There are many theorists who have investigated organisational culture and one aspect which can be agreed on unanimously is that "[Culture] â€¦remains an elusive idea to define." (Anon 2008:58). None-the-less this assignment attempts to unveil the organisational culture present at Quality Postform Ltd (QPL) by applying various theoretical perspectives to determine to what extent this culture assists or inhibits the achievement of existing company objectives. Upon defining the organisational goals along with its organisational cultural characteristics, it is then determined which of them are recognised as either being supportive or unsupportive in the achievement of company objectives. After which conclusive statements derived from the paper's findings and extracted from a comparative analysis based on QPL's organisational culture are provided. One brief recommendation concludes this paper.
QPL is the only postformed element manufacturer and supplier to the local Maltese furniture industry, which forms 7.4% of the manufacturing industry (NSO 2009). Its main line of focus is on custom sized postformed elements, e.g. kitchen counter tops, door panels, table tops and desktops. The company fights stiff competition against imports. QPL is a family run business which grew from three people in 1998 to eleven as it is today (QPL 2009).
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The company has the benefit of being located on one of Malta's arterial roads noticed by a lot of potential clients generating a substantial amount business (QPL 2009).
Prior to Malta's European Union (EU) membership, QPL's clientele comprised of a 30% domestic (home user) and 70% commercial (carpenter) configuration. Management had foreseen that due to the import levy removal after EU accession, competition would increase due to an influx of cheaper mass produced furniture (Chircop 2002). So the strategic decision was taken to offer a new range of custom sized do-it-yourself products, supplemented by machinery investment, allowing QPL to directly compete with off the shelf do-it-yourself furniture (Chircop 2003). Subsequently within two years there was a complete turn around of client base and surprisingly carpenters starting purchasing do-it-yourself products as well.
The theory of Edgar Schein with its three levels of cultural manifestations was found to be one of the more generic ones. For reasons attributing to QPL's size and amount of informality functions, the theory of Schein emerged to be a more relevant theory and hence it was decided to compare it to QPL's culture in more detail then others.
Edgar Schein defines group culture as valid common assumptions developed to problem solve internal and external transformations, instilling them as the norm on to new recruits (Schein 2004). Edgar Schein explains that culture has three distinct levels of manifestations all influenced by one another, being artefacts, espoused beliefs / values and underlying assumptions.
Schein's Artefacts level
Schein describes the artefact level as having tangible items which can be seen, heard and touched. One's first impression as one enters a new group. Without the understanding of underlying assumptions artefacts are hard to interpret. Typical examples of artefacts are the physical environment, products, style (clothing), organisational charts, written / spoken language and its technology (Schein 2004).
Artefacts Level - Physical envirionment
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 affect, supplemented by a vast display of coloured postform samples in the showroom. These tangible artefacts are attributed to QPL's cultural perception that hard work is a priority, enabling it to offer its clients a vast range of products.
Artefacts Level - Style
Management does not dress in uniform but all other staff members adhere to a dress code consisting of a tennis shirt with company logo, safety shoes and earplugs. The former attributes a sense of white / blue collar segregation and the later a sense of concern for its employees well being.
Artefacts Level - Organisational Chart
An organisational chart (see figure 1) hung over the MD's desk, indicates that QPL is a flat organisation perceiving it as a tightly knit company , enabling it to offer its products and services on a personal level.
Figure 1 * author of this assignment
Artefacts Level - Written / spoken language and technology
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
The company's communication network is either face-to-face through informal meetings being held on the spot or through the grape vine (Peters and Waterman 1982). This later method is used by QPL to 'test the waters' for new ideas. Walking around QPL, one can notice a few computers, some low-tech computerized machines and a static company website. This gives a cultural perception that the company lacks the initiative for I.T. investment.
Schein's Espoused beliefs and values level
Espoused beliefs and values are explained by Schein as a group's understanding of how things should be as apposed to how they are. A leader of the group starts to emerge after his/her beliefs and values are imposed, repeatedly solving group problems. After passing social consensus they are accepted as the norm and solidified as a group espoused belief or value.
This is similar to what happens at QPL where employees understand that they must conform to rules and regulations as imposed by the MD (leader). This conformity helps in the reduction of uncertainty and at the same time allows employees to have increased levels of dedication and responsibility towards their job. This in turn creates normative commitment which is defined by Caldwell et al (1990) as a level at which a person accepts work principles and values as the norm.
All employees are expected to put in levels of care and commitment towards 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 embedded in the culture; resulting from a culture change that was formerly a "blame culture" (Vince and Broussine 2000). This is transmitted to new recruits through informal mechanisms such as observation and experience (Anon 2008).
