Chapter 5: Corporate culture – Organisational Culture for Information Managers

5

Corporate culture

Abstract:

This chapter considers the most superficial layer of organisational culture: corporate culture. This cultural layer is the one that is the most susceptible to change, and it reflects those characteristics or artefacts which are unique to that particular organisation. These include management style, in-house language and stories, dress code, interior design and external branding.

Key words

corporate culture

management

interior design

narratives

branding

Introduction

The purpose of this chapter is to explore the final and most superficial layer of the organisational culture ‘onion’: corporate culture. Corporate culture is the concept that is most commonly misrepresented as constituting the entirety of organisational culture, as discussed in the first chapter. In general, the characteristics that are unique to specific organisations reflect corporate culture, and this layer is the one that is most susceptible to change. That susceptibility to change is a very misleading factor. It leads people to assume that change to corporate culture will be instrumental in shifting and modifying the much more deeply rooted values and beliefs that constitute organisational culture. The chapter begins with a short recap of corporate culture from the perspective of management theory, and then discusses the artefacts that may reflect corporate culture, such as management style, in-house language, employee dress code, interior design, and external representation (name, logos, website design, publications).

Corporate culture – the tip of the iceberg

As discussed in the first chapter, the view of organisational culture taken by some management theorists focuses solely on the superficial characteristics that are unique to individual organisations. This is the domain that is identified in this book as corporate culture. Because the characteristics of corporate culture are so unique, there are inherent difficulties in trying to describe a universal model, let alone attempt to implement change in order to impose an idealistic and probably unrealistic organisational culture. However, what can be done is identify which characteristics or artefacts are likely to reflect corporate culture.

The notion of a ‘good’ or ‘strong’ organisational culture as proposed by Peters and Waterman (1982) is a fallacy. The problem is, though, that the very simplicity of this notion makes it very appealing. As we have established in the preceding chapters, organisational culture is strongly influenced by much more deeply rooted factors than the easily modifiable features such as developing new external imagery to represent the organisation. The consequences of attempting to implement change based on the faulty notion of just being able to construct and implement a brand new organisational culture is shown in the following example.

In New Zealand in 2001 an attempt was made to transform the culture of a public sector organisation. The setting was a very large, newly established department of central government, which was formed as a result of a merger between two existing entities: the Income Support Service and the New Zealand Employment Service. University of Otago academic Joe Wallis describes the situation which eventually led to an employment court case brought by the former chief executive of this government department, Christine Rankin. Wallis claims that Ms Rankin was appointed initially because she was expected to provide the transformational leadership necessary to reshape the organisation’s culture (Wallis, 2002: 61). Attempts to achieve that cultural change included a series of roadshows (the department was highly dispersed throughout New Zealand):

The ‘roadshows’ were essentially training events in which Rankin played a starring role as she focused attention of staff on an organizational vision and challenged them to commit themselves to strive toward its realization. At one of these events, Rankin herself was lowered onto the conference floor where she performed a ‘Power in the Profession’ dance while a background screen showed pictures of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Christine Rankin. (Wallis, 2002: 64)

Excesses such as this, of course, drew the attention of the media and were not well received by the public, particularly given that these displays seemed to be fundamentally at odds with the mission of the organisation, namely administering the social welfare infrastructure for New Zealanders. Eventually Ms Rankin’s contract as Chief Executive was not renewed, hence the employment court case. This case study is quoted here for two reasons. First, in order to emphasise just how crucial organisational culture is perceived as being in terms of acting as a barrier to change. Secondly, this case provides a striking example of a feature that reflects corporate culture: management style.

Management style

The extravagant and flamboyant management style of Christine Rankin reflects the values and attitudes of the leadership of that organisation, and can be viewed as a key characteristic of the corporate culture. Although this is an extreme example, it is generally not that difficult to determine the distinguishing features of management style. It may be reflected in the personality type of managers throughout the organisation: those promoted or appointed are likely to reflect desirable characteristics as perceived by executive leadership. It is a key feature that is extremely susceptible to change, as it is closely linked to individual preferences and behaviours.

For information managers it is important to be able to respond appropriately to whichever management style currently predominates. Attempting to represent information management concerns in ways which do not resonate with senior management can be extremely detrimental, especially in cultures that do not have a clear perception of the inherent value of the need to manage information. Where there is a flamboyant management or leadership ethos there may not be an appreciation of the need for a comprehensive and robust information management infrastructure. After all, our ideal systems are ones which function effectively and efficiently to seamlessly support and promote the work of the organisation, so by their very nature are likely to be low profile. In this case it would be advantageous to collect vivid narratives or anecdotes that demonstrate service effectiveness. For example, horror stories of the consequences for management of not being able to access information required to respond to media queries. Every organisation has these horror stories; the alert information manager should be documenting these and using them when appropriate.

The next suggestion discusses these narratives, as they are in themselves artefacts of the corporate culture.

In-house language and narratives

In contrast to management style, the development of an organisation’s own language and the use of stories or anecdotes to communicate defining moments of an organisation’s history are artefacts of corporate culture that are generally formed from the bottom up. In other words, they are not imposed or dictated from above, but occur naturally and organically.

