Agar-ing the Future

Corporate culture. Every company's got it, good or bad. Every company wants a strong one as they continue to search for proverbial excellence. But does "corporate culture" actually mean anything? According to sociologist John R. Weeks, author of the forthcoming book Unpopular Culture: The Ritual of Complaint in a British Bank, no.

Weeks' research found that journalists, investors, and analysts will praise a company's corporate culture as long as the company performs well and makes money. Studying the use of the term in the Wall Street Journal and the Economist between 1994 and 2001, Weeks found that companies rise and fall in favor as their stock price rises and falls.

Also drawing on his eight months working with the British commercial bank NatWest as a PhD student, Weeks concludes that the people who talk most about improving a company's culture usually end up merely grousing. "They should not talk about culture at all, or at least very rarely," he says.

Because it's the walk, not the talk that matters. If you're not changing attitudes, practices, or processes, talking about "corporate culture" is blowing so much smoke.

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  • Rob

    So part of the corporate culture might be...complaining about the corporate culture? It's definitely easier than doing something about it.

  • epiper

    What about corporate culture as an organizing device? For example, if the "NatWest Way" provides a general path for staff to follow whenever lacking specific direction, then that's also a form of corporate culture. While often reviled as a type of 'groupthink', it is better than nameless employees running amok. The tendency to gripe might have to do with the recognition that participating in a corporate culture implies burying self-expression. Or it could have to do with other facets of the post-industrial age working world than coercion via corporate culture. Given that complaining is found in all corporate cultures no matter how important the culture is deemed in the success of the firm, it seems that something is being overlooked in the manner in which corporate culture is used as an organizing device within a firm to enhance team production and the firm's ultimate profits. In short, Week's attention to the griping phenomenon is interesting and enlightening. But looking at some game theory and economics and how the habit of complaint fits with those disciplines' ideas of corporate culture would be even more so.