In the early 1980's, the two of us pooled our diverse backgrounds (Deal in education, Kennedy in business) to offer some speculation about what really makes organizations tick. At the time, we were moving out on a very thin limb. Conventional wisdom championed structure and strategy as the driving force of any organization, viewing business as exclusively a rational enterprise. Our observations led to another conclusion. We argued that deep-seated traditions and widely accepted and shared beliefs governed modern business organizations, just like they did primitive tribes. We characterized these traditions and beliefs as "corporate cultures."
Little did we know then that we inadvertently stumbled onto one of life's rare universal truths: human beings are social animals. They always have, and always will, flock together to give life meaning and purpose. In the business world, executives, managers, and employees are inherently human. They want their workplace to make sense. They want to form organic relationships with others. And, they want to believe that their efforts have a purpose and make a difference.
Twenty years ago, we offered readers a framework for understanding cultures that has also stood the test of time. We argued that shared values are important. Corporate heroes and heroines provide tangible role models for others to emulate. Rituals connect people in deeper ways than do functional meetings or rationally based encounters. Periodic ceremonies instill a sense of communal spirit, reminding people of their shared values and purposes. Stories carry values and their telling and retelling create a social glue that connects people to what's really important. And a cultural network of priests and priestesses, gossips, storytellers, spies, and whisperers carries on their indomitable informal efforts to keep the enterprise intact and on track. These important artifacts of organizational life are as strong in today's organizations as they were in the organizations we reported on nearly two decades ago.
When we wrote Corporate Cultures, we could never have imagined, in our wildest dreams, that the culture of a modern business would become a taken-for-granted management issue. The business press today is littered with references to corporate cultures. Good managers contemplating mergers today routinely consider cultural match as an important criterion in deciding whether to proceed or draw back. Major organizational changes succeed or fail depending on how well leadership grasps the symbolic details that are so easy to overlook and works to integrate them into the change strategy. All modern managers are expected to understand these concepts and to practice them in their daily managerial life. Who would have thought it so twenty years ago.