Inside Business: Culture? It's time to define your terms

CULTURE is the great intangible of business, writes Roger Trapp. Everybody talks about it, but few know what to do about it.

Part of the problem is that culture comes in all sorts of guises. At Hewlett-Packard or Andersen Consulting there are clear identities. But at many other organisations it is not nearly so obvious what they stand for and how they go about their business.

Another difficulty is that there has been a shift in what we mean when we talk about culture. In the past it tended to mean little more than "the way we do things around here". Increasingly, though, it has become more complex than that, with various "implicit" values kicking in.

As a result, managers who are completely comfortable about grappling with the harder issues can shy away from dealing with it, even if they suspect that the notion of culture might contain a magic ingredient that can help them achieve those other targets.

It is this reluctance to get involved that Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones hope to counter with The Character of a Corporation (HarperCollins, pounds 19.99). They demonstrate just how important they think the issue is by sub-titling their book How Your Company's Culture Can Make or Break Your Business, and then set about trying to make the subject accessible.

At the heart of this drive for accessibility is an analytical methodology that divides corporate cultures into four key types: fragmented, networked, mercenary and communal. The idea is not that any one of these is right, just that one might be more appropriate. It is, therefore, incumbent upon organisations to understand how they can shift from one to another. They also need to appreciate that most organisations are characterised by several characters at once, and it is, therefore, critical that everybody should understand where these different cultures are, and how they can clash.

The authors also introduce the notion a life cycle in a culture, generally starting with the communal, where a group is focused on performance and often ending in the fragmented, where employees do their own thing.

Finally, they remind the reader that any form of culture can be functional or dysfunctional - "all it takes to slip from the good to the bad is people demonstrating the behaviours of sociability or solidarity to their own benefit, not the organisation's".

Having pointed out that it is with good reason that managers have tended to regard culture as something fuzzy and amorphous, they then stress that diagnosing your culture is not always as easy as it looks.

Nor do they stop there: there is advice on avoiding a dysfunctional culture; on shifting from one to another; and tips on motivation and incentives.

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