Friday, December 31, 2010

Cultural approach to organizations

In the HBO hit series The Sopranos, each meeting of the mafia bosses and “made men” began and ended with a handshake and hug where all the participants gave each other a firm couple of slaps on the back while standing in momentary embrace. Simple social gestures such as these handshakes and hugs are laden with meaning in many different cultures, but they don’t necessarily hold the same measure of meaning whenever they are employed. For instance, in the Sopranos episodes, these gestures functioned as forms of social communication and were designed to reinforce bonds of peace and loyalty between mafia members; however, when these gestures were not exchanged between members at the beginning and of meetings called “sit downs” it indicated that there was division and possibly even hostility brewing between the parties in question, which could eventually have serious if not deadly consequences if the problem was not resolved. It hardly goes without saying, that physical gestures such as handshakes and hugging, communicate that same kind of meaning and significance in most cultural settings. The difference in meaning does not lie in the physical exchange itself, rather it owes to a communal attribution assigned to these gestures when performed in certain situations. This concept of assigned meanings for such mundane social interactions as handshakes and hugs illustrates how certain activities within organizations take on the function of ritual, designed to communicate values and meaning which are important within the framework of a given organizational context. Other communicative features, beyond rituals, of organizational life which provide insight into the values and culture of an organization are stories, myths, vocabulary, and metaphors. These various modes of communication form the backbone of the approach to organizational study called “cultural theory” of organizational analysis.

Cultural theory

Organizational research, from a communication perspective, took a new turn in the early 1980’s when Pacanowski and O’donnell-Trujillo (1982) proposed an alternative approach to studying organizations. Three primary issues were identified as reasons justifying the proposal for a different approach to organizational analysis: the conceptualization of what constituted an organization, the managerial bias predominant in organizational studies literature, and the dominant use of quantitative methods of analysis. A case was made by Pacanowski and O’donnell-Trujillo that the balance of organizational literature focused too narrowly on business firms and government agencies, while virtually no attention was paid to other kinds of organizations, resulting in a truncated understanding of the operations of organizations. In place of such a narrow focus, they argued that an organization is “the interlocked actions of collectivity” (p.122). What they meant was that an organization consists of places where people gather to get things done including everything from business firms to Friday poker nights to discreet family units. By enlarging the definition and conceptualization of organization, a door was opened for a broader analysis of the inner workings of groups or collectives united around certain loyalties, commitments, values, and associations. Another concern, managerial bias, added a further argument in favor of their proposal. Noting that “more things are going on in organizations than getting the job done” they complained that a managerial bias in research tended to focus narrowly on issues of utility and efficiency without ever looking under the other stones which comprised the life of an organization (p.116). Finally, they pointed out that the almost exclusive use of quantitative methods of analysis biased the research findings and imposed unnecessary limitations on research. To address the research constraints created by a quantitative methodology, they proposed an ethnographic approach to organizational study where researchers would have the opportunity to observe, interview, and analyze so that “the organizational experiences are understood in terms of the understandings of organizational members” (p.127).

Having identified concerns related above, which were typical of what was, at that time, the “traditional” approach to organizational studies, Pacanowski and O’donnell-Trujillo (1982), outlined a cultural approach to organizational studies which was consciously and explicitly “communication-based” (p.121). The underlying rationale for a communication-based approach was their working presupposition that communication creates and sustains organizational life and reality; by analyzing the various modes of communication employed in a specific organization, researchers would be able to understand how communication was used by organizational members to make sense of their experience and thus, would “uncover an organizations culture” (p.124). In order to get at the meaning constructed by organizational members by means of communication, and in turn uncover the organizational culture, they proposed that researchers study “indicators and displayers of organizational sense-making” including, but not limited to: constructs, facts, practices, vocabulary, metaphors, stories, and rites and rituals (p.124-126). Through becoming embedded within a culture in order to gain firsthand knowledge through observation and interviews, the researcher is enabled to build a plausible case for how organizational members “communicatively make sense of their interlocked actions” (p.127). The concerns, methods, and communication focus set forth by Pacanowski and O’donnell-Trujillo (1982) form the backdrop and constituent parts of the cultural approach to organizational analysis which was further developed in subsequent research by communication scholars.