The Anthropology of Work

From the blog

After Corporate Culture

Since the early 1980s the business world has enthusiastically embraced the concept of culture as a way to understand and manage the “soft stuff” of organizations.  Initiated in the popular press by Tom Peters and Robert Wasserman in their book, In Search of Excellence, and in the academic press by Edgar Schein in his book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, the past 30 years has been something of a golden era for culture in the business world.  Indeed, dozens of “corporate culture experts” have created surveys, instruments, tools and all manner of highly “scientific” models for measuring, and therefore, the common thinking goes, better managing corporate culture.

The promise here, both in the academic and popular versions, is that the human experience in organizations can be, essentially, scientized and managed as another amongst many forms of data that is put into the scientific management process.  Reduced to a series of color coded graphs and numbers, culture is thus simplified, for busy corporate managers, into an easily understood and manageable aspect of the human resource management process.  “Our culture is blue, but what we really want is a green culture,” the thinking goes. (For example, check out the Organizational Culture Index and the Dension Corporate Culture Survey) Sounds laughable, to be sure, but look closely at any of the popular models offered by corporate culture consultancies and you will see that the entire process of understanding culture in organizations is usually reduced to a 4 or 5 part typology where each type is assigned a color.

One thing, and no small thing, that ALL of these various figures- academics and consultants- have in common is that none of them is actually trained in the formal analysis of culture- i.e. in the discipline of anthropology.  Most of them are MBAs, or perhaps psychologists (like Edgar Schein) or PhD’s in Organizational Behavior (like Tom Peters).  Who gave these figures the license to pontificate (and sell services) as if they know what they are talking about?  The quick and obvious answer is that corporate managers, looking for easy ways to appeal to calls for greater humanism in business, have found the corporate culture movement to be a most convenient and ready-made vocabulary that gives the appearance of sensitivity to the human side of their enterprises.  Thus, a whole host of salesmen have built up a massive body of pseudo-science that they sell to managers who are at best only marginally sincere, and no one seems to notice or care.

This has worked splendidly for some thirty years.  However, as social media communication dissolves the barriers to information flows within and between companies, and as the employer-employee social contract all but dissolves in a post-modern global economy, the ‘corporate culture concept’ no longer holds much water.  Employees today often stay put in their jobs just for the benefits, not because they feel passionately about their companies or their companies’ futures.  They know all too well that, given the harsh realities that most companies face in the wake of the Great Recession, those companies have no more loyalty to them than they do in return.  These are, at best, marriages of convenience.  All workers, from the CEOs to the janitor, are expendable.

The notion that some velvety set of beliefs and values holds people together in companies today is a myth.  It has always been a myth.  People work because they need the money, and companies and workers know that better today than ever.  The concept of corporate culture was only ever relevant as a motivational tool, a form of social engineering, to get workers to work harder so that their companies could be more competitive.  It was never about the actual experiences of workers and the meanings they attach to their work.

What we need today is a bright light of reality that exposes the myth of corporate culture for what it is, so that we can get on with making sense of the emergences of actual communities that the social web is making possible.  New forms of community- both online and offline- are providing us with moorings of meaning that WE are creating.  No longer do we believe that the trust falls we engage in at the company team building weekend mean very much.  This is especially so if the Thursday afterwards half the team is given pink slips.  Today, pragmatism trumps idealism.  The sooner we stop pretending otherwise, the sooner all parties can just get on with it.

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