What Is Meant by the Term ‘Organisational Culture’ Essay

The late twentieth century saw an emergence in industry competition and in order to continually achieve success, organisational behavior had to evolve into something new. Organisational culture is one form of organisational behavior that is focused on the shared values and beliefs which members and employees of a specific organisation believe to be the right way to act in a particular situation (Vecchio, 2000). Just like other theories of organisational behavior, the purpose of culture theory is to gain knowledge of employee attitudes so that organisations can reduce cost and improve production (Stanford, 2010).

The aim of this essay is to show the rise of culture belief in organisations, and why it can play an important role in organisational performance. First it will provide a history of the literature, then present different concepts that can be seen, such as ‘has’ and ‘is’ theory ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ cultures. Finally it will identify positive effects it can have on organisations and employees.

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The rise of Humanistic theories

From the 1920s to the early 1970s Scientific Management was widely adopted by Western companies because it was an easy structure to implement by managers in an organisation to achieve success and control over employees (Burnes, 1996).

However with the oil crises in 1973 interest in the Japanese model of production spread to the World (Brown and Williams, 2012). This happened because the Japanese were achieving what no other organisation had ever achieved; in addition they were contradicting every previous concept of production (Vecchio, 2000). When organisations around the World were practicing mass production, the Japanese were developing the just-in-time approach. This is when the raw material would only be ordered just-in-time to be produced, and production would only start just-in-time to be delivered to the costumer, avoiding waste and contributing towards a more effective cash flow; additionally they were practicing team work (Brown and Williams, 2012).

Employees were involved in decision making and projects would be integrated at different levels from the marketing and finance department to the shop floor (Vecchio, 2000). This reduced alienation and empowered employees, the results were considerable and were seen as a miracle by Western organisations. Therefore, as a response to the Japanese’s new challenging approach, western organisations began to explore different models of behavior (Burnes, 1996). That is when the theories that were more humanistic (Human Resource Management, Culture theory and Contingency approach) were rediscovered and adopted. In 1982 Peters and Waterman (1982) suggested that the key to the recovery of Western companies was the implementation of organisational culture. In their study they analysed several different organisations from the USA and identified a list of eight common beliefs that according to them were the reasons for their success (Mullins, 2011).

Thus, if a company wishes to achieve ‘excellence’ they should embrace those beliefs. Customer orientation, respectful treatment beyond different level of employee’s and a set of values through a clear organisation philosophy were a few of those common attributes (Burnes, 1996). They argue that when employees have organisational values integrated within their actions, there is no need for close supervision, reducing organisation cost and empowering employees (ibid). Therefore, managers should adopt a system where employees have more freedom, nevertheless managers would still have some kind of control (Brewis and Willmott, 2012). It was this study in the 80’s that made famous among managers ‘culture theory’ as a recipe for success (ibid). Peter and Waterman sent their message to the world as the ‘one best way’ to be successful.

Concepts of Culture

Most writers (including Peter and Waterman cited above) that are concerned with culture theory believe that managers can implement and manipulate culture in order to improve organisational success (Brewis and Willmott, 2012). This assumption that culture is a variable and can be changed is explained by Smircich (1983) as culture being something that an organisation ‘has’. For instance, managers could build a value into an organisation and its employee, such as, customer satisfaction and team work to increase productivity. According to Brewis and Willmott (2012) in the ‘has’ theory, culture can be seen as functional and technical. It is functional because it establishes an order in an organisation, it will lead all employees in the same direction. Additionally work is meaningful to them, which may be seen as empowerment. It is technical because managers can continually administrate core values of a company to achieve better outcome (Brewis and Willmott, 2012). Indeed that may be the reason why the subject is so popular today; it is connected with better performance.

‘Has theory’ can also be associated with ‘strong culture’. Deal and Kennedy (1982) believe that in order to achieve success an organisation should implement a clear and consistent set of values, which enable employees to assume how to behave as ‘the way to do things here’. ‘If employees ‘feel’ for the company, if it touches them in some way, they will follow its leaders anywhere because they value, even idolize, everything it stands for’ (Linstead, 2012, p.197). This approach is supposed to increase employee loyalty and to trigger strong emotions, such as, aspiration, devotion and love (Linstead, 2012). However it is also argued that strong culture may lead to a predictable staff outcome, discouraging new ideas (Brewis and Willmott, 2012). Nevertheless, a considerable number of managers confirm that the structure that culture provides to an organisation has a direct link with its prosperity (Mullins, 2011). On the other hand, some writers view culture as something an organisation ‘is’ (Smircich, 1983).

