Prisoners of corporate culture

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Executives grappling with such concepts as change management are unlikely to find the thought consoling, but an industrial anthropologist assisting the parliamentary and scientific committee on Japanese industrial policy says that the notion that corporate cultures can be changed is based on a misunderstanding of human behaviour - and therefore is likely to fail.

'The idea that it is possible to change a company's culture, that it is merely a matter of individual willpower, is itself a cultural phenomenon - one peculiar to our Western society,' says Alexandra Ouroussoff. 'It is a consequence of our tendency to overestimate the power of human reason to change human behaviour.'

We look to Japan for ideas about how to improve business practice, yet more often than not we select the evidence to suit our own cultural prejudices. Concentrating on such issues as staff canteen seating plans evades the more fundamental question: is the company being efficiently run? 'I do not believe that eating arrangements have had a long-term inhibiting effect on our national economy. Economic performance and cultural values are much more subtly linked.'

Ms Ouroussoff has worked in industry for three years, studying her subject in the same way a conventional anthropologist would tackle an exotic society. As well as gaining a combined Ph D in social anthropology and industrial relations, she has spent a year as a post-doctoral fellow at the London Business School, as part of a detailed study leading to a forthcoming book.

Although the book's title, Illusions of Rationality, the Cultural Perpetuation of Industrial Inefficiency, has a distinctly pessimistic tone, she insists it is not meant in that spirit.

'But our ability to achieve effective changes depends on our ability to unmask malignant patterns which interfere with rational choice and make change impossible.'

Drawing on her experience of a British-based multinational, she says that the tendency to overestimate the extent to which behaviour is determined by conscious choice and individual willpower can lead 'managers of change' to perpetuate the very problems they are trying to solve.

By concentrating on the individual, social constraints on people are being ignored, with the result that the overall picture is distorted.

Managers do not just determine corporate culture, they are determined by it. A clearer insight into the values which sustain culture is necessary if change management is to be effective. Paradoxically, 'the more we are aware of the things that constrain us, the freer we are to change them,' she says.