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Organizational culture is the “set(s) of artifacts, values, and assumptions that emerge from the interactions of organizational members” (Keyton 2005, 1). These interactions create a social order or a communication construction of the organization. Thus, symbols, messages, and meaning create a continuous communication performance at work. This is why it is frequently stated that an organization is culture rather than an organization has a culture (Smircich 1983). While the popular view of organizational culture is often that it is comprised of organizational members’ shared assumptions, communication scholars have demonstrated that multiple shared patterns of organizational artifacts, values, and assumptions exist and are constantly being created and recreated through member interactions.
Artifacts, Values, And Assumptions
Artifacts are visible or tangible in themselves or in their manifestations, such as norms about politeness or dress, organizational customs such as new employee orientation, or physical representations such as organizational logos. Artifacts are easy to observe, but can be difficult to decipher. For example, an organizational logo can be easily identified, but why or how the logo or artifact represents the organization is not always direct or clear. Because an analysis of an organization’s artifacts is only partial, a valid interpretation of an organization’s culture cannot be constructed from artifacts alone (Schein 1992).
Values shared by organizational members and manifested in their behavior are also a component of organizational culture. Values are strategies, goals, principles, or qualities that are considered ideal or desirable, and, as a result, create guidelines for organizational behavior. Organizational cultures are comprised of many values that are interdependent; one set may support one another (e.g., values for independence and personal achievement), whereas others again may conflict (e.g., values for autonomy and teamwork). Values that are shared inevitably become transformed into assumptions, taken-for-granted beliefs that are so deeply entrenched that organizational members no longer discuss them. These tacit assumptions are subtle, abstract, and implicit, making them difficult to articulate. Despite these features, basic assumptions are acted on with such little variation that organizational members consider any other action inconceivable.
Organizational members seldom talk directly about artifacts, values, and assumptions. Rather, the meaning held in these elements is revealed through day-to-day conversations with other organizational insiders and outsiders. Organizational culture is both created and revealed through the creation and enactment of rites, rituals, and ceremonies; the practice of norms or procedures; the use of specialized language; and the telling of stories or use of metaphors. No one artifact, value, or assumption can create or represent an organization’s culture. Rather, organizational culture emerges from the complex interplay of these elements in the organizational communication of all members, all at levels, in all job functions. As a result, culture is nearly impossible to see in its totality.
Characteristics Of Organizational Culture
Using a communicative perspective, organizational culture has five important characteristics (Keyton 2005). First, organizational culture is inextricably linked to organizational members, who participate in the organization symbolically and socially construct and sustain the culture. Second, organizational culture is dynamic, not static. Third, organizational culture consists of competing assumptions and values, as organizational members create sub-cultures with both overlapping and distinguishing elements. Fourth, organizational culture is emotionally charged, as meanings associated with artifacts, values, and assumptions are deeply connected to the feelings and relationships of organizational members. Finally, organizational culture operates in both the foreground and background of organizational life. Organizational members make sense of their current interactions (the foreground) on the basis of their understanding of the existing culture (the background). This cycle of culture creation is continuous and never complete. As a result, organizational culture is a representation of the social order of an organization.
Relationships Of Sub-Cultures To Culture
A consensus view of organizational culture is based on the congruence of assumptions, values, and artifacts jointly held or shared by organizational members. The more unity there is among members, the more consensual the view of organizational culture. Often referred to as integration, mutually consistent interpretations are abundant and so deeply held that little variation occurs. Generally, a strong leader shapes this integration by initially generating the value and beliefs and then strategically publicizing and propagating them.
Six factors limit the degree to which a consensual view of culture can be achieved. Employees are often members of occupational or professional communities and bring pre-existing shared values and practices into the workplace. Employees also belong to specific functions (e.g., manufacturing, human resources, engineering, sales) or work groups. Because the work of these groups is central to the organizational mission, these individuals are likely to bond together as they work to control their collective destiny in the organization. Hierarchy can also create sub-cultures. Organizational members at the same level will share similar organizational treatment, and thus sub-cultures develop. Sub-cultures can also develop based on the social needs and interpersonal interactions among employees across work groups or work functions. When groups exist in an organization they distinguish themselves from members of others groups. This ingroup/ outgroup distinction often results in intergroup conflict that strengthens differences between groups and the sub-culture of each. Finally, all employees have individual value systems, and core values are often difficult to change. Thus, it is common for subcultures with different sets of artifacts, values, and assumptions to develop in organizations.
