- Understand how cultures are created.
- Learn how to maintain a culture.
- Recognize organizational culture signs.
How Are Cultures Created?
Where do cultures come from? Understanding this question is important so that you know how they can be changed. An organization’s culture is shaped as the organization faces external and internal challenges and learns how to deal with them. When the organization’s way of doing business provides a successful adaptation to environmental challenges and ensures success, those values are retained. These values and ways of doing business are taught to new members as the way to do business (Schein, 1992).
The factors that are most important in the creation of an organization’s culture include founders’ values, preferences, and industry demands.
A company’s culture, particularly during its early years, is inevitably tied to the personality, background, and values of its founder or founders, as well as their vision for the future of the organization. This explains one reason why culture is so hard to change: It is shaped in the early days of a company’s history. When entrepreneurs establish their own businesses, the way they want to do business determines the organization’s rules, the structure set-up in the company, and the people they hire to work with them. As a case in point, some of the existing corporate values of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Holdings Inc. can easily be traced to the personalities of its founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. In 1978, the two ex-hippie high school friends opened up their first ice-cream shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont. Their strong social convictions led them to buy only from the local farmers and devote a certain percentage of their profits to charities. The core values they instilled in their business can still be observed in the current company’s devotion to social activism and sustainability, its continuous contributions to charities, use of environmentally friendly materials, and dedication to creating jobs in low-income areas. Even though the company was acquired by Unilever PLC in 2000, the social activism component remains unchanged and Unilever has expressed its commitment to maintaining it (Kiger, 2005; Rubis et al., 2005; Smalley, 2007). There are many other examples of founders’ instilling their own strongly held beliefs or personalities to the businesses they found. For example, as mentioned earlier, Microsoft’s aggressive nature is often traced back to Bill Gates and his competitiveness. According to one anecdote, his competitive nature even extends to his personal life such that one of his pastimes is to compete with his wife in solving identical jigsaw puzzles to see who can finish faster (Schlender, 1998). Similarly, Joseph Pratt, a history and management professor, notes, “There definitely is an Exxon way. This is John D. Rockefeller’s company, this is Standard Oil of New Jersey, this is the one that is most closely shaped by Rockefeller’s traditions. Their values are very clear. They are deeply embedded. They have roots in 100 years of corporate history” (Mouawad, 2008).
Founder values become part of the corporate culture to the degree they help the company be successful. For example, the social activism of Ben & Jerry’s was instilled in the company because founders strongly believed in these issues. However, these values probably would not be surviving 3 decades later if they had not helped the company in its initial stages. In the case of Ben & Jerry’s, these charitable values helped distinguish their brand from larger corporate brands and attracted a loyal customer base. Thus, by providing a competitive advantage, these values were retained as part of the corporate culture and were taught to new members as the right way to do business. Similarly, the early success of Microsoft may be attributed to its relatively aggressive corporate culture, which provided a source of competitive advantage.
While founders undoubtedly exert a powerful influence over corporate cultures, the industry characteristics also play a role. Industry characteristics and demands act as a force to create similarities among organizational cultures. For example, despite some differences, many companies in the insurance and banking industries are stable and rule oriented, many companies in the high-tech industry have innovative cultures, and companies in the nonprofit industry tend to be people oriented. If the industry is one with a large number of regulatory requirements—for example, banking, health care, and nuclear power plant industries—then we might expect the presence of a large number of rules and regulations, a bureaucratic company structure, and a stable culture. Similarly, the high-tech industry requires agility, taking quick action, and low concern for rules and authority, which may create a relatively more innovative culture (Chatman & Jehn, 1994; Gordon, 1991). The industry influence over culture is also important to know, because this shows that it may not be possible to imitate the culture of a company in a different industry, even though it may seem admirable to outsiders.