Organizational Culture and Identity: Unity and Division at Work

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Martin Parker

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    Preface and Acknowledgements

    The preface to a book like this is usually used as a space for the author to demonstrate the humility that is all too lacking in the rest of the text. Who am I to break with such an honourable tradition? So, here it is – some organizations, some identity and some debts.

    This book began its life in 1988 when I became a research assistant registered for a PhD in the Sociology Department at North Staffordshire Polytechnic in Stoke-on-Trent. By the time it was finished 10 years later the Polytechnic was a University and I had moved a few miles up the road to another University. So, the first people to thank are Tony Charles and Mike Dent who got the grant to study technological change in organizations in the first place. The final version of the PhD benefited greatly from Mike Dent's supervision, as well as David Jary's comments. When I moved to Keele to work in the Department of Management and Centre for Social Theory and Technology in 1995 I found an atmosphere that was incredibly supportive for writing and research. Without that space and continuing dialogue this book would certainly not have emerged to have the shape that it does. Many people within the three organizations that form the empirical material for this book gave me their time and trust. I can't name them and they may never read this but I am grateful that they were willing to spend so much time talking to me. At Sage I owe a debt to Sue Jones, who commissioned this book, and to Rosemary Nixon for her supportive comments. Thanks also to Myrene McFee for her production skills, and for doing the index. My parents, Geoffrey and Brenda, will know why I became an academic in the first place. Thank you both for encouraging me to think for myself. I also want to say a big hello to Jude, Ben, Max, Zoe and Spike. Not to thank, or to apologize. Just to say ‘hello’ and hope that it makes you all smile.

    The usual disclaimer doesn't apply. All of the above mentioned are equally responsible for the views in this book. How else could anyone write anything?

    Finally, it is worth noting that some of the material in this book has already appeared elsewhere in different forms. The original PhD was entitled ‘Organisational Culture in Context’ and was submitted to Staffordshire University in 1995. Accounts of two of the case studies appear as ‘Working Together, Working Apart: Management Culture in a Manufacturing Firm’ in Sociological Review (1995) 43/3: 518–47 and ‘Managers, Doctors and Culture: Changing an English Health District’ in Administration and Society (1996) 28/3: 335–61 (with Mike Dent). A review of part of the argument can be found as ‘Dividing Organizations and Multiplying Identities’ in Ideas of Difference: Social Ordering and the Labour of Division, edited by Kevin Hetherington and Rolland Munro, Oxford: Blackwell (1997).

    MartinParker
  • Appendix: On Methods

    We are not entirely convinced that the preoccupation with methodology is healthy for it rests on the positivist objective of finding the true method which will enable the social scientist to produce an account which corresponds accurately with the reality under observation. By contrast, in subscribing to a consensus theory of truth, we would prefer to put our faith in the plausibility to the reader of the analysis. No amount of justification of method can substitute for this. (Knights and Collinson, 1987:458)

    It is customary, in books like these, to say something about your methods. Perhaps this is because it gives the impression that the process and outcome of ‘research’ is potentially replicable and hence that progressive ‘improvements’ in methodology are possible. For reasons discussed in Chapter 4 I am very sceptical about these assumptions, but neither can I pretend that I do not care about the plausibility of my research. So, in this appendix I will briefly explain how I went about constructing my stories about Northern District, Vulcan Industries and the Moortown Building Society.

    In the most general of terms I used semi-participant observation, unstructured and semi-structured interviews and documentary data in order to try to understand how organizational members understood their world. As I established in Chapters 2 and 3, the organizational case study has a long history and I have learnt much by reading these texts themselves as guides. However, I do want to avoid the romantic idea that ‘true selves’ will be revealed if we attend carefully to individual ‘experience’ (Silverman, 1994: 4), or to put it another way, that there can be any understanding without prejudice (Gadamer, 1975). I suppose I am most influenced here by a poststructuralist turn which stresses the impossibility of any final totalizing account of organizations or anything else (Cooper and Burrell, 1988; Cooper, 1989; Hassard and Parker, 1993). A fetishism of empirical ‘data’, the methodological rhetoric of the social sciences or the material authority of the published book simply cannot provide my accounts with any particular privilege over any other account.1 I do not want to claim that my ‘findings’ are ‘true’, or that I have insights that are somehow inaccessible to my organizational respondents. Rather I would argue that my stories about the three organizations in this book are an attempt to compare my respondents’ understandings with my own, and that this has resulted in a text that is (hopefully) persuasive for the group of readers it is aimed at – primarily students and academics. And if this appendix helps to make it more persuasive, then that is no bad thing.

