Historical Perspective on OC

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By Theresa Fadero

The concept of organisational culture was in common use in the 1980s. Organisational research originally focused strongly on the surveying of corporate climate, but in the 1980s the organisational climate concept was to some extent replaced by concept of organisational culture. Climate was redefined as the visible expression of organisational culture (see e.g. Glendon & Stanton 2000, p. 198). There is no generally accepted definition of either concept, even though both terms have been in use for more than a decade (see e.g. Smircich 1983 and Alvesson & Berg 1992, Moran & Volkwein 1992). Organisational culture is said to mean, for example, an organisation’s values (Deal & Kennedy 1982), an organisation’s generally accepted system of meaning (Pettigrew 1979) or an organisationís operating philosophy (Ouchi 1981). Despite the uncertainty of the concept’s definition, the significance of culture is understood, particularly in the corporate world. Traditional mechanistic management models have been found to be inadequate and contrary to fundamental human nature. A new concept was needed to describe and explain individuals’ actions in an organisation so that their working capacity could be improved (Alvesson & Berg 1992). Organizational culture became a business phenomenon in the early 1980s, triggered by four seminal books: (Baker 2002, Tharp 2009)
  • Ouchi’s (1981) Theory Z: How American Business Can Meet the Japanese Challenge
  • Pascale and Athos’s (1982) The Art of Japanese Management: Applications for American Executives
  • Deal and Kennedy’s (1982) Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life
  • Peters and Waterman’s (1982) In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies

The first two books suggested that Japanese business success could be attributed in large part to Japanese corporate culture. All four books suggested that corporate culture was key to organizational performance and that corporate culture could be managed to improve a company’s competitive advantage. They provided pragmatic prescriptions to American business leaders desperate for answers to help them remain successful in the face of increasing Japanese competition. These books were bestsellers; the last out sold all other non-fiction books for the year. Although the concept of organizational culture was popularized in the early 1980s, its roots can be traced back to the early human relations view of organizations that originated in the 1940s. Human relations theorists viewed the informal, nonmaterial, interpersonal, and moral bases of cooperation and commitment as perhaps more important than the formal, material, and instrumental controls stressed by the rational system theorists. The human relations perspective drew its inspiration from even earlier anthropological and sociological work on culture associated with groups and societies (see Geertz 1973; Mead 1934; Durkheim 1964; Weber 1947, 1958).

Attention to organizational culture lost ground as organizational science, and social science in general, became increasingly quantitative. To the extent that research on organizational culture survived, its focus shifted to its more measurable aspects, particularly employee attitudes and perceptions and/or observable organizational conditions thought to correspond to employee perceptions (i.e., the level of individual involvement, the degree of delegation, the extent of social distance as implied by status differences, and the amount of coordination across units). This research, referred to as organizational climate studies, was prominent during the 1960s and 1970s (Denison 1990). The renewed interest in organizational culture that emerged in the late 1970s and resulted in the four books mentioned above suggested that a deeper, more complex anthropological approach was necessary to understand crucial but largely invisible aspects of organizational life. This renewed interest in organizational culture represented a return to the early organizational literature but it went far beyond this literature in contributing important new insights and ways of thinking about the role, importance, and characteristics of organizational culture. Also, research on the effect of culture on organizational performance and investigations into how organizational cultures are created, maintained, and changed received greater attention. The main difference was that organizational culture was now viewed less as a natural, organically emergent phenomenon and more as a manipulable and manageable competitive asset. (Baker 2002)

The field of organizational behaviour and the related discipline of management science began investigating organizations in terms of culture as early as the 1930s. The final phase of the famous Hawthorne studies at the Western Electric Company marked the first systematic attempt to use a concept of culture to understand the work environment. While an important step forward in qualitative research, the investigation was rather blunt and the understanding of organizational culture remained fairly primitive during the following decades. Most mid-century attempts at understanding were conducted by scholars steeped in quantitative psychology and sociology, though by the 1970s researchers more explicitly and emphatically appropriated the theories and methods of anthropology. The late-century upsurge of interest in organizational culture is credited largely to the economic conditions of the 1970s when international competition had heightened and more foreign companies were operating factories in the United States. Specifically, the success of the Japanese in many industries sparked curiosity about whether their differing corporate values, attitudes, and behaviours were responsible for their often superior performance. (Tharp 2009)

The 1982 publication of Peters & Wasserman’s In Search of Excellence stirred both popular and professional interest through its suggestion that organizations with strong cultures were more effective. Corporate culture was offered as an asset that could be managed to improve business performance. Since the early 1980s, academic and applied exploration of organizational culture has steadily increased and even now there is little indication of abatement as changes in data management, work organization, values, lifestyles, demographics, knowledge-intensive work, outsourcing, and a host of other social, economic, and technological factors continue to impact the relationship between organizations, workers, and the workplace. (Tharp 2009)

Alvesson, Mats, and Per Olof Berg. 1992. Corporate Culture and Organizational Symbolism: An Overview. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.
Baker, Kathryn A. (2002) Organizational Culture [Online]. 8 June 2002. Retrieved from:
//__www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/doe/benchmark/ch11.pdf__//‎ [Accessed 4 May 2013]
Deal, Terrence E., and Allan A. Kennedy. 1982. Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
Denison, Daniel R. 1990. Corporate Culture and Organizational Effectiveness. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Durkheim, Emile. 1964. Suicide. New York: Free Press.
Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Glendon, A.I. & Stanton, N.A. (2000). Perspectives on Safety Culture. Safety Science 34, 193-214.
Mead, George H. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Moran, E.T. & Volkwein, J.F. (1992). The Cultural Approach to the Formation of Organizational Climate. Human Relations, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 19-47.
Ouchi, William G. 1981. Theory Z: How American Business Can Meet the Japanese Challenge. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
Pascale, Richard, and Anthony Athos. 1982. The Art of Japanese Management: Applications for American Executives. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Peters, Tom, and Robert Waterman. 1982. In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies. New York: Harper and Row.
Pettigrew, A. (1979). On Studying Organisational Cultures. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 570-581.
Smircich, L. (1983). Concepts of Culture and Organizational analysis. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28, 339-358.
Tharp, Bruce M. (2009) Defining “Culture” and “Organizational Culture”: From Anthropology to the Office [Online]. Haworth, April 2009. Retrieved from:
__http://www.haworth.com/en-us/knowledge/workplace-library/documents/defining-culture-and-organizationa-culture_5.pdf__ [Accessed 5 May 2013]Weber, Max. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. A.M.Henderson and T. Parsons (eds. and trans.) New York: Free Press.
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Weber, Max. 1958 (copyright 1904). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribner’s.

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