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Organisational culture is shaped by a set of factors foremost beliefs, attitudes, practices and customs, which impact both the management and employees throughout their interaction. In practice, being highly complex, culture is quite challenging to define in precise terms. Culture is defined by Peters and Waterman as "rules of the game for getting along in the organisation" (Anon 2008:58). The business culture within companies is shaped by diverse factors primarily the organisation's founder, vision and objectives, the company's history, leadership, management styles, structure and systems.
This presentation attempts to unveil Quality Postform's Ltd (QPL) organisational culture by applying various theoretical perspectives. The latter help in determining to what extent this culture assists or inhibits the achievement of existing company objectives. Upon defining the organisational goals along with its salient cultural characteristics, it is then determined which of them are recognised as being either supportive or unsupportive for the attainment of company objectives. Conclusive statements derived from the paper's findings are extracted from an insightful analysis based on QPL's organisational culture, backed by the relevant recommendations. The descriptive approach adopted in highlighting the theoretical findings, serves as a takeoff to a more critical assessment of the company's culture under review.
Quality Postform Ltd - A Company Profile
QPL is the only postformed element manufacturer and supplier to the local Maltese furniture industry. Being a family run business, driven by the gut feeling and management experience of Emanual Chircop way back in 1998, QPL managed to expand its workforce to eleven employees, thus securing a respectable market share (QPL 2009).
The company has the benefit of being located at Malta's leading industrial estate - Marsa. The latter is easily accessed by a heavy flow of potential clients, thus generating substantial business (QPL 2009). The core focus of QPL is on custom sized postformed elements, ranging from kitchen counter tops, door panels, table tops and desktops. QPL has succeeded to thrive, in view of stiff competition from aggressive importers within the industry- the latter contributes 7.4% to the manufacturing sector (NSO 2009).
Prior to Malta's European Union (EU) membership, company records for 2003 indicated that QPL's clientele comprised of two primary users - the commercial sector accounting for 70% of the sales, followed by 30% representing the domestic / home user sector. In view of the inevitable import levy removal after Malta's E.U. accession which materialised in 2004, QPL's management smartly adopted a proactive approach. The later was a constructive strategic response to the predicted increase of cheaper mass produced furniture (Chircop 2002). From a critical perspective this decision had to be supplemented by related investments in machinery, which facilitated QPL to compete aggressively with off the shelf do-it-yourself furniture (Chircop 2003). Subsequently, this strategic outcome impacted QPL's client base. By 2008, 70% of QPL's clients were domestic. This marked a sharp contrast to the client base throughout the previous years. In response to these market changes, an unpredicted outcome is that carpenters starting purchasing do-it-yourself products as well.
The Theoretical Background - Perspectives on Schein's Theory
In view of QPL's size and the degree of informality, the theory of Schein encompassing its three levels of cultural manifestations, emerged to be highly relevant. Hence, it is deemed essential to apply it to QPL's culture in a high level of detail.
Schein defines group culture as a set of valid common assumptions, specifically developed to problem solve both internal and external transformations. This approach helps in instilling them as the established norm targeted to the new recruits (Schein 2004). Organisation culture in this respect, encompasses three distinct levels of manifestations all influenced by one another. These include artefacts, espoused beliefs / values and underlying assumptions.
Schein's Artefacts Level
Schein describes the artefact level as being essentially composed of tangible items, which influence one's initial impression as one enters a new group. In view of the lack of understanding of the underlying assumptions, artefacts tend to be hard to interpret. Typical examples of artefacts are the physical environment, products, style (clothing), organisational charts, written / spoken language and related technologies (Schein 2004). Upon entering Quality Postform, one immediately hears the sounds of routers and circular saws, whistling in the far background. Walking through the large garage door entrance, one notices a configuration of kitchen counter tops covering three walls, almost in a rainbow effect. The latter are supplemented by a vast display of coloured postform samples throughout the showroom. These tangible artefacts are attributed to QPL's cultural perception that hard work is a priority, thus enabling the company to offer its esteemed clients a vast range of products.