The ‘language’ that develops within an organisation consists of the unique, in-house jargon that is used to refer to concepts and tools that are core to organisational functions. The uniqueness of the terms used may mean that they are not easily understood by outsiders. Own languages may be reflected in many different ways, for example the use of spoken acronyms or initialisms to refer to functions, activities or organisations. Sometimes the reason for the terminology used is no longer apparent, as it is linked to the historical development of the concept or tool. For instance, San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science refers to its course syllabi as ‘greensheets’. These greensheets are web resources, created by faculty staff inputting the required details into online templates. They are called ‘greensheets’ because they were once distributed on green paper, now an antique artefact. (San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science, 2010.) The fact that this terminology has survived a complete change of format and medium is perhaps evidence of the significance of the task of developing a greensheet, and certainly demonstrates a shared understanding amongst employees of what is signified by this word.

The stories that circulate within an organisation can provide insight into values, attitudes and beliefs. They will often feature individual employees or managers playing key roles. Any factual basis for them may be tenuous to say the least, but the fact that particular events are significant enough to be repeated over time can provide insight into corporate culture characteristics.

These tales, myths and legends that circulate within an organisation have been referred to as ‘corporate folklore’ (Gabriel, 1991). Indeed, research into this rich mine of information has also included consideration of organisational humour and jokes as well as insults. Joanne Martin (2001) reviews the literature relating to organisational humour and warns that a distinguishing characteristic is that the humour is usually distinctly unfunny to outsiders! As for the insults, this fascinating area of study has been invoked in research into workplace bullying (Salin, 2003) and employee harassment (Guerrier and Adib, 2000).

Where these topics are particularly of interest to information managers is their ability to provide insight into how their service is perceived within the organisation. For instance, is the in-house filing system regarded as a joke? Does being assigned to help out in the school library signify reward or punishment? Being aware of where and how information management services figure within the corporate folklore can greatly assist in determining appropriate courses of action. If, on the other hand, services do not feature at all within the corporate folklore, that should probably be taken as a cause for concern, and consideration be given as to how to raise the profile of information management. As established in the previous section, stories or narratives should be used wherever possible to effectively demonstrate the consequences of poor information management.

A recent example that I encountered on a consultancy assignment was the loss of a founding document, one with great symbolic significance. This document was signed by government leaders from many countries, and was the formal record of the multinational agreement necessary to support the activities of the organisation. Copies of the document were certainly in existence, and probably could easily be obtained from the countries involved. However, the embarrassment and loss of face involved in doing that would have tarnished the image of the organisation. This anecdote provided the information manager with a valuable and useful tool to support the establishment of a business case for the development of managed storage for inactive records. However, this type of story should only be leveraged for internal purposes as there is there is great potential for damage to the organisation’s reputation if leaked externally.

Visual cues inside the organisation

Simply by looking around inside the organisation it is possible to gather data regarding corporate culture. Observing the clothes that staff wear, the way that offices are designed and furnished as well as noting any naming patterns that are used may provide useful background information.

The way that employees dress will reflect the norms established by management as being acceptable for the conduct of the organisation’s business. Dress codes, even if not explicitly stated, can range from the very formal to the very casual, laissez faire. Where dress codes are formalised by being documented in organisational policy they will often incorporate standardised uniform items which may be adopted in order to meet with health and safety requirements. Even in these cases, observation and analysis of the colours and styles of uniforms may be useful, as these are likely to reflect an image that is promoted or desired by management.

In the absence of any clear occupational health drivers, and/ or environmental concerns such as inadequate heating, the types of clothes worn by staff may be indicators of values and attitudes. Taking note of whether or not male employees, for instance, routinely wear a collar and tie or favour jeans and t-shirts may provide clues as to the likelihood of in-house regulations and procedures as regards information management being taken seriously. But the important caveat here is to stress that the interpretation should be in the broader context taking into account national and occupational cultural influences.

The interior design of an organisation may reflect the vision or aspiration of management as to their preferred corporate culture. Open-plan offices for instance have long been the subject for study, although Joanne Martin notes that organisational culture researchers have not often used this predominately psychological and sociological body of literature (Martin, 2001: 85). A recent study of a Dutch corporation provides an interesting analysis of the ways in which both interior and exterior building design reflect desires for corporate change (van Marrewijk, 2009).

Office design, particularly space utilisation and office furniture will often reflect attempts to address or change information-related behaviours. This is where a much more nuanced understanding of organisational culture is invaluable. As we established in Chapter 2, willingness to share information with colleagues (and whether those colleagues are solely those who are members of the same team or workgroup) is strongly influenced by national cultural characteristics, and so attempts to change attitudes and behaviours simply by implementing a certain physical working environment are not likely to meet with much success.

