Chapter 4: Occupational culture – Organisational Culture for Information Managers

4

Occupational culture

Abstract:

This chapter considers the second layer of the organisational cultural model, occupational culture. The characteristics of the occupations or professions that people belong to will influence the way that they work with information, so it is important for information managers to be aware of the potential for very different values, attitudes and approaches. The occupational culture of librarians and recordkeepers is also discussed, and the consequences of these sometimes competing cultures on our overall objectives of managing information.

Key words

occupations

professions

warrant

Introduction

The objective of this chapter is to explore the middle layer of our organisational culture model, i.e. occupational culture. Occupational culture refers to those values and practices which have been learned in the course of vocational education and training. The chapter therefore begins by defining the main features relating to occupational culture and uses the example of a university setting to illustrate how the different attitudes to information on the part of two broad groupings of employees will impact on information managers. The final part of this chapter considers occupational culture from the inside, with a view to determining what influence our occupational cultures as librarians, archivists and records managers have on information management.

Occupational culture

To define occupational culture we can return to the Dutch anthropologist Geert Hofstede (whose definition of the characteristics of national culture has been used in Chapter 2). His theory includes consideration of those distinct cultural characteristics which reflect the values and identity associated with a specific occupational group, rather than country. He suggests that

… entering an occupational field means the acquisition of both values and practices; the place of socialization is the school or university, and the time is between childhood and entering work. (Hofstede, 2001: 414)

In other words, the values acquired in the process of education and training for a particular occupation will overlay those cultural characteristics acquired from home and family. The timing indicated by Hofstede in the above quote of course assumes a very traditional career pathway where one selects an appropriate occupation after completing formal education early in adulthood. However, I do not think that nontraditional approaches to careers, i.e. commencing study for a particular job later in life, invalidates the concept of distinguishing occupational cultural characteristics. Despite the fact that working life is increasingly characterised by changing direction, and second-chance learning enables professional qualifications to be gained at a much later stage than immediately post-schooling, cultural characteristics associated with occupations will still be influential.

Consideration of subcultures within organisations such as those associated with particular occupational groups shows that these can be widely divergent – simply working for the same organisation does not imply that the same values and practices will be shared (Hofstede, 1998). Based on Raelin (1986), Hofstede proposed six dimensions of occupational culture:

1. Handling people versus handling things

2. Specialist versus generalist

3. Disciplined versus independent

4. Structured versus unstructured

5. Theoretical versus practical

6. Normative versus pragmatic. (Hofstede, 2001: 415)

Occupational culture has received far less attention in the literature than either national or corporate culture (Hofstede et al., 1990). Edgar Schein (1996) suggests that occupational communities generate cultures that not only cut across organisations, but also nations – i.e., an occupational community will develop similar worldviews. He goes on to explain that:

The shared assumptions derive from a common educational background, the requirements of a given occupation such as the licenses that have to be obtained to practice, and the shared contact with others in the occupation. (p. 12)

One of the main articles cited which explores the impact of occupational cultures in organisations is by Australian academics Geoffrey Bloor and Patrick Dawson. They describe how new employees will learn appropriate behaviours from various sources, including official documentation and managers, but also from external reference groups such as professional colleagues working elsewhere and trade unions (Bloor and Dawson, 1994: 278). The focus of Bloor and Dawson is on professionals, and the impact that professional subgroups have on the organisational culture. They describe the effect of these interactions as complementing, conflicting and counterbalancing the primary culture. Bloor and Dawson emphasise that professionals are more likely to regard other members of their profession as their primary reference group, rather than colleagues who are not members of that same professional group. This is because members of the same profession share a distinct pattern of values, beliefs and behavioural norms, as well as similar understandings or interpretation of each other’s actions (Bloor and Dawson, 1994: 283). Professional associations, of course, play a key role in ensuring that values, beliefs and norms are maintained and upheld, often by formulating a code of ethics.