Although the management does not conform to a standard dress code, all other staff members adhere to a formal company wide counter part. The latter consists of a tennis shirt with company logo, safety shoes and earplugs. The adoption of a formal dress code can be interpreted as a form of white / blue collar segregation. However the enforcement of safety shoes and earplugs represents the management's concern for the holistic well being of the employees, in ensuring a safe environment.
An organisational chart (see figure 1) depicted above the MD's desk, indicates that QPL is essentially a flat organisation. One's perception is that QPL represents a tightly knit business concern, with the capacity to offer customised products and services on a one to one level.
In line with artefacts, it is imperative to note that a communication's network is either face-to-face through informal meetings being held on the spot, or alternatively through the grape vine (Peters and Waterman 1982). This later method is tactfully employed by QPL with the objective to 'test the waters' for any innovative ideas. Walking around QPL, one can easily observe a few computers, some low-tech computerized machines and a non-interactive company website. These construct a cultural perception that the company lacks the initiatives to step up the necessary investments as regards information technologies.
Schein's Espoused beliefs and value level
Espoused beliefs and values as expounded by Schein, refer to a group's understanding of how things should be, as opposed to how they actually are. A leader of the group starts to emerge after his/her beliefs and values are imposed, thus repeatedly solving the group's problems in the process. After passing social consensus, the leader's personal beliefs and values are interpreted as the norm, and eventually disseminated and solidified throughout the group.
The above scenario illustrates the reality at QPL. Employees understand that they must conform to rules and regulations, as imposed by the MD. Although this conformity accounts to the reduction of uncertainty, simultaneously it allows employees to enjoy increased levels of dedication and responsibility towards their job. This constructive attitude in turn creates a powerful normative commitment. The latter has been defined by Caldwell et al (1990) as a threshold level at which a person accepts work principles and values as the norm.
All employees are expected to invest levels of care and commitment within the manufacturing of every product as if it is their own. They understand that failure to report production defects leads to penalties. These values, such as accountability and responsibility are deeply embedded within QPL's present culture which replaced the former "blame culture" (Vince and Broussine 2000). This attitude is transmitted to new recruits through informal mechanisms such as observation and experience (Anon 2008).
The MD being the founder of the company, represents the source who proposes and generates innovative strategic ideas. Foremost, one can include the relocation of the organisation and the investment of new machinery. This further justifies the commonly held perception as being the "hero" of the company (Peters and Waterman 1982). Foremost among these values one can include perseverance, dedication and motivation. His autocratic personality, backed by an active and constructive attitude towards the full pursuit of the company's objectives, clearly qualifies him as a leader (Zaleznick 1977). At age 63, he repeatedly jokes that he is retired. However in practice, in view of his tactful level of control, his presence punctuated by autocratic leadership as defined by Lewin et al (Lewin et al cited in Anon 2008) illustrates otherwise. It transpires from observations, that all strategic decisions at the end of the day require his exclusive stamp of approval. Whenever MD's characteristics are systematically plotted out on a Blake and Mouton (1964) managerial grid, one would find that he possess attributes in conformance to the personality of the authoritarian leader. The latter is defined as having a "low concern for people and a high concern for the task" (Blake and Mouton cited in Anon 2008). From a subjective critical perspective, it transpires that it is consciously understood by all employees, that all values and beliefs pertaining to the MD must be automatically accepted and inherited unconditionally by all subordinates. The employees tend to justify the MD's approach on the grounds of his successful track record.
The general manager's role at QPL is best defined by Kotter (1990) as being the smooth day to day running of operations. Subsequently, in this manner, the GM would be wholeheartedly 'coping with complexity' (Kotter 1990:104). His preference for low risk pursuits is justified by his preference to test the waters prior to implementing any novelties. This approach instilled a perceived culture at QPL strongly characterised by consistency, reliability and committed punctuality.
