Metaphor, Humor, and Play Metaphor, humor, and play illustrate the important “as if,” “suppose that” quality of symbols. Metaphors make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. They capture subtle
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themes that normal language can obscure. Consider these metaphors from managers asked to depict their agency as it is and as they hope it might become:
As the Agency Is As It Might Become
A maze A well-oiled wheel
Wet noodle Oak tree
Aggregation of competing tribes Symphony orchestra
Three-ring circus Championship team
An unsolvable puzzle A smooth-running machine
Twilight zone Utopia
Herd of rampaging cattle Fleet of ships
Metaphors compress complicated issues into understandable images, in”uencing our attitudes and actions. A university headwho views the institution as a factory leads differently than one who conceives of it as a craft guild, shopping center, or beloved alma mater.
Humor plays a number of important roles: It integrates, expresses skepticism, contrib- utes to “exibility and adaptiveness, and lessens status differences. Hansot (1979) argues that instead of asking why people use humor in organizations, we should ask why people are so serious. Humor is a classic device for distancing, but it also draws people together. It establishes solidarity and facilitates face saving. Above all, it is a way to illuminate and break frames, indicating that any single de!nition of a situation is arbitrary.
Play and humor are often distinguished fromwork. Play is what people do away from the of!ce. Images of play among managers typically connote aggression, competition, and struggle (“We’ve got to beat them at their own game”; “We dropped the ball on that one”; “We knocked that one out of the park”) rather than relaxation and fun. But if play is viewed as a state of mind (Bateson, 1972; Goffman, 1974), any activity can become playful. Play relaxes rules to explore alternatives, encouraging experimentation, “exibility, and creativity. Playfulness has created many remarkable innovations. March (1976) suggests some guide- lines for encouraging play in organizations: treat goals as hypotheses, intuition as real, hypocrisy as transition, memory as an enemy, and experience as a theory.
ORGANIZATIONS AS CULTURES What is culture? What is its role in an organization? Both questions are contested. Some argue that organizations have cultures; others insist that organizations are cultures. Schein (1992, p. 12) offers a formal de!nition: “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and integration, that has worked well
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enough to be considered valid and therefore to be taught to newmembers as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” Deal and Kennedy (1982, p. 4) portray culture more succinctly as “the way we do things around here.” Culture is both a product and a process. As a product, it embodies wisdom accumulated from experience. As a process, it is renewed and recreated as newcomers learn the old ways and eventually become teachers themselves.
There is a long-standing controversy about the relationship between culture and leader- ship. Do leaders shape culture, or are they shaped by it? Is symbolic leadership empowering or manipulative? Another debate swirls around the link between culture and results. Do organizations with robust cultures outperform those relying on structure and strategy? Does success breed a cohesive culture, or is it the other way around? Books like Kotter and Heskett’s Corporate Culture and Performance (1992), Collins and Porras’s Built to Last (1994), and Collins’s Good to Great (2001) offer impressive longitudinal evidence linking culture to the !nancial bottom line.
Over time, an organization develops distinctive beliefs, values, and customs. Managers who understand the signi!cance of symbols and know how to evoke spirit and soul can shape more cohesive and effective organizations—so long as the cultural patterns align with the challenges of the marketplace. To be sure, culture can become a negative force, as it did at Volkswagen and Wells Fargo Bank. But two cases demonstrate how positive, cohesive business cultures can be fashioned and perpetuated.
BMW’s Dream Factory In 1959, BMW was in a !nancial hole as deep as the one General Motors and Ford experienced more recently (Edmondson, 2006. Copyright ! 2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.). During the 1950s, BMW executives misjudged the consumer market, and customers shunned two new models—one too big and pricey even for the luxury market, the other a two-seater too small and impractical for the sporty crowd. BMW almost went bankrupt and almost had to sell out to Mercedes. A wealthy shareholder stepped in and, with concessions from the unions, bailed the company out. The memory of this close call is part of BMW’s lore: “Near death experiences are healthy for companies. BMW has been running scared for years” (p. 4, Copyright ! 2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.). The near-death story is retold often and is one of the !rst things newcomers learn.
Old ways become especially vulnerable in times of crisis. BMW shucked off its top-down mentality in 1959 and cultivated a new cultural mind-set to guard against making the same mistake again.