In a New Zealand organisation I worked in, an attempt was made to increase staff efficiency and promote organisational information management by prohibiting the purchase of certain office furniture. The items on the banned list were two- or three-drawer vertical filing cabinets for use by individual staff members. The only employees permitted to have filing cabinets were those in administrative support roles, and these were shared cabinets with lateral shelving. This led to much discontent amongst other employees, who certainly did not change their work routines as intended. Despite the ruling, people found alternative means of storing the paperwork they felt necessary to have at hand to do their work. Eventually, several years later, after a change in management, the original rationale for prohibiting the purchase of filing cabinets had been completely lost sight of and the policy was abandoned. The intended goal of sharing organisational resources, ensuring that only current information would be used for decision making was never achieved. In fact, the converse probably happened with staff feeling the need to hoard their own information, storing it in makeshift containers and ‘secret’ locations.

This type of situation can be seen as analogous to the types of inappropriate and draconian measures implemented in attempts to control digital information, as discussed in Chapter 3. Attempting to ban personal filing cabinets probably sounds absurd; this should be remembered when discussion turns to banning the use of memory sticks or access to cloud computing. These strategies to manage digital information have just as much likelihood of succeeding as the banning of filing cabinets did in the paper world.

Another manifestation of corporate culture may be detected in the names used for locations such as rooms or buildings within the organisation. These will range from being informative – e.g. a numbered code designed to reflect the relationship of buildings to one another to symbolic names. For example, a new European university recently renamed its constituent buildings. The original set of names reflected the subjects studied in those locations, for instance ‘L Block’ was the home of the language school. The new names were quite different, and did not appear to have much practical utility at all. The names selected were in Latin, with a tenuous connection to the geographical positioning of the buildings. Thus ‘mare’ was used for the building facing the sea, ‘silva’ for the building closest to woodland, and so on. These names were not likely to have been selected because of their utility in assisting students and staff find locations, but for their connotations. Latin was the traditional language for university education in this part of Europe, and by using Latin names a connection with illustrious traditions would have been established despite the fact that the university itself was founded comparatively recently.

Considering this in terms of corporate culture, the deliberate selection of this naming convention can be interpreted as a desire on the part of management to demonstrate high value accorded to the history and tradition of education, and a desire to convey a close relationship between this history and the current activities of the university. This certainly suggests a receptive environment for archival endeavours, and most definitely should be taken advantage of by an alert information manager.

External representation

How the organisation chooses to present itself to the external environment can reveal a lot in terms of corporate culture. Accordingly, analysis of relevant artefacts can be very illuminating. Relevant artefacts are likely to include those developed for corporate branding, such as logos, as well as other features associated with external dissemination of information such as websites and corporate hardcopy publications. The image that is portrayed may be deliberately constructed (i.e. if specialist expertise is utilised to design a brand) or may be more organic, if responsibilities are not specifically assigned. In both cases, decisions made as to how the organisation is represented will reflect priorities of management, and thus provide insight into corporate culture.

Conclusions

Much of what has been discussed in this chapter is often taken to represent the entirety of organisational culture, particularly management style and organisational image. Some authors refer to these superficial characteristics as ‘organisational climate’ (see for instance Allen, 2003) which conveys to those of us in temperate parts of the world just the right mixture of susceptibility to change and uncertain predictability.

Corporate culture can be analysed by observation of various characteristics and artefacts. These include the style of management and/or leadership, the stories and anecdotes that circulate, the use of in-house specialist language, and visual cues relating to interior design, dress and external representation. Careful reading of corporate culture will assist information managers by providing tools to use such as appropriate horror stories to support business cases.

The following chapter consolidates the layers (national, occupational and corporate) and structural influences (language, the regulatory environment and technological capabilities) on organisational culture identified thus far and presents an overall framework to assess an organisation’s information culture.

References

Allen, D.K. Organisational climate and strategic change in higher education: organisational insecurity. Higher Education. 2003; 46(1):61–92.

Gabriel, Y. On organisational stories and myths: Why it is easier to slay a dragon than kill a myth. International Sociology. 1991; 6(4):427–442.

Guerrier, Y., Adib, A.S. ‘No, we don’t provide that service’: The harassment of hotel employees by customers. Work, Employment and Society. 2000; 14:698–705.

Martin, J. Organizational culture: Mapping the terrain. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications; 2001.

Peters, T.J., Waterman, R.H. In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s best-run companies. New York: Harper & Row; 1982.

San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science, Greensheets. 2010. http://slisweb.sjsu.edu/facultyhandbook/progcourses/greensheets.php

Salin, D. Ways of explaining workplace bullying: A review of enabling, motivating and precipitating Structures and Processes in the work environment. Human Relations. 2003; 56(10):1213–1232.

van Marrewijk, A.H. Corporate headquarters as physical embodiments of organisational change. Journal of Organisational Change Management. 2009; 22(3):290–306.

Wallis, J. Evaluating organizational leadership in the New Zealand public sector in the aftermath of the Rankin judgement. International Review of Administrative Sciences. 2002; 68:61–72.

Further reading

Brophy, P. Narrative in organisations. In: Narrative-based practice. Farnham: Ashgate; 2009:103–130.

Gabriel, Y. An introduction to the social psychology of insults in organizations. Human Relations. 1998; 51(11):1329–1354.