Schein's Basic underlying assumptions level
According to Schein, the subconscious level represents the basic underlying assumption linked to problem solving. Schein argues that changes are un-pleasurable as this forces people to alter their familiar comfort zone. As a result, they tend to live in denial. Alternatively, Condon and Crano (1988), state that people who share the same beliefs tend to prefer to interact with each other on a regular basis.
In typical circumstances, subordinates refer to their next in line superior to ensure a sound advice regarding solutions to both technical and / or personal problems. Unresolved issues are then passed upwards to the GM. In this regard, MD is rarely involved, except whenever major issues are concerned such as issues linked to huge financial investments, or drastic changes occurring at the work place. This is the assumed escalation communication process at QPL. This is very similar to what Schein describes as one's 'mental map'. Any attempt made to alter this approach would be considered 'un-pleasurable'.
Being a manufacturing oriented business concern, employees at QPL assume that stocks are always readily available for the client. Subsequently, they feel 'guilty' and 'vulnerable' whenever this assumption fails. This is for the simple reason that there is no 'blame culture' among employees in place as defined by Vince and Broussine (2000). Another basic cultural assumption consisting of two variants within the organisation, is that all employees must contribute in a wholehearted manner to a full days work. This consists in the manufacturing of high quality (defect free) products. Thus loitering is interpreted as sluggishness. However, whenever sales employees are perceived as 'calmly' conversing to clients about non-related business matters, it is assumed and accepted by the management that they are trying to generate more business from future potential clients.
Hofstede's theoretical investigation as expounded in a cross cultural study found in a multinational company, dealt with the identification of four distinct characteristics, being:
Power distance - The degree to which managers enforce their power on employees.
Uncertainty avoidance - The level at which employees are encouraged to handle risks specifically as regards problem solving situations.
Individualism / collectivism - The level at which a person is independent or dependent of a group. Independence in this regard refers to the ability to stand up for oneself, and to be fully responsible for one's decision.
Masculinity / femininity - The type of preferred goals. Masculine cultural goals being material possessions and personal ambitions with feministic cultural goals emphasized on life standards and the environment.
(Hofstede cited in Anon 2008)
Hofstede's theory focuses exclusively on international and global business concerns. One can observe a respectable correlation between the cultural setup at QPL to Hofstede's theory. Hofstede's "Near Eastern" category incorporates Greece, Turkey and Iran. The latter possesses characteristic levels similar to QPL to a substantial degree. Typical characteristics include high power distance level, low individualism, high uncertainty avoidance backed by a medium level of masculinity (Hofstede cited in Anon 2008). One is compelled to ask if this is due to similar geographic national cultures, in view of a common Mediterranean background, and a strong Arab oriented legacy. Malta enjoys both these characteristics.
Handy drawing from Harrison's perspectives presents a four-fold classification of organisational culture. These include Power, Role, Task and Person Culture. Power Culture best describes QPL on the grounds that the central figure i.e. a leader exerts a strong influence throughout the entire organisation. The leader generates and enforces unquestionable personal values on a company wide basis, thus securing their legitimate hegemony. This is reinforced by the fact that the MD represents the sole recruiter and disciplinarian. This correlation is further justified, since Handy links power cultures to typically small enterprises, based on trust, compassion and one on one communication. Moreover, this is characterised by the absence of rules / procedures and bureaucracy (Handy cited in Mullins 2007). At QPL, these findings are justified in the lack of documented strategic plans including mission statements.
Goals serve as a guideline within every business concern. Goals particularly those of a short term nature, are always communicated by the MD through verbal direct communication. These typically include the achievement of high throughput of work volume, enjoying the highest achievable standards. QPL faces severe handicaps in this respect, since apart from its restricted size and laid-back ways, it is further inhibited by the absence of clearly defined documentation. The latter is particularly the case as regards mission statements and worse still strategic plans.
