Corporate Culture: A women’s view of change

Culture has been an important concept in understanding human societies and groups for a long time. Many people remember poring over photos of exotic “cultures” pictured in National Geographic, or reading about anthropologists Margaret Mead study of the native culture on the island of Samoa. Culture in this anthropological and historical sense, is the heart of a particular group or society – what is distinctive about the way members interact with one another and with outsiders and how they achieve what they do.

The traditional culture of corporate America developed in a time when women had little influence in organizations. In her recent book, Our Wildest Dreams: Women Entrepreneurs Making Money, Having Fun and Good, Joline Godfrey argues that as more and more women strike out on their own, forming small businesses, they are abandoning elements of the traditional culture in favor of an alternative set of values in which success is defined in more than one way. Godfrey outlines a new set of values, different from traditional corporate values that herald the development of a new business culture exemplified in such businesses as The Body Shop.

1. Work, live, love, learn – rather than work, work, work
2. Seek meaning and money – rather than money alone
3. Build networks of relationships – rather than hierarchies of power
4. Do no harm – rather than “let the buyer beware”
5. Sustain resources – rather than “use it or lose it”
6. Grow naturally – rather than grow fast
7. Embrace work and family – rather than work or family.

Although some large organizations, such as Levi Strauss and Johnson & Johnson, embrace some of the new rules, in general it is easier for small, new businesses to develop this type of culture from the start than for large, established organizations to change an existing culture. And although women do not have a monopoly on cultural change the role of women in fostering this kind of change:

Many women are leaving the giants of the Fortune 500 to start their own businesses. Others choose never to enter the ranks of the giants. No longer content to spend their most productive years in organizations sealed off by a glass ceiling, no longer willing to work for companies that greedily consume all the hours of their life (leaving nothing for self, family, or friends) no longer able to blindly accept old assumptions about what business is and must be, women are voting with their feet. We are closing the door on corporate rigidity and inventing companies in which we can make good money, do good and have fun. We are creating stuff of our wildest dreams.

Although some aspects of an organization’s culture are readily apparent, many other aspects are less visible. On the surface are the overt, or open aspects – the formally expressed organizational goals, technology, structure, policies and procedures, and financial resources. Beneath the surface lie the covert or hidden aspects – the informal aspects of organizational life. These include shared perceptions, attitudes, and feelings as well as a shared set of values about human nature, the nature of human relationships, and what the organization can and will remember.

Edgar Schein has defined culture as:

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learned as it solved its problem of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, desirable to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.

Culture therefore is how an organization has learned to deal with its environment. It is a complex mixture of assumptions, behaviors, stories, myths, metaphors, and other ideas that fit together to define what it means to work in a particular organization. When we say that there is a culture of safety at Du Pont, a culture of service at Dell, and a culture of innovation at 3M, we are saying that people at each of these organizations has learned a particular way to deal with a lot of complex issues.