It is suggested that just like in life where humans develop a behavior that it is a result of their local surrounding, in organisations employees too develop a behavior on a daily bases (Brewis and Willmott 2012). It is created organically and difficult to understand where the roots of it came from, hence hard to manage and change (Stanford, 2010). ‘Is’ theory sympathises with what literature calls a ‘weak culture’. Here the subject is treated more flexible, giving more room for scope, and creativity (Linstead, 2012). It is a debate whether an organisation should adopt strong or weak cultural values; strong cultures may be inflexible and as consequence can react slower to external and internal changes (Stanford, 2010).

The link between culture and empowerment

According to Stanford (2010) an effective culture would be when employees believe that there are more reasons to work than to just make money, when work is meaningful to them. In addition she believes that the employee should feel engaged within the job, without breaching ethical issues (Stanford, 2010). It should be noted that organisational culture enable human resource management to affiliate organisational values with new employee values, and when both share common beliefs the results can be beneficial for either side. Employee’s feel fulfillment and managers benefit from this in terms of a more efficient production (Vecchio, 2000). This suggests that managers are paying attention to organisational culture because it empowers employees and as a result boosts productivity.

Therefore it can be argued that ‘culture theory’ seems to achieve what a range of studies have tried to understand for decades, that is how to reward and empower individuals at work in order to improve organisational performance. Hawthorne’s study in the 1920s draws attention to the fact that humans are not only driven by monetary incentives as stated by Taylor, instead it shows that there is a desire for recognition (Linstead, 2012). Employees need to feel that they are being valued. However at the time it did not demonstrate clear enough how to measure these concepts in organisational practice (Burnes, 1996). Culture theory developed those assumptions in more detail, making it easier for managers to manipulate and implement.

Certainly the approaches created by culture theory reaffirm what numerous studies such as ‘Job design’, ‘Theory Y’ and ‘Maslow’ already said, however it appears that it glued several ideas from those studies into a clear module for organisation practices. In spite of that, culture theory has been criticised to manipulate and control employees in a way that could be seen as unethical (Linstead, 2012). It should be noted that there is an element of control; just like in life, organisations need a mechanism for social order. For Marxists, organisation culture tries to control employees’ emotions and that is a form of exploitation and inevitably will lead to alienation (ibid). Nevertheless, it can be argued that most employees don’t feel controlled, and they actually approve of the methodology (ibid).


Organisation behavior has developed from Scientific Management into a wide school of thoughts, and it will continue to evolve in response to challenging business environments. This essay has given reasons for the widespread use of organisation culture since 1982. It has demonstrated through different concepts why managers are attracted to the topic and it can be concluded that what provokes manager’s interest is the idea that culture is something an organisation ‘has’.

In this approach, culture can be manipulated to integrate all employees toward the same direction and achieve organisational goals. In addition it can be assumed that when employee values are aligned with company values it results in better organisation performance. For that reason, it is suggested that there is a link between organisation performance and employee empowerment. Culture is seen as the commodity that holds an organisation together. It seems then, that culture, despite its criticism, will probably continue to develop as the demand for it endures on.


Brewis, J. and Willmott, H. Culture. In Knights, D. and Willmott, H. eds. (2012) Introducing Organizational Behaviour and Management. 2th ed. Andover: Cengage Learning.

Brown, G. and Hookham Williams, C. (2013) ULMS151 Organisations and Management Custom Text. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Burnes, B. (1996) Managing Change: A Strategic Approach to Organisational Dynamics. 2th ed. London: Pitman Publishing.

Deal, T.E. and Kennedy, A.A. (1982) Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

Linstead, S. Managing Culture. In Worthington, F. ed. (2013) ULMS157 Introdution to HRM Custom Text. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mullins, L.J. (2011) Essentials of Organisational Behaviour. 3th ed. Harlow: FT/ Prentice Hall.

Peters, T.J. and Waterman, R.H. (1982) In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best – run Companies. New York: Harper.

Smircich, L. (1983) ‘Concepts of Culture and Organizational Analysis’. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28(3), 339-358.

Stanford, N. (2010) Organisation Culture: Getting it right. London: Profile Books.

Vecchio, R.P. (2000) Organizational Behavior: core concepts. 4th ed. Fort Worth: Dryden Press.

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