    With these caveats in mind, this is what I actually did. The ‘official’ research focus for the project was on technological change with reference to IT, but I decided early on to focus on culture for two reasons. First, because it was a concept that interested me, and secondly, because it seemed to me that an adequate treatment of technology would require it to be embedded in cultural understandings and practices. In each study the research took place over at least an 18 month period and access was gained partly on the basis of already existing contacts but also by agreeing to deliver a report or presentation on the management of technological change once it was complete. In the end, I only delivered a report to one of the organizations, but more on that later. Whilst involved with each organization I used any research opportunity available, from the formally requested interview to the snippet in a local newspaper. I looked at any documents I could find to retrospectively investigate the organization's history and give me some knowledge about areas I could not gain direct access to. For example, minutes of meetings; internal policy and strategy documents; company reports and mission statements; brochures, newsletters, advertising or public relations material; statistical information on the organization from business databases; and trade or professional publications such as Computer Weekly, Computerised Manufacturing, Building Society’ Gazette and The British Journal of Healthcare Computing.

    The main organization of the research was provided by semi-structured interviews with employees, and a few ex-employees and outside informants knowledgeable about the organization. Importantly however, my interviews were with the higher status employees – managers, directors and doctors not workers, cleaners and nurses. Whilst this underlines my point about the partiality of any research, I do discuss its implications more fully in Chapter 9. Many informants were interviewed more than once; almost all were tape recorded for selective transcription and multiple listenings afterwards. In all a total of 100 interviews with 74 people were conducted over 95 visits to the three organizations.2 During the interviews I also took notes about the conversation which were written up afterwards. Indeed, some of the most valuable parts of the interview took place after the tape had been switched off, the closing intimacies of the conversation being prefixed with a silent or explicit ‘well if you really want to know what I think…’. Needless to say, a visit to the toilet to write up as much as I could remember followed almost immediately. I also attended any meetings that I was allowed to and in one organization, the Health District, I was able to spend a month ‘shadowing’ an employee for part of his working day. Finally, whilst completely unstructured observation time within an organization was rare, I treated every visit as an opportunity to see the organization at work. If I had an interview I would arrive early and stay on long after the interview was concluded. This was, in a sense, the most useful time I spent since it enabled me to ‘feel’ the organization. Waiting outside managers’ offices, often for long periods of time, and wandering around the factory or offices allowed me to take copious notes about noticeboards, clothing, noise, furniture and so on – small details that seemed to illuminate so much.

    Given the topic of this book, it seems worth making a few comments on my identifications as researcher. I am male and white and I was under 30. Maleness and whiteness were a definite advantage in most of the situations I found myself in – particularly the engineering company where masculinity was most explicitly valued. On the other hand, though only a few of my interviewees in any of the organizations were from an ethnic minority, a proportion (about a fifth) were female. At those times I felt my gender was more of a disadvantage in establishing or sustaining empathy. My age worked differently. For my younger interviewees it seemed to help to establish some kind of trust, perhaps since we shared both a common perception of relative powerlessness and sometimes common interests. For my older interviewees my age often forced me into a being a novice – a ‘lad’ or ‘son’ who needed to be reminded of his lack of knowledge.

    Partly because of the foregoing, at different times and by different interviewees I think I was ascribed different identities, and I'll divide them into three broad categories. The first is the one mentioned above, a junior ascribed a subordinate position. This seemed most common early in the research, and by senior members of staff within the organizations. My deference to their knowledgeability was a relationship that I sometimes adopted but was often forced into. My lack of knowledge about the organization, particular professional languages (production engineering, accountancy), or the generalities of the sector (health care, finance) were often stressed, and my age and ‘ivory tower’ academic background were the subjects of gentle, or not so gentle, ridicule. Though this was often humiliating, in some cases aggressively so, it did force me to learn rapidly and seemed, on occasion, to result in high status interviewees giving me information they would not have shared with someone they thought would really understand it.

    The second identity was a more egalitarian one, usually adopted with lower status, inexperienced or younger employees and after I had gained competence in passing myself as someone who knew the organization and its sector. In this context I felt I was being used as a confidante, as one of my interviewees said: ‘It's nice to have somebody to talk to and moan to you know. I try to talk to my wife like this but she doesn't listen!’ Often this resulted in what seemed to be a fairly reciprocal exchange as I shared some of my findings about the organization, or other organizations, to gain further confidence. The problems of confidentiality haunted such quasi-intimacy however. I often knew things that I simply could not reveal to my respondents without causing problems for both parties. Along similar lines, during these interchanges I sometimes overstepped the boundaries of the intimacy I could expect from them and I was reminded of my identity as outsider by verbal or non-verbal means. In general however, being a confidante seemed the most productive for revealing insights into the politics of a particular organization: as one interviewee commented: ‘I don't mean to sound negative, but this is an opportunity for me to speak my mind without getting stabbed in the back.’

    The third identity was as an expert, a management consultant or even management spy, in a superordinate position to the interviewee. This was the rarest of the three and seemed to occur with staff who were very junior or marginal or who felt in some way threatened within the organization. It was also one I did not encounter until late in the research process within each organization. As an expert I was, on one occasion, asked to help in the design of a questionnaire, but more usually my ‘expertise’ was not called upon but simply assumed. These interviews were, if anything, the least fruitful. I of ten felt my interviewees were simply rehearsing things they felt I wanted to hear and found it difficult to establish any trust or gain any novel insights.