Regardless of their basis, sub-cultures are revealed in the language patterns of organizational members as they segment themselves into groups. Sub-cultures may be distinguished by clear and systematic differences. This type of segmentation, known as differentiation, reveals oppositional thinking, with each sub-culture concerned about the power it holds relative to others. Within each sub-culture, there is consistency and clarity that makes it distinct from others. In contrast, fragmentation of organizational culture occurs when ambiguity is prevalent. Here, organizational members are part of shifting coalitions, forming and reforming on the basis of shared identities, issues, and circumstances. Sub-cultures appear briefly, but with boundaries that are permeable and fluctuating, making it difficult for a sub-culture to sustain itself. Fragmentation tensions are irreconcilable, and are often described as ironies, paradoxes, or contradictions, as employees may belong to sub-cultures that are in agreement on some issues and simultaneously belong to other sub-cultures that are not. In this view, ambiguity is a normal and persistent organizing condition.
The broadest view of cultural consensus and division is that integration, differentiation, and fragmentation coexist. Using all three perspectives allows consistency, distinction, and ambiguity to be revealed as important characteristics of an organization’s culture. One perspective is not more correct than another, as each offers an incomplete view of an organization’s culture, and all three are needed to offer a multifocal view. Described as a nexus approach to the study of organizational culture (Martin 2002), this serves as a resource for communication researchers. However, the ontological and analytical claims associated with it have been challenged (Taylor et al. 2006).
Viewing organizations through a cultural lens – rather than as legal entities, hierarchies, or functional operations – reveals the rich symbolism that exists in all aspects of organizational life. A cultural lens also shifts the focus in organizational studies from that of managers, leaders, and executives to all organizational members. Through a cultural perspective, researchers can explore an organization’s way of life, how that reality is created and interpreted by various organizational stakeholders, and the influence of those interpretations on organizational activities.
From early anthropological studies, culture was viewed holistically and was synonymous with societal boundaries. More recently, the study of culture has focused on meaning systems that distinguish members of one group or category from another. The primary contribution of anthropologists to the study of culture has been their integrated and detailed accounts of cultural phenomena. The study of organizational culture also draws from sociologists who focus on sub-groups within a society (e.g., blue-collar workers, working mothers) and the ideas, themes and values they express.
Although not labeled as organizational culture, Elton Mayo’s human relations studies (Mayo 1975; 1st pub. 1949) concluded that informal interactions among organizational members created expectations and constraints that could not be otherwise explained, and that beliefs, attitudes, and values brought by employees into the work setting influence how the employees view themselves, the organization, and their roles. By 1969, organizational culture was inextricably linked to organizational change, as management scholar Warren Bennis proclaimed that the only way to change an organization was to change its culture.
Since the 1970s, communication scholars have worked to explore and explain the ways in which messages, meanings, and symbols are central to an organization’s existence. This early symbolic interaction approach has been replaced with an interpretive approach that focuses on the complexity of meanings in social interaction, treats organizations as social constructions, and views the processes of organizing and communicating as inextricably linked. Most recently, a critical communication perspective of organizational culture has generated insight about cultural processes by revealing the complexity of the work environment, the variety of stakeholders, and their competing interests and power relationships (Deetz 1988).
Communication scholars have contributed to the growth and development of the study of organizational culture in five ways (Eisenberg & Riley 2001). First, a communication perspective has demonstrated the symbolic nature of day-to-day conversations and routine practices, emphasizing that culture is present in all organizational communication. Second, a communication perspective emphasizes the way in which both interpretation and action exist within communication practice. Third, the communication perspective on organizational culture recognizes how societal patterns and norms facilitate or constrain the practices of individuals within an organizational culture. Fourth, the communication perspective honors a variety of researcher–organization relationships. The researcher can be within, close to, or more removed from the culture being studied. Finally, the communication perspective acknowledges all motives as legitimate for the study of organizational culture. These five contributions underscore the role of the study of organizational culture in moving the broader study of organizations, particularly, organizational communication, from a rational, objective, and abstract perspective to one that produces deep, rich, and realistic understandings of organizations and the experiences of people within them.
