What is a 'culture'? 1: 'Corporate Culture'

Since the publication of two key books a decade ago (Deal & Kennedy, 1982; Peters & Waterman, 1982), there has been some enthusiasm in recent years for endeavouring to understand what an organisation is, and how it behaves, in terms of its 'culture'. (Whether a 'culture' is something an organisation has or something an organisation is has been a matter of active debate, but possibly less a debate about substantive issues than about what might be the appropriate 'experiential Gestalt'.) The 'culture' of an organisation is most commonly thought of as the complex fabric of shared beliefs, values, behavioural norms, expectations, sometimes even company-specific jargon for naming jobs, processes and products, the socialised sense and cognitive style of 'who we are' and 'how we do things'. Whether from an historical perspective it has been consciously engineered or not, it will very often happen that a specific culture is fostered by the company itself, in so far as it serves as cognitive support for company goals. It is this that we might properly call the 'corporate' (or 'company' or 'organisational') culture; and it has effectively become a management tool (e.g., Kilmann, Saxton & Serpa, 1985).

Culture and Communication: The social transmission of culture

To better understand the concept, I shall take a rather more specialised perspective on 'culture' (see also the next and following sections). In the first place, 'corporate cultures' as commonly understood are in large part themselves the products of, transmitted through, and sustained by, activity at a more fundamental level; pre-eminently in the webs of communication and affiliation — "the human social processes by which people create, raise, and sustain group consciousness" (Bormann, 1983, p.100) — that criss-cross the organisation. One would want to look for indices of the culture in, for example, overt forms of textual communication (proposals, reports, letters, contracts and written job descriptions, memoranda, face-to-face conversations, telephone conversations, electronic mail, in-house newsletters, health and safety regulations and other rulebooks, noticeboard messages, et cetera, viewed as forms of discourse). Less obvious but equally crucial in the construction of the social realities shared by members of organisations are verbal rituals and protocols (formulae and verbal gestures embedded in exchanges between speakers), forms of address (use of addressees' names or titles; 'personal' versus 'positional' dialogue, cf. Bernstein, 1971), stories (verbal repetition of company 'lore'/'folk history'/'myths' about the organisation or about specific individuals; company rumours and 'grapevine' gossip; 'inside jokes'; see Bormann, 1983), interpretations, legitimations, and styles of explanation (e.g., appeal to causal processes, to company goals, to rational conduct, to company culture — "the way we do things here" — and so forth), and jargons ('corporate slang'; task-specific terms; organisation-specific labels for objects, concepts, and practices; and so on). Finally, one would look at the non-verbal semiotics of dress, office topology and the management of space (see, e.g., Hall, 1966), smoking areas, 'rites of passage' for internal job moves, and so on.

One may view the individual's everyday life in terms of the working away of a conversational apparatus that ongoingly maintains, modifies and reconstructs his subjective reality. ... the greater part of reality-maintenance in conversation is implicit, not explicit. Most conversation does not in so many words define the nature of the world. Rather, it takes place against the background of a world that is silently taken for granted. Thus an exchange such as, "Well, it's time for me to get to the station", and "Fine, darling, have a good day at the office", implies an entire world within which these apparently simple propositions make sense. By virtue of this implication the exchange confirms the subjective reality of the world.

If this is understood, one will readily see that the greater part, if not all, of everyday conversation maintains subjective reality. Indeed, its massivity is achieved by the accumulation and consistency of casual conversation — conversation that can afford to be casual precisely because it refers to the routines of a taken-for-granted world. ... In the widest sense, all who employ this same language are reality-maintaining others. (Berger & Luckmann, 1967:172-3)

Verbal and non-verbal communications are a primary vehicle for the transmission of the culture to newcomers to the organisation, and are therefore a necessary (though not sufficient) ground for organisational culture. For example, company folklore about its 'heroes' — "Bill Morton, hired as a tea-boy, is now on the Board" — can become a vehicle for the transmission of that part of the corporate culture relating to those qualities of individual performance and their rewards that serve the interests both of the individual worker and of the company. Similarly, the acquisition of company-specific jargons may serve to reinforce the individual's sense of belonging to — of having been initiated into — a prestige group.