More recently, British researchers Adrienne Curry and Caroline Moore (2003) state that harmonious co-existence between professional groups can be threatened when faced with change:

If change is such that the organization itself is perceived to be under threat, sub-cultures will tend to be ignored in favour of the need for organizational cohesion. If, however, there is no perceived threat to organizational survival, sub-cultures are more likely to close ranks and revert to a strong identification with their profession. (p. 97)

This is a crucial point which needs to be taken on board by information managers working in organisations that include occupations that are clearly defined, and represented by a professional or industry association. Given the rapidly developing digital environment, information management strategies are likely to include the implementation of systems and processes that may fundamentally affect the way in which people work. In other words, be disruptive and represent profound change. So the introduction of, for instance, an electronic document and records management system may signify change of significant magnitude that members of professional groups within the organisation close ranks and resist implementation.

Occupational culture and information behaviours

Although there has been far less research into occupational culture than national culture, its relationship with information and knowledge sharing has been investigated. A study of occupational cultures (in government agencies that is scientist, politician and bureaucrat roles) concluded that these subcultures are very influential in driving information sharing needs and behaviours (Drake et al., 2004). Another very relevant study found variations in awareness of national information and communication technology policies among different professional and sectoral groups in Egypt (Meso et al., 2006).

Research into information-seeking behaviour has explored variations according to occupation. The legal profession in particular has been the subject of much interest with respect to information seeking and use of electronic resources (see Richards, 2009 for a bibliography of empirical research studies).

The impact of occupational culture on information management in a university

Universities provide vivid examples of complex environments where there are a number of distinct occupational cultures all contributing to shaping the overall organisational culture, and often in competition with each other. First there are two broad groupings, which, despite attempts to present a unified face to the outside world, can represent a deep division within the organisation. These two groups are the academics on one hand and administrative staff on the other. Although both groups are essential in order for the university to carry out its functions and activities of teaching, learning and research, interactions are often adversarial rather than complementary.

Secondly, within each group there are many further divisions. Academics are divided on the basis of discipline, which can result in vastly different approaches to carrying out fundamental activities. Research by a humanities scholar will use completely different methodologies and tools to those used by a biochemist for instance. Differences between disciplinary perspectives are so profound that these academic subcultures have been referred to as tribes, jealously claiming ownership of their own territories (Bacher, 1989).

The scale and scope of universities are such that the broad grouping of administrative staff will be similarly complex, even if relationships between occupations are hopefully not as visceral as the inter-disciplinary rivalries that characterise the academics. Which camp a particular occupation or profession falls into may vary according to university policy – librarians, for instance, in some countries may have academic status, and in others be part of the administrative group. In summary, occupational cultures will play a very important role in shaping the overall organisational culture of a university.

The potential for occupational cultures to influence information management has recently been highlighted for me as I have attempted to set up a research project which involves analysis of university records to find out what literature was used in the reading lists for management education in New Zealand in the 1980s. The universities in this country do not have a good history of recognising the need for records management and archives. Priorities have changed drastically, though, as a result of new legislation (Public Records Act 2005) which, for the first time, established accountability on the part of universities and polytechnics to create and maintain public records.

However, specifically excluded from the scope of the legislation are some records relating to teaching and research, which results in guidance carefully specifying that the Act only applies to ‘certain records’ (Archives New Zealand, 2010). So when I set about trying to find out whether the records I needed to access for my research were available I met with brick walls at every turn. The response from each university was that it was not possible to say whether the information I needed was available, it would be a question of contacting the academic department concerned and trying to find out whether individuals had maintained their own records.

This situation not only suggests that future historians will have major problems attempting to find out the detail of what was taught in our universities, but also provides a glimpse into the challenges faced by those people attempting to manage records in this environment. The exclusion of teaching materials used by academics and research data from the scope of the Public Records Act would not have been a decision that was taken lightly. A possible explanation is that establishing requirements to create and maintain full and accurate records was viewed as a threat to academic freedom. In other words, a threat to one of the core values and principles of the academic profession. The end result, of course, is that the core activities undertaken by this group of employees remain firmly outside the sphere of influence of information managers.

