Organizational culture has been the focus of the analysis so far, but as pointed out earlier, both DEC and Ciba – Geigy existed in national and regional macrocultures. To fully understand what goes on inside the organization, it is necessary to understand both the organization’s macro context, because much of what you observe inside simply reflects the national culture, and the interplay of subcultures because they often reflect the primary occupational cultures of the organization members.
Much of what goes on inside an organization that has existed for some time can best be understood as a set of interactions of subcultures operating within the larger context of the organizational culture. These subcultures share many of the assumptions of the total organization but also hold assumptions beyond those of the total organization, usually reflecting their functional tasks, the occupations of their members, or their unique experiences. It is important to note that if those subcultures are based on broader occupations such as medicine or engineering, its members bring into the organization assumptions that have a broader, even international, base. Thus, in a large hospital system, the culture is influenced by the subcultures of the doctors, which reflect not only medicine in general but also the different emphasis of medical education in different countries.
Shared assumptions that create subcultures most often form around the functional units of the organization. They are often based on a similarity of educational background in the members, a shared task, and/or a similarity of organizational experience, what we often end up calling “stove pipes” or “silos.” We all know that getting cross-functional project teams to work well together is difficult because the members bring their functional cultures into the project and, as a consequence, have difficulty communicating with each other, reaching consensus, and implementing decisions in an effective manner. The difficulties of communication across these boundaries arise not only from the fact that the functional groups have different goals but also from the more fundamental issue that the very meaning of the words they use will differ. The word “marketing” means product development to the engineer, studying customers through market research to the product manager, merchandising to the salesman, and constant change in design to the manufacturing manager (Dougherty, 1990). When they try to work together, they often attribute disagreement to personalities and fail to notice the deeper shared assumptions that color how each function thinks.
Another kind of subculture, less often acknowledged, reflects the common experiences of given levels within a hierarchy. Culture arises through shared experiences of success. If first-line supervisors discover ways of managing their subordinates that are consistently successful, they will gradually build up a set of shared assumptions about how to do their job that can be thought of as the “subculture of first-line supervision.” Elders will teach newly promoted supervisors how to perform their roles, and this mentoring will be more powerful than any formal training they might be given. In the same way, middle management and higher levels will develop their own shared assumptions, and, at each level, those assumptions will be taught to newcomers as they get promoted into that level. These hierarchically based subcultures create the communication problems associated with “selling senior management on a new way of doing things,” or “getting budget approval for a new piece of equipment,” or “getting a personnel requisition through.” As each cultural boundary is crossed, the proposal has to be put into the appropriate language for the next higher level and has to reflect the values and assumptions of that higher level (Thomas, 1994). Or, from the point of view of the higher levels, decisions have to be put into a form that lower levels can understand, often resulting in “translations” that actually distort and sometimes even subvert what the higher levels wanted.
Occupational communities also generate cultures that cut across organizations and often become subcultures within organizations (Van Maanen and Barley, 1984; Gladwell, 2008). For example, fishermen around the world develop similar worldviews, as do miners, and the members of any particular industry based on a particular technology. In his popularized account, Gladwell argues persuasively that rice farmers develop a common world view that reflects the difficult requirements of rice farmers just as certain law offices build their practices around the common experiences of their immigrant founders. Shared assumptions derive from common origins, common educational backgrounds, the requirements of a given occupation such as the licenses that have to be obtained to practice, and the shared contact with others in the occupation. I pointed out that DEC was primarily composed of highly trained electrical engineers while Ciba- Geigy had many more chemical engineers and biochemists. Even the various functional cultures that we see in organizations are partly the result of membership in broader cross-organizational occupational communities. Salesmen the world over, accountants, assembly line workers, and, most importantly, engineers, share some basic assumptions about the nature of their work regardless of who their particular employer is at any given time.
We are also increasingly discovering that such similar outlooks across organizations apply to executive managers, particularly CEOs. CEOs face similar kinds of problems across all organizations and in all industries throughout the world. Their connection to the outside world of finance and public relations provides a set of common experiences that shapes their beliefs and values, thus creating yet another subculture. And because executives are likely to have somewhere in their history some common education and indoctrination, they form a common world view, a common set of assumptions about the nature of business and what it takes to run a business successfully. CEOs therefore make up one of the generic subcultures that exist in some form in every organization.
Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.