Approaches For Organizational Culture Research
Communication scholars have taken several approaches to the study of organizational culture. Four are described here: symbolic performance, narrative, textual reproduction, and power and political.
The symbolic performance perspective examines the way in which a set of artifacts, values, and assumptions reveals cultural meaning as well as how the performance itself is developed, maintained, and changed. Organizational performances have four characteristics (Pacanowsky & O’Donnell-Trujillo 1982, 1983). They are interactive and contextual, as organizational members create and participate in them together situated within a larger set of organizational events. Organizational performances are episodic – each with a beginning and ending – creating regularity and a routine for the flow of work, as well as a framework for interpretation. Finally, organizational performances are improvisational. While an organization’s culture can provide some structure for a performance, a performance is never fully scripted. Witmer’s (1997) study of Alcoholics Anonymous illustrates these characteristics.
A second approach sees organizational culture as a narrative reproduction. A narrative is a story, and a common way for people to make sense of their organizational experiences (Boje 1991). Because organizational stories are about particular actors and particular events, they serve as artifacts to provide information about an organization’s values and assumptions. The telling and retelling of a narrative reproduces the culture and provides insight into what the culture values. Stories also reveal logics or rationales for understanding the complexity of organizational life, and create bonds that hold organizational members together. If others in the organization tell the same or a similar story, the narrative will gain legitimacy and be seen as the way things really are. Legitimacy in this case is not located in truth, but depends on the plausibility of the story. Most important, stories are never neutral, and often represent the interests of dominant groups. Because stories reinforce what is and what is not valued, they both produce and reproduce the organization’s power structure. As an example, Zoller’s (2003) interviews with employees at an automobile manufacturing plant demonstrate how stories reveal their values and assumptions and the way in which those values and assumptions align with those of management.
A third approach conceptualizes organizational culture as textual reproduction. Written texts, such as formal communication in the form of newsletters, mission statements, procedures, handbooks, reports, and slogans, are widely used and available in organizations, providing a fixed view of organizational culture. Typically these texts represent managerial perspectives because of their permanence and ability to be controlled. Textual reproductions of organizational culture are especially useful for exploring espoused versus enacted elements of culture. Formal documentation represents the espoused view and explains the culture from a managerial perspective. Alternately, informal texts, such as emails or blogs, are better representations of the enacted culture. An example of the latter is Gossett and Kilker’s (2006) examination of a counterinstitutional (i.e., not organizationally sponsored) website that reveals employees’ and former employees’ alternative interpretations of organizational events.
In a fourth view, power and politics are manifested in many ways in organizations; four are central to the study of organizational culture (Ragins 1995). Power can exist in an organizational member’s ability or others’ perceptions of that ability. Power can exist in interactions among organizational members. Structural or legitimate power can be derived from the design of the organization, most commonly based on a job title or job function. Finally, socio-political power – such as racism, sexism, and classism – can be imported from an organization’s larger social environment. Thus, it is impossible for an organization’s culture not to carry symbolic meaning about who is powerful and who is not. For example, Smith and Keyton’s (2001) study of the production of a television sitcom demonstrates how interactions among organizational members both affirm and contest hierarchal power.
The critical perspective views the communication of an organization as an index of its ideology. Critical cultural studies explore forms of organizational domination and control as well as the ways organizational members perpetuate or resist these forms. Organizations are sites of hierarchy, dominance, and power, and, as a result, organizational members have varying degrees of power and status, and of control over message creation and message meaning. Powerful organizational members, when they can get others to accept their views about the organization, are in a position to create the normative practices of the organization’s culture. Moreover, these members can establish a culture that is more favorable to them and less favorable to the less powerful. While norms and values are sometimes obvious, this imbalance can also be presented in such a way that less powerful organizational members accept the views and values of the powerful without question.
The value of a communicative approach to the study of organizational culture rests within a researcher’s intimate knowledge of an organization’s interaction environment. While early functional and prescriptive studies were largely based on surveys or questionnaires, the interpretive and critical perspectives rely on participation observation, group and individual interviews, ethnography, and textual analysis.
These methods allow the researcher to capture informal and formal textual artifacts of the organization, and organizational members’ interactions as they occur as well as their reactions to the communication of others. These methods also allow a researcher to examine the texts, interactions, and interpretations of communication within the context in which they were generated.
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