An Introduction to Cultural Change

Andrew Pettigrew (1979) was arguably the first organizational theorist to pioneer the import of the concept of culture from the field of anthropology into the discipline of organizational theory. Pettigrew drew his theoretical inspiration from scholars of anthropology who developed cultural studies as a science. Social psychology has also had an impact on the development of cultural theory within organsations. Recently the cultural debate has diverged or rather focused upon issues surrounding identity and the concept of “self”. These concepts have their roots in the work of psychologists such as George Herbert Mead (1934).

The cultural debate in organizations has obtained much of its theoretical ideas and concepts from both the sciences of anthropology and of social psychology. Such theoretical cross over from divergent fields such as anthropology and social psychology enabled the fledgling discourse of cultural theory within organizations to take wings. But it was mainly the displacement of cultural theory from within the field of anthropology into that of organizational theory that produced the hope that management practice, informed by cultural theory, could resolve the underlying conflict between workers, managers and the capitalist owners of the organizations that employs them. The symbolic battle caused by this conflict was and remains over control of the subjectivity of the employee mediated through expressive control imbedded in hegemonic systems and Chan & Clegg (2002:265) argue that: “organizational culture is a concept whose practice has increasingly been concerned with the creation of a new subjectivity and person-hood”. This quotation places the theoretical and practical emphasis of corporate “culturalism” on the manufacturing and management of subjectivity of the employee. It also emphasises the salience of crafting organizational identities for the employees as an underlying assumption of cultural theory.

Key drivers of the emergence of Cultural Management

The explosion media of media interest in cultural management can be traced back to the beginning of the 1980s. Industrial conflict between Japan and Anglo/American corporations for competitive advantage was arguably the catalyst for the Anglo/American interest  in cultural management techniques throughout organisations. In the early 1980’s American and Anglo/ European industrial companies were struggling to maintain their respective competitive positions, whilst Japanese manufacturing was enjoying significant competitive advantage in the global market place. Previously Japan had been economically dominated by the west and had lost a world war only 35 years earlier which had left Japan economically devastated. This change in competitive dynamics was explained by western business gurus such as Deal and Kennedy, (1982) and Peters and Waterman, (1982) as being down to Japan’s differentiated culture. Japan had a culture that was steeped in the Samurai tradition. In this tradition the community worked together with complete deference and subordination being afforded to the lord of the village who in turn saw it as his duty to serve the community. This culture was based upon a powerful respect towards craftsmanship, trade and authority. Japanese culture was steeped in a cultural history spanning over 2,000 years.

The American influence

William Edwards Deming and Joseph Duran are credited with instilling the quality philosophy into post war Japanese industry. Deming and Duran were the founding fathers of the quality movement in America which was, at its core, concerned with cultural change. In the case of Japan it was not so much cultural change but “cultural reproduction” of powerful cultural themes into large scale industrial settings. The cultural themes of loyalty, craft pride and the pursuit of perfection were harnessed with a business process model which manifested in the emergence of Statistical Process Control and Total Quality Management. Following the Second World War Japan enjoyed an economic renaissance through which she reinvented herself as a global industrial power. Aided by Demmings and Durans cultural efficiency models, Japan reinvented her commercial power by transferring the logic of loyalty to lord and community from the village farming and craft making community to that of the industrial plant. Unlike Anglo/American firms, throughout Japan both young and old alike had no sense of individualism or of placing their material needs before those of others. In Japan both the employee and the manager identified strongly with the organization and viewed employment as a duty and loyalty to the firm as a mark of pride. The craft culture throughout Japan exemplified by the master swords man who produced the Samurai and the Confucian ethic of striving for perfection migrated into the process of industrial manufacturing. Quality and love of both product and service exemplified the Japanese business culture.


Culture and competitive advantage

This phenomenon coincided with a wave of interest in the subject of competitive advantage as pioneered by Michael Porter (1985) in the early nineteen eighties. Porter argued that competitive advantage was defined as something that a business had that gave it advantage over the competition that could not be “bought”, “transferred” or “imitated”. In the mid eighties the source of competitive advantage for Japanese manufacturing was identified by the elite business gurus in America as their culture. Thus culture became identified as a potential source of competitive advantage as Anglo/ American and European industries failed to compete with Japanese products on price and on quality. This process of sense making resulted in the explosion throughout the west of cultural change programmes such as “Six Stigma”, “Kaizen Management”; and “Total Quality Management” plus a whole plethora of bespoke corporate cultural change programmes. For example, Jack Welch launched his now famous, or infamous, dependent on your perspective “Work Out” programme which was accredited with transforming the General Electric culture world wide and of dramatically improving share holder value. Both business consultants/academics and high profile captains of industry such as Jack Welch stimulated a market demand for popular management theory in relation to cultural change throughout the nineteen eighties that still resonates today. But did it (cultural management) do what was stated on the tin?

