Posner, 2002, p. 67).
The most central challenge of any culture is to be able to balance stability and change. If cultures do not change, then they will become increasingly out of sync with the rest of their environment (Oswick & Montgomery, 1999). The greater the difference between one subculture and the larger culture, the more stresses there will be for members of the subculture when they interact with the larger culture. This does not mean that the members of the subculture do not consider their choices to be valid and worthwhile; however, a culture that does not change is in many ways handicapping itself.
Change Is Not an All-or-Nothing Process
This is certainly the case with my family company: By refusing to change in terms of adopting new technologies and new ways of doing business and conceptualizing business, the company is facing increasing friction from the world around it (Jensen, 2006, p. 16). In some ways, the company seems like the Amish, a religious group that has kept the same technologies and values for generations and generations. The first generation of Amish were similar to their neighbors in the way that they dressed, in how they farmed (that is, in the way that they made their living), in their approach to education and family life. As the Amish kept to their original ways, and the rest of the world changed, the Amish have become more and more isolated and out of sync. Because of their strong work ethic and the enduring importance of agriculture, they have been able to find a small corner in the modern world.
The conditions that affect businesses, however, are not so forgiving of an organization that does not change. Or rather, that does not change in its basic strategies. This is very different from refusing to change basic core beliefs, but the distinction is one that is not sufficiently emphasized (Weick, 1979), p. 81). This is true in my family's business, in which my father often resists change (or simply refuses to change) on the grounds that he does not want to compromise his value system -- which includes values such as the importance of honesty, integrity, and hard work.
My father is, of course, perfectly right in not wanting to compromise such values: These are key to both our family…