Corporate Culture As Shared Norms, Beliefs, and Values

Peters and Waterman popularized the investigation of shared norms, beliefs, and values by showing similarities among management ideologies in very successful companies. They pointed out that in successful companies the product and the customer are of the utmost importance to managers. They also argued for the efficacy of management strategies that put into action “management by walking around,” or MBWA. Peters extols the benefits of MBWA by citing a letter he received from a general parts manager for Caterpillar Tractor. The manager spent a week working in the warehouse of a customer and then spent two weeks working on the day and night shifts of his own company’s warehouse. The experience, he said, opened his eyes both to the needs of his customers and the heroism of his company’s warehouse workers, making him realize that he had to “think as my customers think” and “let the people I work with work, think, innovate, and do their best.”

In her study of a successful electronics firm (called “Chipco”), Kanter notes that the existence of a culture of pride enhances the potential for innovation:
To manage such change [innovation] as a normal way of life requires that people find their stability and security not in specific organizational arrangements but in the culture and direction of the organization. It requires that they feel integrated with the whole rather than identifying with the particular territory of the moment, since that is changeable.

Thus, Chipco appeared conscious of itself as a culture, not just a technical system, and took steps to transmit its culture to newcomers in the managerial and professional ranks, through legends, stories, and special orientations at offsite meetings that were like boot camps. Just learning the job was not enough for success at Chipco; one had to learn the culture of the organization as well, and this could often be disorienting for the stream of new arrivals.

Deal and Kennedy, surveying a variety of companies, found that one third (25) had identifiable beliefs. (The feature on Procter & Gamble discusses the benefits of having such clear beliefs.) Of these 25 companies, two thirds had qualitative beliefs, such as “IBM means service,” and one third had clear financial beliefs. These beliefs, which often express the company’s mission statement, help give all employees a sense of direction.

Based on their research, Deal and Kennedy provide a typology of organizational cultures. There is the tough guy, macho culture, or organizations in which people like to take high risks and get quick feedback on whether their actions are right or wrong. Examples include police departments or hospitals, where the stakes are life and death, or professional sports, where the financial stakes are high. There are work-hard, play-hard cultures, in which fun and action are the rule and employees take few risks. Sales organizations, including door-to-door sales businesses, and the sales departments in most organizations exemplify this culture. Bet-your-company cultures are those in which big-stakes decisions are made but years pass before employees know whether those decisions were right or wrong. These are high-risk, slow-feedback environments. Oil companies, dependent on large and long-term investment for exploration, are such cultures. Finally, there are process cultures, in which there is little or no feedback and employees find it difficult to measure what they do, concentrating instead on how it’s done. Banks, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical firms are examples. Recently, an argument has been put forth that there is good reason for some ambiguity in meaning and for using images with multiple meanings because this allows employees to interpret meaning in the light of their own motives.

An interesting application of the notion of shared norms and values involves occupational communities. We usually describe occupations with terms such as engineer, mechanic, librarian, and so on, but these static descriptions fail to orient us to the dynamic meaning of work to people in particular jobs. In some jobs people leave social interactions and their own values outside when they walk into their organizations. But other jobs lay on their practitioners a whole set of cognitive, social, and moral meanings. For these jobs the idea of an occupational community is relevant.

[An occupational community is] a group of people who consider themselves to be engaged in the same sort of work; whose identity is drawn from the work; who share with one another a set of values, norms and perspectives that apply to but extend beyond work related matters; and whose social relationships meld work and leisure…. Occupational communities are seen to create and sustain relatively unique work cultures consisting of, among other things, task rituals, standards for proper and improper behavior, work codes surrounding relatively routine practices and, for the membership at least, compelling accounts attesting to the logic and value of these rituals, standards and codes.

The existence of occupational communities is significant because belonging to one may create a conflict of identification for the worker-what pull demands his allegiance, that of the corporate culture or that of the occupational community? Academics provide an example. Although they identify with their universities, they tend to identify more strongly with their field. An economist, for example, is more likely to view himself against other economists rather than faculty on his own campus.

Geographic proximity is not necessary to the formation of an occupational community, even though it may help homogenize shared values and beliefs. But a number of other factors can contribute to this kind of identification, each of which can be seen at work with Navy fighter pilots.

– The use of distinctive accoutrements, costumes, and jargon. The long white scarf of the pilot has long since been replaced by the standard flight suit, but even that government issue item is modified according to a certain style with badges, velcro, and other trappings. Pilots speak of bolters, bingo fields, bears, and bogeys, using their own special language to differentiate themselves from outsiders.
– High involvement in work. One has only to listen to fighter pilots complain of fatigue and long hours to sense their involvement in their work.
– The possession of esoteric, scarce, socially valued, and unique abilities. The esteem in which society holds pilots-embodied in the play of children and the fantasies of adults-reinforces their sense of identity.
– Claimed responsibility for others. Fighter pilots are not only responsible for their fellow airmen but feel responsible for the welfare of ships and forces they protect.
– Confrontation with danger. Pilots, catapulted off aircraft carriers only to land later on the rolling, pitching flight decks, clearly share the bond of a dangerous occupation.

The same principles can be seen at work with other occupational communities, such as police officers, doctors, and air traffic controllers. Investment bankers, insurance agents, and managers, though they may not have the bonds of shared danger, do include the other hallmarks of occupational communities.