Exactly What is Corporate Culture?
Robert Woods

There are a lot of buzz words in corporate America. You can't read a journal or magazine about doing business without being bombarded with them. If you don't keep up with the buzz words, you can be left behind. Every now and then a word or phrase comes along that has a shelf life longer than the average fifteen minutes of fame.

The phrase "corporate culture" has been with us for some time and appears it will be around for awhile. So what does the phrase mean? The Humanities folks and Social Science people may often mean different things by the phrase but there is some common ground. It is important that we clearly define our terms so that we know we are talking about the same thing. If we want to change our corporate culture then we need to know how changes are made in any given culture.

Let's begin with the word corporate. Basically the word corporate is used to describe an organization that is a single body or entity. It comes froms a Latin word which means, "to make into a body". This is an extremely important concept especially since we live in a day of increased pluralism and diversity. Diversity can and often does enhance an organization, as long as the one body functions with an ultimate common goal or purpose. Aesop even told a fable about the significance of the body as "corporation".

The Stomach and the Rest of the Body

One fine day it occurred to the Members of the Body that they were doing all the work and the Belly was having all the food. So they held a meeting, and after a long discussion, decided to go on strike till the Belly consented to take its proper share of the work. So for a day or two, the Hands refused to take the food, the Mouth refused to receive it, and the Teeth had no work to do. But after a day or two the Members began to find that they themselves were not in a very active condition: the Hands could hardly move, and the Mouth was all parched and dry, while the Legs were unable to support the rest. So thus they found that even the Belly in its dull quiet way was doing necessary work for the Body, and that all must work together or the Body will go to pieces.

So what is culture? A culture is a elaborate, interconnected network of actions, beliefs, and symbols that shape an organization and, in turn, are shaped by an organization. Another way of saying it is, that corporate culture is something that must consciously be formed or the unformed, disorderly, misguided actions and attitudes of all the parts of the whole become your corporate culture.

Someone trained in studying and evaluating an organization would come in and study every aspect of the corporate culture. It's not just the mission statement of that corporation that matters; it's the way the office areas are structured, the interaction in the break rooms, all of the obvious external issues as well as the habits of the heart of all those involved in the organization.

Would you like to see your corporate culture change? Like the broader American culture, the longest lasting and most profound changes are rarely imposed from the top down. Many Americans believe that the solution to social ills and effective changes are of a political nature and come about by decree. That is simply not true. Think of it this way. Who has a greater impact on American attitudes and beliefs; Washington, D.C. or Hollywood? Vivid images and compelling stories are often much more effective in leading to fundamental changes in thought and behavior. If everyday attitudes and habits can be adjusted then that is the most effective way to make long range changes.

So what is the story of your corporate culture? Look around, listen, reflect, and write out what you see and hear and think about the habits of the hearts of those you work with. That is your corporate culture. A vivid story always makes more impact than a dry set of directives. Aesop's story makes a more vivid point than any management manual full of buzz words.


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