However, how effective are these designs contributing to the successful outcomes of organisations as in the case of QPL? Brown (1998), claims that the majority of strategic plans are merely 'buzzwords', with fancy descriptions of future success, usually backed by arbitrary targets. Moreover, Serwer (1994) advocates that wherever a leader of an organisation enjoys the comfort to personally communicate with each member of the staff - as in the case of QPL -, in most situations relatively small organisations can still prosper. This is likewise applicable in the absence of a formal mission statement, or alternatively whenever there is the lack of a detailed guiding principle.
The organisational goals were defined through a formal interview carried out with the MD. The latter expressed his future bound vision hereunder:
"It is QPL's aim to grow in business through better serving its cliental, by offering a wider range of products, manufactured with superior quality, while operating within a safer and friendlier work environment." (Chircop 2009)
The following goals were identified through the interpretation of the above mission statement:
To generate more profit
To further increase the product portfolio
To manufacture a better-quality product
To create a safer and more friendly work environment
An interview was specifically organised with the MD to define goals. It transpired that since the goals lacked a tangible dimension, a sense of vagueness still lingered. When compared to the S.M.A.R.T. goal idea derived from Drucker's (1954) concept of 'management by objectives', one realises that the goals under review apart from lacking in a specific and measurable nature, likewise lack a specific time frame. This sheds doubt on the prospects of the company's achievement. It is pertinent to question the holistic integrity regarding this logic. This is especially the case in the contemporary highly competitive and dynamic markets.
Larson (1998) advocates that whenever there is the absence of a long term vision, with management preferring to "shoot from the hip"- particularly in turbulent periods - the outcome is inevitably hazardous. Larson's perspective is further sustained by Brown (1998), who advocates that not being in possession of a strategic plan or alternatively a vague one, will directly impact the competitiveness of the organisation. Serwer (1994) further justifies these claims, by arguing that they inhibit expansion.
After analysing the organisational culture of QPL, together with the identification of its respective goals as clarified by the MD, at this stage it is pertinent to decipher whether the cultural attributes are inline, or alternatively oppose the above stated company goals.
Organisational goals- supportive attributes
Considering QPL's medium level of masculinity, described by Hofstede as a culture having preferred goals consisting of material possessions (including money and personal ambition), one could interpret this characteristic as being in favour of the profit orientated goal. The tangible artefacts attributed to hard work, deemed important and leading to the ability of the company to offer a vast range of products, can be perceived as upholding the goal to increase the product portfolio.
One could correlate the cultural artefact of a company uniform with safety gear, being supportive in seeking to create a safer work environment. The third goal referring to a better quality product, can be identified as deriving its respective strength from cultural attributes. These typically include the adherence to rules and regulations, reduction of uncertainty, backed by increasing levels of dedication and responsibility on the part of the employees. As expounded within Schein's espoused beliefs and values, all employees treat every product as if it were their own. The embedded cultural values such as accountability and responsibility could be interpreted as contributing to the achievement of the respective organisational goals in comprehensive terms. Moreover, It could be safely argued that the MD's leadership skills as defined by Zalenick (1977) and Handy (cited in Mullins 2007), embedded in QPL's culture is the major contributor towards his own defined profit goal.
The employee's assumption to make use of the problem escalation process, in order to clarify any product quality issues and to manufacture defect free products, are in themselves supportive of offering a better quality product. Moreover, the GM's inclined behaviour towards a cautious low risk taker, where quality is concerned, is definitely an indication that supports the former goal. Other attributes such as the MD being defined as leader in full control of major decisions, can be interpreted as upholding the initial goal of making more profit. Finally, one can observe that the positive and friendly means of communication with potential customers on the part of the sales employees is deemed as being in line with the profit goal.
Organisational goals - unsupportive attributes
One can argue that the segregation of white / blue collar workers embedded in QPL's organisational culture is far from supporting the goal for a friendlier environment. In practice it tends to generate a we - them relationship.