The MD and founder of the company is the key person who proposes new strategic ideas like for instance the relocation of the organisation and the investment of new machinery. He is the perceived hero of the company from whom the organisation draws its values and beliefs (Peters and Waterman 1982), such as perseverance, dedication and motivation. His personnel and active attitude towards company goals defines him as a leader (Zaleznick 1977). At age 63 he repeatedly states that he is retired but with his level of control, major decisions requiring his stamp of approval; his autocratic leadership presence as defined by Lewin et al (Lewin et al cited in Anon 2008) shows otherwise. If one had to plot the MD's characteristics to Blake and Mouton (1964) managerial grid, one would find that he possess attributes true to the authoritarian leader defined as having a "low concern for people and a high concern for the task" (Blake and Mouton cited in Anon 2008). To put all this into context, it is understood by all employees that all values and beliefs belonging to the MD are automatically inherited and accepted unconditionally due to 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 or better put the 'coping with complexity' (Kotter 1990:104). He is a low risk taker and prefers to test the waters before implementing anything new. This has helped to instil a perceived culture at QPL with strong characteristics of consistency, reliability and committed punctuality. Hence the company slogan acquired 'We're on top of things!'.
Schein's Basic underlying assumptions level
According to Schein, the subconscious level is the basic underlying assumption related to problem solving. Schein argues that changes are un-pleasurable as this forces people to alter their comfort zone and therefore they tend to live in denial. Alternatively, Condon and Crano 1988, state that people who share the same beliefs tend to stay together.
Under normal circumstances, subordinates refer to their next in line superior to take advice on technical or personal problems. Unresolved issues are then escalated to the GM. The MD is very rarely involved, except in major issues that require big financial investments or drastic changes in work practices. This is the assumed escalation communication process at QPL. This is very similar to what Schein describes as one's 'mental map', where any attempt by anyone to change this would be considered 'un-pleasurable'.
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Employees assume that stocks are always readily available for the client and feel 'guilty' if this assumption fails for the simple reason that there is no 'blame culture' in place as defined by Vince and Broussine (2000), among employees.
Another basic cultural assumption consisting of two variants within the organisation is that everyone has a full days work consisting of the manufacturing of high quality (defect free) products. Loitering is interpreted as sluggishness however when sales employees are seen 'calmly' talking to clients about non-related business matters it is assumed and accepted by the management and their colleagues that they are trying to generate more business from future potential clients.
Hofstede's theoretical investigation dealt with the identification of four distinct characteristics in a cross cultural study found in a multinational company, being:
Power distance - The level at which management uses its power on employees.
Uncertainty avoidance - The level at which employees are encouraged to risk take in problem solving.
Individualism / collectivism - The level at which a person is independent (stand up for themselves) or dependent of a group.
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)
Far from being a multinational company one can draw a minute correlation between the culture present at QPL and Hofstede's theory. Hofstede's "Near Eastern" category consisting of Greece, Turkey and Iran posses characteristic levels similar to QPL such as high power distance level, low individualism, high uncertainty avoidance and a medium level of masculinity (Hofstede cited in Anon 2008). One is compelled to ask if this is due to similar geographic national cultures; countries located in the Mediterranean area and/or with a past history of Arabic influence, like that of Malta.
Handy's definition of various cultures, in particularly that defined as a "Power Culture" best describes the culture at QPL. Handy explains how in a power culture one finds a central figure i.e. a leader who has a strong influence through out the organisation emanating his values and making them company values as in the case at QPL where the MD is the sole recruiter and disciplinarian. Handy states that power cultures are common in small entrepreneurial organisations built on trust, compassion and one on one communication with few traces of rules / procedures and bureaucracy (Handy cited in Mullins 2007), once again comparable to the absence of documented strategic plans or mission statements discussed later in this assignment. All of the above listed attributes effortlessly compare to the organisational culture found at QPL, inclining one's perception to associate QPL's culture to that of Handy's definition of a Power Culture.
Short term goals like achieving high throughput of work volume, at the highest achievable standards are always communicated by the MD through direct verbal communication. However either due to QPL's size or once again because of its laid-back ways attributing to a vague culture, documented mission / vision statements or strategic plans are non-existent. One may ask oneself how effective these statements / plans really are in relation to the success of the company in the case of QPL. Brown (1998) claims that the majority of strategic plans are nothing more than a group of "buzzwords", with fancy descriptions of future success along with a list of arbitrary targets. Serwer (1994) goes as far as to say that where a leader of an organisation has the comfort to personally communicate with each staff member (as in the case of QPL), sometimes relatively small organisations can still prosper without having a mission statement or better yet a detailed guiding principle.