Our occupational cultures

Whether information managers can identify a distinct occupational culture is debatable. Consideration of this demonstrates just how poorly defined and fuzzy the concept is. One characteristic of occupational culture is a shared educational background. However, the extent to which that premise can be applied to information managers varies internationally. Kajberg (2002) has noted that in education for library and information studies within Europe there is little commonality.

In spite of increased communication and networking efforts, pooled expertise and joint experience, spectacular results in terms of demonstrable synergy effects, action plans, development projects, co-ordinated curricular structures, joint ventures, joint degrees, established equivalence of qualifications, etc., are few. (p. 166)

Maceviciute (2002) analysed information management programmes of study in institutions in three specific regions: the Baltic countries, Nordic countries and the United Kingdom. She documents a bewildering array of offerings, at both postgraduate and undergraduate level, with curricula covering at least one of these disciplines: library studies, records management, archival studies, possibly in conjunction with each other and possibly in conjunction with other disciplines. Also interesting is the range of affiliation of programmes in the United Kingdom, ranging from faculties of arts to engineering (p. 196). Ellis and Greening (2002) review the provision of educational programmes for archivists in Europe, Canada, United States and Australia, and note the active involvement of professional bodies in this regard in Canada and North America, in contrast to the United Kingdom. The UK is also out of step with other countries in attempting to provide entry-level training in just one year at postgraduate level. Other countries offer a variety of entry points, including undergraduate, and the programmes are longer in duration.

Literature exploring professional identity issues of information management professionals also sheds some light on occupational culture. This is an area where there is a lot of anecdotal evidence and discussion, but little research. Librarians in particular show concern about their image and there are numerous articles and websites that attempt to repudiate a perceived image of conservatism (see, for instance, http://www.librarian-image.net). The introduction to a special issue of the North American journal The Reference Librarian devoted to the topic remarks:

It seems that every profession has a natural interest in its universal image and a tendency toward self-examination. For example, the engineering profession is particularly concerned with licensing and qualifications, the medical profession pays special attention to credentials and training … For all of this professional navel-gazing, there seems to be no profession as preoccupied with self-examination as that of librarianship. While some of it may stem from an identity crisis, the refrain heard over and over is startlingly similar to Dangerfield’s ‘I don’t get no respect’. (Arant & Benefiel, 2002: 1)

A review of images of librarians from the eighteenth century to today shows that the librarian’s image has generally been shaped by subjective opinion or description of general personality trait, for example ‘accessible, friendly, skilled, altruistic’ (p. 21), and stereotypes of ‘the scholarly, resourceful professional; the timid, plain-looking, middle-aged female; the passive gatekeeper’ (p. 21).

The article concludes that today the image of a librarian is as unclear to librarians themselves as it is to others, due to the environment of transition and uncertainty in the virtual information age, and consequent uncertainty relating to the role of a librarian (Church, 2002).

Rothstein cites ‘numerous’ studies of the librarian personality type and states that there has been general agreement on personality traits: ‘Extreme deference, submissiveness, respect for authority, conscientiousness, orderliness, conservatism, lack of self-confidence’ (Rothstein, 1985: 46).

He further characterises librarians as tending to be anxious and self-critical. A survey of users of two special libraries in the United Kingdom found that the perception of librarians was of people who are

efficient, intelligent and helpful, possessing specialised knowledge, and undertaking a range of tasks beyond the routine and traditional. They are seen as unambitious people, whose satisfaction is in helping others to achieve their ends. (Fleck & Bawden, 1995: 222)

The staff of the libraries surveyed generally seemed to concur with this user perception, which leads Fleck and Bawden to warn against low self-image. This has been noted as a problem for librarians by other authors (Atkinson, 1994; Cram, 1991; Fourie, 2004; Rothstein, 1985; Schuman, 1990).