    That leads on to the final point. The last identity sometimes placed me in a position where I was assumed to be a channel of communication between the bottom and the top, the powerless and the powerful. It was expected that I would be feeding information back to the directors or managers who had employed me (the management spy) to do this research on them (the employees). For example, some of the mortgage managers at Moortown praised the General Manager in most effusive terms. Yet one of those managers only consented to the interview after rigorous questioning as to its purpose, asked for a copy of the first interview tape and insisted that the second took place with a subordinate observing. I do not think I would be unjustified in treating some of those responses with caution. Most of the time I do not think I was actually being used in the way that they thought I was but it did, in one organization, have elements of accuracy. When I submitted my report to Vulcan, an infelicitous quote about the Managing Director was traced back to an unsufficiently anonymized source – an event that probably damaged the manager's reputation in the organization and his trust in me. This same report led to me being grilled for two hours by three directors, all of whom denied the accuracy of most of it with a ferocity that was both humiliating and very revealing. Nonetheless, my inescapable complicity in the internal politics of the three organizations again reflects the impossibility of arguing for ‘objectivity’. In general terms whenever a section of talk began with ‘Is the tape on? Will anyone else hear this?’ it might mean they were going to confide in me, or as above, were trying to find out who they were really being interrogated by and what they had better say. As I have argued throughout the book, our identities are always being locally negotiated – and this is as true for researcher and researched as it is for any other situation. My respondents were not neutral conduits for data but knowledgeable and reflective actors themselves. They were continually engaged in practical social accounting – making generalizations about the situations they were engaged in, including my identity and its relation to their past and future projects. In sum, the researcher and researched, the writer and the reader, are always implicated in each other.

    However, as I have suggested, the interviews were not my only source of ideas. All the way through the fieldwork I observed, and made notes on, everything that might be relevant. Hence for the first few visits I wrote about room plans, smells, clothing, furniture, noises, office decoration and much more on the assumption that nothing should be ruled out as ‘not-culture’. As each case study progressed and I became more familiar with my respondents and their symbolic and physical environment I began to focus down on certain key issues and ideas which began to orient my interviews and observation. I do not want to suggest that this ‘narrowing’ was a particularly conscious process, rather it seemed a necessary feature of doing this kind of fieldwork at all. The intensity of the initial visits was tiring – I felt that I had immersed myself in a mass of largely incoherent impressions and saw no way of ordering the huge quantity of ideas I had generated. Later visits were less exhausting, I assume partly because I was beginning to develop a framework to catalogue and classify my ideas. Feelings of exhilaration were then more common, especially when I had observed something that seemed to confirm an idea or make a half-conscious connection explicit. Towards the end of each of the cases boredom was a more common emotion – interviews and observations simply repeated things I already felt I knew but had to pretend to be interested in despite the fact I had heard them many times before.

    The point of the foregoing is to stress the disjuncture between the three case study chapters and my experience of the research as a form of everyday practice in the organization I researched and the organization I was working in. The case studies in Chapters 5, 6 and 7 are written from the standpoint of an omniscient and emotionless observer but my experiences of being that observer, and that writer, were actually confusing, partial and emotionally draining. Reading the studies gives no clue as to whether I was tired or bored, upset or disturbed, thrilled, guilty or angry. It seems to me that this is a problem, largely because it again helps to maintain the fiction of distance which underlies many assumptions about the supposed neutrality of ‘good’ social science research. However, I do want to suggest it also has some advantages. In the presentation of each of the three case studies I have largely employed a third-person narrative style of description. The cases are treated as social dramas with corresponding dramatis personae but there is little attempt to explictly ‘analyse’ the story within the chapters. This serves three purposes. Firstly, it allows me to present a selection of the huge amount of material I collected in a way that is hopefully readable and interesting. Secondly, it allows me to use the rhetorical devices associated with narrative to persuade the reader of the plausibility of my analysis and to a certain extent ‘see’ the organization as I saw it. This is a method for organization case study description that is very common – even if its justification is not often as explicit as Wilkinson's:

    If the reader occasionally sympathizes with certain actors or groups, this is all to the good: we are, after all, discussing political events. (1983: 25)

    Finally, though I acknowledge that I have (consciously and unconsciously) structured the narratives in a way that supports certain interpretations, by leaving ‘my analysis’ until Chapters 8 and 9 it may also be possible for the reader to assess how plausible my interpretation is on the basis of their reading of the three chapters.

    So the three case studies are partial rewritings of partial understandings of partial data but I would argue that they are also as reflexive and as honest to my material as I have been able to be. One of the interviewees suggested that a consultant was a person who ‘stole your own pocket-watch to tell you the time’. I hope that these accounts show a picture of the watch that my respondents would recognize, even if they would also realize how much I have got wrong and disagree with many of my conclusions. It seems to me that all research must be subject to these tensions of text against experience, detachment against involvement. And of course, these are not matters that can be avoided through the use of a particular set of methodological technologies, which is largely why I didn't want to write an appendix on methods in the first place.

    Notes

    1 Consider, for example, the possibility that I invented my three stories whilst sitting in my office. How would you test such a possibility? Would the very thought make the book you hold less convincing?

    2 These are big numbers, deployed here to impress you with the depth of my involvement.

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