Within today's business environment characterised by the ever increasing dependence on innovative technologies, one could deduce that the perception of QPL's lack of initiative favouring sound investments in I.T., might directly oppose the different goals - being that of more profit, more products and ultimately a better quality product. One may ask oneself if there is sufficient space and tolerance favouring an autocratic leadership style (Lewin et al cited in Anon 2008) like that attributed to the MD. In this regard, it is pertinent to critical consider the effectiveness linked to modern management leadership styles (Fournier 1998) favouring the full scale empowerment of the employees. This can be perceived as having a negative impact, which inhibits productivity, resulting in a reduction of profits, thereby opposing the initial goal. Further, employees seen as loitering and interpreted as being sluggish, can potentially be perceived as negatively affecting the profit, product portfolio and better-quality product goals.
After reviewing insightfully Handy's theoretical insights, QPL's 'power culture', handicapped by the absence of documented rules and procedures, can be safely interpreted as being a direct hindrance to the successful achievement of all four goals - the absence of which, makes it highly unlikely to assess one's progression, and further proceed successfully without clearly defined ways.
Throughout this analysis, one can deduce with a certain degree of prudence, that in real terms it proves to be quite challenging to define organizational culture. The latter is on the grounds that its major elements are for the most part intangible. This is particularly the case as regards values, beliefs and assumptions.
From a critical insight, Schein's theory proved inspiring to unveil QPL's culture skin deep. The application of this framework, revealed that QPL's culture incorporates a considerable set of counter productive characteristics. These transpire through the distinguishable dress codes of both management and factory staff, together with the non-formal procedures adopted. This is further backed by a stubborn unwillingness to change the current business practices, in view of the GM's conservative attitude and powerful undue advocacy favouring organisational stability.
Moreover, on critical analysis it transpired that the employees are via this presentation perceived as operating in a robot-type fashion. This is justified since they are deeply entrenched in established approved routines, otherwise feeling vulnerable. This insight further exemplified by the MD, is portrayed by Peter's and Waterman's 'hero' figure. The MD's behaviour, values and beliefs are being transmitted to the organisation's members, not merely by means of his autocratic leadership styles, but constantly reinforced via his masculine oriented preferred goals. These tend to focus on the attainment of financial gain, together with the fulfilment of personal ambitions. Moreover, these findings support Hofstede's perspectives. However, in spite of the MD's attitude, it transpires that QPL's culture embodies employees embracing wholeheartedly the value of loyalty, backed by a deep commitment to a full-day's work. Finally, one can identify an 'esprit de corps' attitude, felt throughout the organisation.
In view of the lack of quantified objectives and strategic plans, is QPL to be considered a mediocre company, a 'sitting duck' awaiting it's doom? Although some theorists such as Larson (1998) proclaim that this setup may lead to the future downfall of the company, facts at QPL prove otherwise. They tend to support Sewer's (1994) perspectives, that companies can still prosper.
"A thousand mile journey initiates from the first step". The sagacity of this oriental proverb is highly meaningful in view of the autocratic attitude of the MD, whose tends to embrace change in piecemeal fashion. Subsequently, the recommendations presented are the outcome of both realism and practicality, essential in securing a strategic fit between QPL and its highly competitive business environments.
Considering QPL's culture and beliefs on the part of the MD, a sensible recommendation would be the prospects of exploring and assessing whether a healthy change is beneficial for the long term sustainability of the organisation. From a subjective insight, this could be driven by a re-alignment of the organisational culture towards well defined and measurable objectives. This implies a step wise approach favouring the attainment of a desired cultural change, achievable through conviction and lateral thinking.
Consequently by possessing vague and implied goals as opposed to formal and explicit ones, one can conclude that QPL's success story is highly debatable. Perhaps this is why QPL's level of success is immeasurable.