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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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3.6.3 Distinguishing corporate and organisational culture

The term ‘culture’ has been used in two different ways in reference to organisations. Smircich (1983) put the issue neatly when she asked whether culture is something an organisation is or something an organisation has. This points up the different ways in which the notion of culture can be viewed by theorists and practitioners.

If culture is something an organisation has, it can be treated as another variable to be manipulated or another contingency that affects structures and processes. As such, it could be seen to be ‘owned’ management who disseminate it downwards throughout the organisation. With this perspective, culture can therefore be changed to improve efficiency or effectiveness in what has been referred to as ‘cultural engineering’ (Jackson and Carter, 2000, pp. 27–8) – creating the ‘right’ kind of organisational culture such that management imposed values rule out particular courses of action or narrow the range of options for a decision. So what might cultural engineering look like in practice? You will look at a case study shortly – Nokia Siemens Networks at the beginning of tackling this process.

However, if culture is something an organisation is, it describes the negotiated and shared meanings that emerge from social interactions. Culture in this sense is created and re-created by its participants in a continuous process, which senior managers are part of and can influence but which they cannot determine or control. Clearly, used in this sense, those aspects of an organisation’s culture that senior managers can shape and control are less than the whole of the culture. The distinction between the approaches to culture by management and practitioners was captured by Linstead and Grafton-Small (1992) who in their research contrasted ‘corporate culture’ and ‘organisational culture’. They suggested that corporate culture was ‘devised by management and transmitted, marketed, sold or imposed on the rest of the organisation … the rites, rituals, stories and values which are offered to organisational members … gaining their commitment’ (p. 333). In contrast, ‘organisational culture’, they asserted ‘grows or emerges within the organisation and emphasises the creativity of organisational members as culture makers’, which appears to be a lot more realistic as it seems to acknowledge the presence of sub-cultures within the organisation.

The shaping and controlling of culture has attracted management and practitioners who have believed that strong cultures could be created to produce commitment, dedication, enthusiasm and even passion in workers. These ideas were put forward by Deal and Kennedy (1988), Peters and Waterman (1982) and Kanter (1984) who argued that a strong culture was crucial in organisational success as it enabled employees to be certain about what they thought and felt, making them more dedicated to the organisation. However, this view of culture has attracted a lot of criticism too. Robbins (2001) has suggested that this emphasis on a strong culture contributed to the demise of some of the biggest corporations (for example, Barings Bank, Enron, WorldCom, Lehman Brothers). Willmott (2002) has also criticised strong cultures as privileging the views of managers of the organisation as a means of subordinating and incorporating other members, thus enforcing a uniformity of culture within the organisation.

So how might proponents of a strong culture reply to these objections? If they are wise, they will welcome them as clarifying the nature and scope of the culture-building that is being proposed. To this end it is helpful to distinguish between broad and narrow versions of culture, between culture in an all-encompassing sense and those aspects of an organisation’s culture that senior managers can more or less control.

Having examined the arguments about strong culture, we now move on to look more closely at what is involved in promoting a corporate culture in which diverse perspectives on organisational problems and issues can be productively harnessed in organisational processes.