posted 1 Dec 1999 in Volume 3 Issue 4
Review: The New Corporate Cultures, by Terrance Deal & Allan Kennedy
Victor Newman reviews this new title published by Orion, London 1999.
This book is the direct successor to Deal and Kennedy's original and influential 1982 book 'Corporate Cultures'. In brief, their idea was that distinctive, organisational cultures expressed in qualitative terms which helped to express a shared value-system and sense of purpose, tended to outperform those organisations whose goals were expressed as quantitative performance targets. The components of successful, robust cultures were prescribed as founded on a 'deep and abiding shared purpose' based upon the continually reinforcing interplay of cultural elements: history, values, heroic exemplar figures, rituals and storytelling.
The contribution of the original 1982 book was to promote the issue of organisational culture to a strategic concern and to recognise cultural projects as a legitimate form of work (and not just an academic occupation of limited relevance). Cultural affinity became a dimension that influenced merger-decisions. Human Resource departments took on the work of cultural measurement through staff attitude surveys; and more recently, cultural benchmarking initiatives have attempted to influence performance through the emulation of 'winning' cultures.
The authors' stated hope is that managers will use their book to connect organisational competitiveness with the individual's intrinsic need to belong to organisations that have a life of their own or a meaning, beyond profit. The authors feel that the revolutions of organisational redefinition, of leanness and reengineering have been achieved through the destruction of individuals' sense of membership, shared identity and meaning. This observation is ironic, it's almost crocodile tears when one considers that Deal and Kennedy did point out that culture was the obstacle to change. It's not surprising that those driving change took them at their word and chose to ignore the issue of creating distinctive, replacement cultures. It was just so much easier to destroy than to build when you're being paid to cut the fat out of organisations, to cut out the muscle that could be used to deliver the future. Of course, the problem is that in cutting out the heart of the organisation and focusing organisational design onto efficient processes, all that happened (which is the subtext to the book) was that the ability to innovate began to disappear as organisations became very efficient at competing on price.
The book is in three parts including thirteen chapters. The first part is a single chapter that reworks the original content using current management literature to reinforce the original messages linking strong culture and success. The problem with much of the supporting research is that it cannot prove that strong culture determines success. A successful organisation's ability to provide vision may just mean that they know how to play the culture/ brand associations game. The impact of Deal and Kennedy's original theory may just mean that successful organisations don't miss a trick, and that includes playing this game (and well enough to fool journalists and industry analysts!)
Part two documents the damaging impacts of shareholder value, downsizing, outsourcing, mergers, networked computers, and globalisation of company cultures.
Part three concentrates on the practice of rebuilding cohesive cultures from the damaged players: re-emphasising the importance of cultural leadership clarifying and consistently reinforcing the power of clear identity, and shared values to drive successful behaviour.
This book is ably illustrated with examples and stories that reinforce the old message. The key weakness is the tendency to view culture as a technology in its own right without understanding that it is the by-product of an ongoing process of successfully solving the problems that deliver new technologies and values to the customer. The fundamental message from the authors is valuable. It's not about whether to work on competitive advantage or culture: You need to do both.
Victor Newman is Director of Knowledge Development Centre at Cranfield University. He can be contacted at: email@example.com