Corporate culture: From ‘Recycle Bin’ to a promising panacea?

At the coffee machine. What does it say about ...
Image by TonZ via Flickr

A popular concept in the world of organization is corporate culture. Perhaps, is not only a concept, but more as a catchphrase nowadays? In my recent works in organizational development, I’ve encountered with this particular concept. In one of them, my role was defining the basic values and constructing the corporate culture of the organization. While people less likely sought after corporate culture when they want to solve a problem in their organization; they sometimes end up in with corporate culture as part of their solution. To put it simple, there are tendency to conclude that problems is caused by the culture.

Now, here is the challenge: Is there anything we can really do about this ‘invisible thing’ called culture? Perhaps, this question will be more easily to explore when we are discussing social groups, communities, or societies. But, when the context is business or organizational settings; there is a predicament to be cautiously considered. In business, it is important to be tangible; and culture is not naturally tangible. A classmate in grad school once said: “Corporate culture, or organizational culture, is something we refer to when we are trying to explain things we aren’t clear about”.

Though some people may consider this type of comment as cynical, or even abrasive, perhaps; this comment wield significant reminder about how we often use the term of corporate culture in over-simplistic ways. Yes, in many cases, we like to blame ‘culture’ as the culprit that caused organizational failures and other ‘misfortunes’ in work settings. As corporate culture tends to be abstract and requires demonstration in daily life; most people may have difficulties to see it as a tangible and discrete part of organization life. Just like recycle bin in our computer desktop; we threw everything we thought as useless; and when we got stuck with something and can’t find a solution, we suddenly realized that we need to restore them and hoped that we might find useful things. Suddenly, the recycled things become the promising panacea.

The bottom line is: corporate culture is ambiguous, vague, and not sanctioned by the authority. It can be socially binding, but not necessarily institutionalized by rules (legally binding). Why? The answer is simple: If it is legally institutionalized, then it is a set of rules, not culture. I found this distinction as something that might contribute to our tendency to define corporate culture as the area outside the clear state of corporate rules. Thus, an effort to elaborate corporate culture as an organizational solution will always face a risk of getting lost in the process. The reason is the complexity of corporate culture.

There are many theories of corporate or organizational culture we can find in textbooks. But, understanding the complexity of the culture in organizations is not the same with finding a bunch of theories to read. Corporate culture represents uniqueness of the organizational pattern – the organization’s psyche – and therefore, the mental state of the social system in the organization. It is not something that can be generalized to all organization.

This is not to neglect the fact that many organizations or businesses have declared their corporate or organizational culture as a set of formal guidance for their members or employees. Some organizations realize the necessity to define the set of overarching values that define their corporate/organizational culture. Some of them choose to define the values in top-down manner, and inducing the values through socialization to all people in the organization, and sometimes, stakeholders as well. Some choose to deploy a research and development team; expecting that the result will deliver a set of values that is relevant, unique and constructive for the business process in the organization.

And yet, the question remains: Is there anything we can really do about this ‘invisible thing’ called culture? Perhaps there are two questions we should ponder: Should we do something about culture? Or, should we do something that creates culture?



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