Librarians protest their image, but they are at least a familiar occupation to the public. Archivists and records managers are not so well known. Richard Cox and David Wallace have suggested that archivists and records managers need to strive towards achieving an ‘archive literacy’ for both the public and policy makers so that people understand what it is recordkeepers do, and why it matters (Cox & Wallace, 2002: 8). Ann Pederson points out that, in the new world of Australia and North America, most people have minimal knowledge of records work. She attributes this to the fact that recordkeeping is largely subsumed by the work it supports, and furthermore that there is no comparative formative educational experience involving recordkeeping agencies in the same way as libraries or museums (Pederson, 2003). Pederson surveyed Australian archivists to determine temperament type, using a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator survey instrument. She found that the majority of Australian archivists belonged to the Guardian temperament group, the strengths of which are

 logistics-procurement, distribution, service and replacement of materiel, i.e. stuff, but not of people or systems;

 hard-working, respectful, dutiful, modest, tenacious;

 maintain stability, continuity, traditions;

 accurate, reliable, trustworthy;

 procedures, rules, detail;

 integrity and concern to ‘do right’ in the real world.

She concluded that

archivists possess in abundance the personal attributes essential for workplace effectiveness. However, while some of these qualities are acknowledged, most are either unrecognised or improperly deployed because our own modesty and dedication to the job keep ourselves, as well as others, from exploiting our strengths. Because we are poorly understood, we are, like our records, ‘organisationally invisible’ and therefore at the mercy of the vicious old stereotypes of archivists as caretakers in the boneyard of information and recordkeeping as mere ‘filing’. (Pederson, 2003: 260)

A distinct occupational culture for the three professional groups involved in information management does not appear from the literature, although each of the three serves the needs of their host institution. A concern for public awareness of the scope, nature and complexity of each occupation is apparent. What does start to become clear from each sector’s published literature is at least an element of uncertainty as to the future for the three occupational groups, some confusion as to identity, and a need perhaps for more self-awareness of roles within information management, and of responsibilities to organisations and society.

Why this matters is because perceived occupational differences may hamper or impede our work as information managers. Where there is competition for jurisdiction between existing occupational groups, such as is currently evident within information management, cultural interactions will add to the complexity and challenge of the issues that are faced.

An example of the consequences of the influences of occupational culture in our domain is provided by a case study of the work of the committee responsible for drafting the international standard on records management, ISO15489. I undertook this case study because reports documenting the development process suggested that the inordinate length of time required to draft the document was a result of national cultural differences (for instance, Steemson, 2001a,b, 2002).

I spent three days observing the work of the committee, and interviewing members. One of my main goals was to find out why everything had taken so long. The committee functioned as a community of practice, the lengthy and often difficult processes of negotiation leading to an understanding of points of difference, if not acceptance. The length of time taken to draft the international standard, given that it was based on an existing document, is indicative of the lack of a pre-existing shared understanding and language in this particular domain.

It appeared that national cultural differences in isolation were not the major source of problems, rather that the differing occupational cultures of records managers and archivists were the principal barrier to achieving consensus. However, those occupational cultures were inextricably linked to national cultures, as there was a clear divide on national grounds between countries where records management has been accepted as a separate system, from those where ‘archives’ represented both the management of current and archival records. The complexity, though, of cultural influences was emphasised by the fact that within ‘mixed’ national delegations composed of the two occupational groups, there were tensions between the representatives.

National differences were also evident, particularly in legislative requirements, conflicting views as to whether the standard should be mandatory or not, in the attitude of countries towards participation in standard-setting, and in preferences relating to the language, format and style of the published document. Differences were manifest in problems experienced in communication and in approach to organisational rules and norms. Conversely, similarity of values as regards the masculinity dimension may have contributed towards the length of time necessary to achieve consensus. In need of investigation is analysis of non-participating countries and whether the reasons for non-participation may have been occupationally or nationally based.

Conclusion

Organisational culture theorists agree that occupational cultures are significant and can be extremely influential. Very little, however, is known about them, particularly in the context of information management. Determining which occupational groupings are present within an organisation, and being prepared for significant behavioural differences, is important for information managers. Consideration of the occupational cultures of information managers themselves adds further complexity, but awareness of differing and possibly conflicting professional goals may be enlightening.

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