Cultural Change Management in Organizations from Competing Perspectives

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Since the 1980s, it has generally been accepted that corporations have cultures, and that corporate culture bears an important, if poorly understood, relationship to corporate performance. Figuring out how to measure, fine-tune, and adjust corporate culture has been a cottage industry within management consulting ever since, employing numerous psychologists, sociologists, management theorists, communication specialists, and occasionally anthropologists. Corporate cultures have been variously characterized as strong, weak, open, closed, flexible, rigid, innovative, traditional, or (more typically) some mélange of all of these. To better understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate performance, perhaps it would be better to understand culture as a living, breathing entity, not a museum specimen to be examined under laboratory conditions – ethnographically, that is, in a natural rather than artificial environment.

In this paper we attempt to construct a dialogue between two contrasting perspectives on organizational culture, that of anthropology and that of management studies. One of us (Batteau) is an anthropologist with 10 years’ experience working in industry and 30 years’ experience in academia; the other (Villegas) is an engineer and management scholar with 6 years´ experience in industry and 22 years´ experience in academia. As we have looked into these competing perspectives, we have begun to realize that anthropological and management perspectives on culture are, as George Bernard Shaw said about the English and the Americans, divided by a common language.

We first describe the problem, of how a firm can “manage” its culture. We follow this with three case studies in the US and Colombia where cultural interventions had mixed results. We then contrast two bodies of theory, managerial and anthropological, to show that the contrasts between these two approaches to organizational culture derive primarily from the contrasting agendas of anthropology and management, and finally, we contribute a review of some concepts to take into consideration when making a path between the praxes of Anthropology and Management.

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