Competitive advantage and culture in the eighties

The market demand for recipe driven solutions to attaining competitive advantage from the concept of organizational culture directed elements of the global academic community towards studying this new sociological line of enquiry. Thus in the nineteen eighties running parallel with an explosion in practioner interest in cultural management techniques the era of corporate cultural studies within the context of organizational studies was also established. There were two distinct camps that emerged in the academic world with regards to the issue of cultural management. The first was what has been described as “the functionalist school”. Members of this school advanced a theory of cultural integration which was exemplified in the work of scholars such as Peters and Waterman (1982); Kanter (1984); Schein (1985) and Kotter and Hesket (1992). These theorists became known as “corporate cultural theorists” who believed that competitive advantage could be attained by managing the organisational culture just like any other resource variable .

The corporate cultural theorists provided the intellectual material for scholars such as Gregory (1983); Martin, et al (1983); Smircich (1983a and 1983b); Rosen (1985); Meek (1988); and Barley, et al, (1988) who sought to understand organisational behaviour through a cultural perspective. This community of scholars rejected the “culture as a variable” theory and in contrast adopted the strategy of taking a cultural perspective towards the study of organisations. This perspective was predicated on the idea that an organisation is a culture, as opposed to possessing a culture. These scholars became associated with what became known as the “the purest school” of thought. The functionalist school was represented by those scholars who advanced the idea of culture as a variable to be manipulated by management to secure the interests of the organisation. The purest school was represented by scholars who understood culture as a root metaphor for understanding the social, economic and symbolic political dynamics of an organization. These two schools have broadly remained separate with the functionalists developing recipe driven models for successful cultural change and some functionalist theorists developing celebratory status (Kilman, 1984; Schein 1985; Deal and Kennedy, 1992;Pfeffer,1992) and the purists developing a rigorous body of cultural theory through which to explain the dynamics of organizations (Smircich , 1983; Frost, 1985; Meyerson and Martin, 1987; Meek, 1988; Kondo, 1990; Hatch 1993).

These two schools of thought were, it appeared incompatible. The audience that the functionalist addressed was attracted to the simple almost heroic representation of the corporate leader as a cultural warrior, as typified by Jack Welch, leading the organisation to a new cultural dawn. The purists on the other hand wrote in turgid academic prose and warned of the complexity of culture in relation to it being crafted as a source of competitive advantage. This presentation was theoretically rich but conceptually complex and the management community simply did not engage with the purist camp. This problem still exists today. How to solve it? The answer to this question lies in the answer to another question, that is “within the functionalist literature and the purist literature was there scope for a third way that employed culture as a root metaphor to understand organizations and still considered the functionalist perspective that culture or rather an understanding of the dynamics that produce, protect and reinforce culture could be used in a functional way by managers to manage their organizations?” This question implies that culture can be managed.

The nineties and the emergence of a third way

In the nineteen nineties and throughout much of the last decade a group of global scholars have emerged who have continued to study organizations through the cultural metaphor (Willmot, 1994; Brown, 1995; Parker, 2000; Alvesson, 2002; Johnson, 2000; Hatch and Schultz, 2002; Martin, 2002; Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2008). These scholars, or cultural theorists, have also promoted themselves as consultants or as knowledge brokers to corporations who have a functional interest in organizational culture in the sense that they recognise its influence on the competitive position of the organization. Cultural scholars like Medical Practitioners use their understanding of culture and their knowledge of how it affects organizational dynamics at every level of analysis to diagnose cultural fault lines that are dysfunctional in their nature. They then offer practical advice drawing from organizational development techniques informed by cultural theory to repair such cultural fault lines. This kind of collaboration between business academics and industry is only possible if the academics have a dual identity that of scholar and of change consultant specializing in the cultural domain. This collaboration is best described as “action research” a mode of collaboration whereby the consultant and the client work together on a cultural change problem to solve that problem using organizational development techniques informed by cultural theory. This is the established third way. This is the triangulation between the functionalist’s school, the purist school and the practitioner school of thought.

The emergent of culturally orientated action research as a third way has responded to the argument of Alvesson (2002) that the functionalist/rationalist approach to organizational studies has failed to provide rich, deep and empirically grounded understandings of organizational life. The functional/rationalist view was based upon the idea that organizations were inherently rational and that if management wished things to happen then they simply happened.

From the functional/rationalist perspective change was deemed as unproblematic and administrative power drove the momentum of the organization. In markets where the competition was weak, demand for products high and the labor supply/demand curve was in the favor of the business then this simple overtly rational approach to managing and studying organizations may have well sufficed. But in an increasingly competitive market place, with businesses competing for labor as a key resource and with customers becoming more and more discerning then it became clear that managing a contemporary organization required advanced knowledge of how to galvanize the support of employees behind the goals and aspirations of the business. This advanced knowledge could only come from up close and detailed research of what actually happens in organizations and why people do what they do. This approach to studying organizations required an action orientated qualitative approach which took the lived experiences and interpretative frames of references of employees and managers as its unit of study.

The cultural concept with its emphasis on meanings, values and interpretations suited this project perfectly. This approach to organizational culture is in contrast to that of cultural managers from the functional/rational school in that it treats culture as a root metaphor for the organization. That is to say that the culture of the organization is the organization and not simply a resource variable that management can exploit at will. The cultural paradigm trades in the lived experience of people as well as offering an analytical bridge between the micro and macro study of human conduct within organizations and strategic management (Johnson, 2000).