Defining Corporate Culture: What Communicators Can Do to Make the Intangible Tangible

Article excerpt

In management journals, the popular business press and handy-hint newsletters, the word "culture" is championed and applied as the all-purpose explanation for a variety of organisational results. The term is used to explain everything from success to failure, from integration to dissolution, from change resistance to winning adaptability.

Most approaches to organisation and management theory identify "culture" as one of the leading factors on the list of discrete building blocks used to both explain and manipulate desired end results. But is culture tangible? Is it ephemeral? And is it governable? Can culture willingly and consciously be shaped and managed? Can leaders and managers really change culture? These are questions that prey on the corporate mind and complicate decision making.

WHAT IS CULTURE?

There is wider agreement on the definition of culture itself than on how to use and apply it in understanding the unique set of dynamics and human behaviours that characterise and distinguish one organisation from the next.

Culture, in its simplest meaning, is the sum total of how an organisation accomplishes all that it has to do to fulfill its purpose or mission. Culture can be observed in the many ways that things get done, in the processes that everyone in the organisation knows must be followed for work to be accomplished. Culture is embodied in the phrase: "This is the way we do things around here."

Management researcher and writer Fons Trompenaars defines culture as "the way in which a group of people solves problems and resolves dilemmas." This view is a very hands-on, pragmatic approach. Geert Hofstede has described culture in a somewhat more philosophical way: "culture is a deeply rooted value or shared norm, moral or aesthetic principles that guide action and serve as standards to evaluate one's own and others' behaviours."

Both of these definitions, and those of others who work in the management and behavioural sciences, leave one convinced that culture is indeed a "first principle" of organisational functioning. That even though it's not concrete, it is surely a potent force that either fosters and supports or impedes and frustrates.

If one accepts these definitions, then it can be seen that all the overt and subtle patterns of behaviour in organisations weave themselves together to create an unmistakeable personality and identity for the organisation. This personality endures over time, and it is this time-wearing quality that is both the blessing and the curse of culture as an attribute of organisational functioning. If the organisation succeeds over time, it is this abiding culture that is identified as a deeply embedded cause of its capacity to not only cope in challenging times but also to thrive and prosper. The organisation's ability to resist forces that would sap its energy, distract from its mission or weaken its brand are all positive characteristics attributed in the same final analysis to its culture ... because "that is how we do things around here."

If an organisation fails, its culture can be blamed for being change-resistant, closed to new ideas, lacking an innovative spirit and too slow to respond to fast-changing customer needs. Culture is thus seen as closing the windows on life-saving information that would allow the organisation to recognise and deal with environmental forces that have a material impact on its fate.

THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF CULTURE

Every organisation, large or small, public or private, for profit or not-for-profit, has only four basic elements with which to create a living, successful culture for its enterprise. These four elements--strategy, structure, people and process--flow from a clear statement of the organisation's mission or purpose. These are the four elements that leaders, managers, supervisors and employees at all levels must formulate, shape, integrate and manage. Through the interplay of these elements, the culture is formed and reinforced. …