Corporate Culture - Phenomenon or Phantom?
The concept of »culture« is used in an extremely inflationary manner – discussion culture, conversation culture, resignation culture, building culture and, of course, corporate and organizational culture.
Literally, the concept of »culture« derives from the Latin word cultura, meaning cultivation, either of the soil or the body. If we disregard agriculture, we conceptually differentiate between two concepts of culture:
> Culture as the result and manifestation of our civilization, i.e. in the form of education, art, music and literature
> Culture in the anthropological sense, i.e. the patterns of behaviour of individuals and groups
In order to deal with the phenomenon (or phantom) of corporate culture, we will use the latter concept of culture. An enterprise, insofar as a specific culture can be identified, can only derive it from the culture or the cultures of the persons or groups of persons acting and working in it. Strictly speaking, this is a simplification, as individuals and groups also influence the enterprise from outside. Here, we think of the different stakeholders.
But let us stay with the persons in the enterprise. Where do they get their culture, i.e. their patterns of behaviour? Certainly, not primarily from the firm in which they work. Culture in the anthropological sense is not inherent in man, but he acquires it from earliest childhood on, through home, friends, school and all the influences passing on the so different ethnic, religious and social values in this world. This way, people acquire and learn the codes of behaviour recognized as valuable and rewarded in the group or the groups to which they belong and they avoid the codes of behaviour considered undesirable, rejected and punished in their groups.
Corporate Culture by design or by accident?
Anybody who starts as an employee in an enterprise therefore already brings along her/his culture. From the interaction of these often very difficult cultures, especially in the case of major and international companies, a specific corporate culture will emerge that can be more or less marked. It must be noted here that a separate culture will develop in any enterprise, if the members of the group stay together long enough, even if this culture is not consciously shaped. Then it is a corporate culture by accident.
A corporate culture by design will emerge through communicating and experiencing specific goals and values, systematic personnel development and training and the »rewarding« of desirable patterns of behaviour, particularly by entrusting responsible positions and tasks. Thus, an organization creates its own »heroes« and »prophets« who tell the story of success and pass on its criteria as role models. Under these conditions, the persons in the enterprise will to a certain extent adapt their previously acquired codes of behaviour to the specific values of the enterprise, additionally adopting this culture. On the other hand, persons who cannot reconcile this specific corporate culture with their personal goals and values – for whatever reasons – will tend to leave the enterprise, again leading to a consolidation of the corporate culture.
The fact also fits in well with this context that a specific person may feel well in one enterprise, but cannot be successful in a different one. Here, the influence of a more or less congenial corporate culture is clearly noticeable. It looks as if a corporate culture should be as pronounced as possible, as it is the symbol and bearer of the specific corporate objectives and values. However, here the maximum does not mean the optimum: an all too marked corporate culture bears the danger of stagnation, introspection and the rejection of anything new (»We are the best«), which is not exactly a competitive edge. At any rate, frankness and flexibility should be elements of the culture.
Is there such a thing as the »best« corporate culture?
Certainly not, there is no such thing as »one size fits all«. If the somewhat crass comparison may be allowed, the mafia will have a different corporate culture to Opus dei. There must be as many corporate cultures as there are enterprises.
Can or should corporate cultures be measured?
Certainly not in terms of quantity, they may at best be described qualitatively. To make certain that you do not put the cart in front of the horse, it is good to note that corporate culture cannot be dictated. It is primarily the result of the interaction between relevant factors, and only secondly a means to an end. In any case, it is essential and meaningful to dose the ingredients correctly: clear corporate objectives, human resource development, training, communication and above all experiencing the corporate values. Whoever merely relies on mission statements and otherwise practises hire and fire, will probably have some form of corporate culture, but only by accident and not by design.
Dr. Herwig W. Kressler is a lecturer at the Business Administration Centre of Vienna University (chair for Marketing, chair for International Human Resources). After studies at the University of Economics and Business Administration in Vienna, later Stanford USA, he has pursued an international management career and is also the author of specialized books published in German, English and Spanish.