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Organizational culture: Basics

Organizational culture has been defined in several different ways. In its most basic form, organizational culture can be defined as the shared values and beliefs that enable members to understand their roles in and the norms of the organization. A more detailed definition is offered by organizational cultural theorist Edgar Schein, who defines it as a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and that has worked well enough to be con- sidered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Regardless of how the term is defined, a number of important characteristics are associated with an organization’s culture. These have been summarized as:

  • Observed behavioral regularities, as typified by common language, terminol- ogy, and rituals.
  • Norms, as reflected by things such as the amount of work to be done and the degree of cooperation between management and employees.
  • Dominant values that the organization advocates and expects participants to share, such as high product and service quality, low absenteeism, and high efficiency.
  • A philosophy that is set forth in the MNC’s beliefs regarding how employ- ees and customers should be treated.
  • Rules that dictate the dos and don’ts of employee behavior relating to areas such as productivity, customer relations, and intergroup cooperation.
  • Organizational climate, or the overall atmosphere of the enterprise, as reflected by the way that participants interact with each other, conduct them- selves with customers, and feel about the way they are treated by higher- level management.

Family Culture

Family culture is characterized by a strong emphasis on hierarchy and orientation to the person. The result is a family-type environment that is power-oriented and headed by a leader who is regarded as a caring parent and one who knows what is best for the per- sonnel. Trompenaars found that this organizational culture is common in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Venezuela, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

In this culture, personnel not only respect the individuals who are in charge but look to them for both guidance and approval as well. In turn, management assumes a paternal relationship with personnel, looks after employees, and tries to ensure that they are treated well and have continued employment. Family culture also is characterized by traditions, customs, and associations that bind together the personnel and make it difficult for outsiders to become members. When it works well, family culture can catalyze and multiply the energies of the personnel and appeal to their deepest feelings and aspirations. When it works poorly, members of the organization end up supporting a leader who is ineffective and drains their energies and loyalties.

Eiffel Tower Culture

Eiffel Tower culture is characterized by strong emphasis on hierarchy and orientation to the task. Under this organizational culture, jobs are well defined, employees know what they are supposed to do, and everything is coordinated from the top. As a result, this culture—like the Eiffel Tower itself—is steep, narrow at the top, and broad at the base. Unlike family culture, where the leader is revered and considered to be the source of all power, the person holding the top position in the Eiffel Tower culture could be replaced at any time, and this would have no effect on the work that organization mem- bers are doing or on the organization’s reasons for existence. In this culture, relation- ships are specific, and status remains with the job. Therefore, if the boss of an Eiffel Tower subsidiary were playing golf with a subordinate, the subordinate would not feel any pressure to let the boss win. In addition, these managers seldom create off-the-job relationships with their people, because they believe this could affect their rational judg- ment. In fact, this culture operates very much like a formal hierarchy—impersonal and efficient.

Guided Missile Culture

Guided missile culture is characterized by strong emphasis on equality in the workplace and orientation to the task. This organizational culture is oriented to work, which typi- cally is undertaken by teams or project groups. Unlike the Eiffel Tower culture, where job assignments are fixed and limited, personnel in the guided missile culture do what- ever it takes to get the job done. This culture gets its name from high-tech organizations such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which pioneered the use of project groups working on space probes that resembled guided missiles. In these large project teams, more than a hundred different types of engineers often were responsible for building, say, a lunar landing module. The team member whose contribu- tion would be crucial at any given time in the project typically could not be known in advance. Therefore, all types of engineers had to work in close harmony and cooperate with everyone on the team.

Incubator Culture

Incubator culture is the fourth major type of organizational culture that Trompenaars identified, and it is characterized by strong emphasis on equality and personal orientation. This culture is based heavily on the existential idea that organizations per se are second- ary to the fulfillment of the individuals within them. This culture is based on the prem- ise that the role of organizations is to serve as incubators for the self-expression and self-fulfillment of their members; as a result, this culture often has little formal structure. Participants in an incubator culture are there primarily to perform roles such as confirm- ing, criticizing, developing, finding resources for, or helping complete the development of an innovative product or service. These cultures often are found among start-up firms in Silicon Valley, California, or Silicon Glen, Scotland. These incubator-type organiza- tions typically are entrepreneurial and often founded and made up by a creative team who left larger, Eiffel Tower–type employers. They want to be part of an organization where their creative talents will not be stifled.

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