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A visit to BMW’s Leipzig plant shows how far the company has come. The plant’s modern, artsy, open-air feeling re”ects the company’s cultural values and demonstrates its commitment to breaking down barriers among workers, designers, engineers, and manag- ers. Openness encourages chance encounters and a freewheeling exchange of ideas. People “meet simply because their paths cross naturally. And they say ‘Ah, glad I ran into you, I have an idea’” (Edmondson, 2006, p. 1. Copyright ! 2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.).
At BMW, the bedrock value is innovation:
Just about everyone working for the Bavarian automaker—from the factory “oor to the design studios to themarketing department—is encouraged to speak out. Ideas bubble up freely, and there is never a penalty for proposing a new way of doing things, no matter how outlandish. Much of BMW’s success stems from an entrepreneurial culture that’s rare in corporate Germany, where manage- ment is usually top-down and the gulf between workers and management is vast. BMW’s 100,000 employees have become a nimble network of true believers with few barriers to hinder innovation (Edmondson, 2006, pp. 1–2. Copyright ! 2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.).
Commitment to its workers is another core value of BMW. It is not easy to get a job at a company that !elds 200,000 applications annually. Those who pass initial screening have to survive intense interviews and a day of working in teams. The goal: to screen out those who don’t !t. The lucky few who are hired move into the mix right away. They are forced to rely on veteran workers to learn the ropes. But once part of the BMW workforce, workers have unparalleled job security. Layoffs, once common at Ford and GM, don’t happen at BMW. The company is loyal to its employees, and they respond in kind.
From the start, workers receive indoctrination into the BMW Way. They are steeped “with a sense of place, history, and mission. Individuals from all strata of the corporation work elbow-to-elbow, creating informal networks where they can hatch even the most unorthodox ideas for making better Bimmers or boosting pro!ts. The average BMW buyer may not know it, but he is driving a machine born of thousands of important brainstorming sessions. BMW, in fact, may be the chattiest company ever” (Edmondson, 2006, p. 2. Copyright ! 2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.).
Rituals are a way of tribal life at BMW—building bonds among diverse groups, connecting employees’ hearts with the company’s soul, and pooling far-“ung ideas for better products. After BMW acquired Rolls-Royce, an assemblage of designers, engineers, marketers, and line workers was thrown together to redesign the signature Rolls Phantom.
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The result was a superluxurious best seller. When management decided to drop the Z3, a designer persuaded some other designers and engineers to join him in an “off the books, skunk-works” effort. The outcome of their collective endeavor: the successful Z4 sports car.
The “exibility of BMW’s manufacturing process allows buyers to select engine types, interior con!guration, and trim, customizing almost every key feature. They can change their minds up to 5 hours before the vehicle is assembled—and they do. The assembly line logs 170,000 alterations a month. This level of personal attention lets assemblers visualize who the driver might be. Making identical cars only every nine months creates a sense of personal touch and creativity. That’s a prime reason work at BMW has meaning beyond a paycheck. Everyone’s efforts are aimed at building a distinctive automobile that an owner will be proud to drive.
The vitality and cohesiveness of the idea-driven BMW culture is re”ected in the company’s bottom line. From its nadir in the 1950s, BMW grew past Mercedes to become the world’s largest premium carmaker (Vella, 2006). But that growth may also be its biggest vulnerability. “Losing its culture to sheer size is a major risk” (Edmondson, 2006, p. 3. Copyright ! 2006. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.). So far, BMW seems to be meeting the challenge of nurturing recollections of 1959 as a defense against complacency. In 2012, Forbes named BMW the most reputable company in the world.
Greatest Hits from Organization Studies Hit Number 28: Geert Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1984)
Geert Hofstede pioneered research on the impact of national culture on the workplace. Although other studies, such as GLOBE (House et al., 2004), are more current, his work remains the most frequently cited.
De!ning culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one human group from another” (p. 21), Hofstede focused particularly on work-related values. The heart of his book is a survey of a large U.S. multinational company’s employees. Approximately 117,000 surveys were collected from workers and managers in 40 countries and 20 languages. Data were collected in two waves, one in 1968 and another in 1972. Hofstede then identi!ed variables that reliably differentiated managers of various nations. He ultimately settled on four dimensions of national culture: