Corporate Culture: Illuminating the Black Hole
Brock, M. E., Martin, L. E., Buckley, Ronald, M., People & Strategy
Corporate Culture: Illuminating the Black Hole
Author: Jerome Want
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2006.
Corporate culture has become a popular topic in management and business circles, and one need only glance briefly at any scholarly literature or popular business publications for the proof of its popularity. It influences many facets of an organization and is reflected in myriad processes (e.g., leadership, management effectiveness, communication, decision making, organizational behavior, and in tolerance for risk and innovation), which heavily influence the bottom line of an organization. In the western business world, managers often look for the "quick fix" to help their organizations become more successful, often judging success by the bottom line (Mamman & Saffu, 1998; Kilmann, 1989) instead of focusing on culture and lasting success.
In his book, Corporate Culture: Illuminating the Black Hole, Dr. Jerome Want recognizes these trends. He posits that corporate culture has been under-appreciated, underutilized, and widely misunderstood as a lever for sustainable success. This book provides an excellent reference to a broad view of corporate culture in US organizations.
Corporate culture, as defined by the author, is the reflection of "attitudes, belief systems, dreams, behaviors, rites and rituals of the company ... [as well as evident] through the conduct and performance of its employees and management" (p. 42). Although culture is of utmost importance to the maintenance and development of any organization, it is commonly ignored or put on the back burner by many executives. When organizations are experiencing shortcomings, they fail to key in on culture as a cause and culture building as a solution, in favor of fads and fix-all solutions.
This book calls attention to the importance of corporate culture in today's radically changing business world, through a discussion of the business change cycle and the hierarchy of corporate cultures. Throughout the book there is an emphasis on the need for close evaluation of culture as the reason for failure or success of a given organizational entity. Further, the author provides ample anecdotal evidence for a direct connection between high-performing cultures and strong financial outcomes. The reader of this book learns the importance of corporate culture to continued success in the rapidly changing, increasingly global business world, as well as how to identify failing and high-performing cultures, and gains insight to different applications to develop, maintain, and enhance culture.
The author contends that culture is recognized by organizational leaders, but often is not viewed as important. As illustrated in the text, corporate leaders typically have one of three responses when asked about culture: "I don't know,.... I don't know how," and "I don't care" (p. 148). The problem with these responses is that in fast-changing business climates, leaders with the ability to evaluate and continually develop their cultures are a necessity. Higher-level managers have a direct influence on the culture of their organization and its influence on performance outcomes. More often than not, if top-level managers do not view an issue as important, other members of the organization will not see it as crucial either.
Leaders and managers of high-performing cultures realize that building, maintaining, and continually developing a culture is a complex, difficult, and dynamic task. They also realize that culture change is not going to work if they simply try to change employee values without changing how the organization operates (Schermerhorn, et al., 2004). Further, good managers realize that positive culture change will not come from increased downsizing, radical restructuring, or one-time fixes.
The author does an outstanding job of providing a number of examples, including Enron, Kmart, AOL, Harley Davidson, and Nucor, to illustrate how different leadership techniques can result in positive or negative cultural momentum. These case studies provide an in-depth investigation into the central topics of the book. The examples help clarify points and provide a landscape of how corporate culture can influence actual organizations. They illustrate the author's experience as a consultant and provide credibility to his arguments. Although these examples do aid understanding, at times they are overwhelming and repetitious, and sometimes lack the concrete details needed to integrate the reference for someone unfamiliar with the company and its business practices.
The framework for discussion of these examples is through what the author calls the hierarchy of corporate cultures. This hierarchy provides a direct link between business performance and the (mal)functioning of culture. Want outlines seven types of cultures, from the poorest to the highest performing. These cultures from best to worst are:
1. New age;
6. Frozen; and
The author sees only new age and service cultures as high performing. A high-performing culture is classified as one that "meets or exceeds expectations of most of the stakeholders of the business . . . [it also is] the most responsive to change or best able to create change in the market place" (p. 85). Examples of high-performing cultures given by the author include Harley Davidson and Nucor steel. The author provides case studies and examples of other types of cultures and outlines where that culture went wrong. He emphasizes that the problem with underperforming cultures is their inward focus and lack of regard for key stakeholders, including the employees and the customers.
A major contribution of this book is the classification of cultures presented, which can help leaders learn more about their current cultures and begin to explore ways to facilitate development, maintenance, and improvement of culture. Because an organization is made up of many people with differing goals, culture change is not like any other intervention. The author does an adequate job of providing the reader with where to start building a better culture. He emphasizes the need for sponsorship at the top of the organization. Although culture change needs buy-in from all levels of an organization, without support from the top, employees will not be provided with the legitimacy and urgency for the change. If buy-in is accomplished, the author suggests a systematic and bias-free culture audit. This type of audit considers "the nature of the business, its organizational structure, market place demands, and, most especially, the unique conditions of the company's existing culture" (p. 170). An important commentary by the author is that the culture change process is not just for under-performing cultures; he emphasizes the need for high-performing organizations to audit their cultures continually to maintain their success.
No book is without weakness. For many readers the authors' emphasis on anecdotal evidence for support of his claims will be sufficient; however the lack of empirical evidence diminishes the generalizability of some claims. Although the author provides readers with a starting direction to building a culture, he does not provide the tools necessary to carry out his recommendations. Without such tools, readers might be ill prepared and have a false sense of confidence in their abilities to change their organization's culture.
Because the book provides ample evidence of and a convincing point on the importance of culture building but fails to provide readers with the necessary skills to change and develop culture, it may create inspiration without carry-through, thus making culture change just another fad.
The organization of this book is not optimal, for two key reasons:
1. The definition of corporate culture is hidden nearly 50 pages into the book.
2. In a number of places, examples are presented and not accompanied by adequate explanation tying it back to the issue of corporate culture.
Two unique contributions of this book are not provided by many other books on organizational culture. First is the influence of the extensive years of experience the author has working in the field. This experience allows him greater insight into the complete culture of an organization, and provides him with examples of functional and dysfunctional cultures. Although the examples are a bit redundant at times, clearly the author has a great deal of knowledge about the subject area, and his expertise is one valuable contribution of this book.
The other major difference between this book and others on the topic is that it actually engages the reader and inspires them to take action in their organization or research to improve corporate culture. Many books may provide definitional information on beneficial and not so beneficial cultures, but this book goes above and beyond so many others to include examples, encouragement, and success stories managers will find invigorating. This book provides the kind of engagement needed to begin the drastic changes required for improving a suboptimal culture.
This book has its shortcomings, but numerous groups could benefit from reading it and applying its concepts into their business practices. A paucity of research, particularly field studies, has been conducted with respect to corporate culture. By combining the ideas presented in this book with empirical evidence from the field, key implementation strategies could be identified, and managers could be trained to optimize their existing cultures or to create new cultures. Academics need to attend to this message because they are responsible for training the next generation of managers. As the author noted, universities offer few classes on corporate culture. If this area is not emphasized, analyzed, or discussed in the classroom, how can we expect managers to learn how to use corporate culture effectively to facilitate performance?
Whereas the author emphasized the need for CEOs to apply concepts of corporate culture, the role of the manager is understated in this process. Middle managers have direct contact with employees, making their role in climate maintenance or change even more vital to its ultimate success or failure. The author makes it clear that everyone has some input into culture, but we believe he has minimized the important role of lower-level employees in an organization.
The majority of the book provides background information and examples, which offer a strong foundation on which to base the oft-repeated notion that corporate culture is necessary for an organization's success. Later in the book, more specific strategies are outlined to help clarify particular steps that should be followed to encourage a positive corporate climate. Despite the fact that this book is well-written and the steps are clear, many managers will probably have trouble implementing effective change based on this book alone, mainly because of the overuse of consulting jargon and the complex concepts and ideas involved. Rather than serving as a standalone tool, this book would make an excellent background reference guide to understand the topic and a great resource that could accompany a consultant's activity in corporate culture change.
Overall, this book provides a thorough overview of the concept of corporate culture and demonstrates that it is a necessary tool in facilitating the best possible organizational practices. It will assist researchers in designing studies to investigate implementation strategies, allow for a thorough understanding of the concept by managers, and hopefully increase the attention given to the topic by academics in the classroom. By providing concrete examples through a clear structure of the hierarchy of corporate cultures, the author succeeds in leaving little doubt that culture building is the key to survival in today's radically changing business world.
Kilmann RH (2004). Beyond the Quick Fix: Five Tracks to Organizational Success, New York: Beard Books.
Mamman A & Saffu K (1998). "Short Termism, Control, Quick-Fix and Bottom Line: Toward Explaining the Western Approach to Management," Journal of Managerial Psychology, 13(5): 291-308.
Schermerhorn JR, Hunt HG, & Osborn RN (2004). Core Concepts of Organizational Behavior, New Jersey: Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Reviewers: ME Brock, LE Martin, & M Ronald Buckley, Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Corporate Culture: Illuminating the Black Hole. Contributors: Brock, M. E. - Author, Martin, L. E. - Author, Buckley, Ronald, M. - Author. Magazine title: People & Strategy. Volume: 31. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2008. Page number: 55+. © 2008 Human Resource Planning Society. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.