None-the-less, through a formal interview of the MD arranged by the GM, a list of organisational goals was obtained (initiated by this assignment). The MD expressed his vision and goals for the future of the company as follows:
"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)
Through interpretation of the above mission statement, the following goals were identified:
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
Even after an interview resulting in defined goals, a sense of vagueness still lingered if not stronger then before simply because none of the goals were tangibly specific. When compared to the S.M.A.R.T. goal idea derived from Drucker's (1954) concept of 'management by objectives' one realises how the goals fail to be specific, measurable and set in a specific time frame, the achievement of which being doubtful. One also questions the integrity of this way of thinking especially in today's 'cut throat' turbulent markets, where a feeling of 'dog eat dog' (the strongest shall survive) is felt throughout. Larson (1998) points out that if there is a lack of long term vision with management preferring to "shoot from the hip" while dealing with occurring problems, the outcome can be a very dangerous. Even Brown (1998) goes on to say that not having a strategic plan or even having a vague one will directly affect the competitiveness of the company, or in the case of Serwer (1994 ) inhibit expansion.
After analysing the organisational culture of QPL and identifying its goals as stated by the MD one can now try to decipher and understand if the cultural attributes are inline or appose the above stated company goals. To better understand the situation and make a distinction between the two categories, it has been decided to segregate the supportive from the unsupportive characteristics to help illustrate a clearer picture.
Attributes supportive of organisational goals
Considering QPL's medium level of masculinity, described by Hofstede as a culture having preferred goals consisting of material possessions like money and personal ambition, one could interpret this as being in favour of goal pertaining to profit. The tangible artefacts attributing to hard work being important and leading to the ability of the company to offer a vast range of products can bee seen 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 trying to create a safer work environment. The third goal referring to a better quality product can be identified as drawing strength from cultural attributes like, adhering to rules and regulations, reduction of uncertainty, and increasing levels of dedication and responsibility values in conjunction with all employees treating every product as if it were their own as described in Schein's espoused beliefs and values. The embedded cultural values such as accountability and responsibility could be seen as contributing to the achievement of all organisational goals. It could be argued that the MD's leadership skills as defined by Zalenick (1977) and Handy (Handy cited in Mullins 2007), embedded in QPL's culture is the major contributor towards his own defined profit goal. Employee's cultural instilled assumptions being, 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. The GM's inclined behaviour towards a cautious low risk taker where quality is concerned is surely an indication that supports the former goal. Other attributes like the MD being defined as leader in full control of major decisions can be seen as upholding the first goal of making more profit. Sales employee's positive and friendly means of communication with potential customers can be observed as inline with generating more profit.
Attributes unsupportive of organisational goals
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 today's business world and the ever increasing dependence on technology one could deduce that the perception of QPL's lack for I.T. investment might directly appose multiple goals being that of more profit, more products and a better quality product. One may ask oneself if there is room and tolerance for an autocratic leadership style (Lewin et al cited in Anon 2008) like that attributed to the MD, considering the effectiveness of modern management leadership styles (Fournier 1998) where more employees are being empowered. This can be seen as having a negative effect, inhibiting productivity, resulting in profit loss thereby apposing the first goal. 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. QPL's 'power culture' as described by Handy, having and absence of documented rules and procedures can be interpreted as being a direct hindrance in the successful achievement of all four goals; the absence of which, make it very difficult to assess ones progression and further proceed successfully without clearly defined ways.
Throughout this research analysis one can deduce that it is difficult to define organizational culture because its major elements are for the most part intangible such as values, beliefs and assumptions. However, Schein's theory enabled the author to uncover QPL's with an average level of effort. The application of this theoretical framework revealed that QPL's culture consists of a considerable number of old-fashioned and traditional characteristics; mainly witnessed through the distinguishable dress codes of management and factory staff, non-formal procedures, little inclination towards technology and unwillingness to change. This is further projected through the General Manager's role found to be conservative and obsessed with stability. Moreover, the application of this theory brought to light the fact that employees are perceived working in a robot-type fashion entrenched in routines and feeling vulnerable otherwise. This culture could be attributed exclusively to Peter's and Waterman's 'hero' figure, that being portrayed by the MD. The same MD who's behaviour, values / beliefs are being transmitted to the organisational members by means of his autocratic leadership styles in conjunction with his masculine preferred goals, focussed towards money and personal ambition and with a possible hint of Arabic origin as depicted by Hofstede. Strangely enough however, perceived through the eyes of this author, further theoretical application confirmed that QPL's culture include employees embracing the value of loyalty, with full commitment to a full-day's work and a sense of 'esprit de corps' felt through out.
Clearly with QPL being a mediocre company, a 'sitting duck' if you will, it is of no surprise that there is an absence of formal documented mission / vision statements and strategic plans as expressed by Handy. Although some theorists such as Larson (1998) proclaim that this setup may lead to the future downfall of the company, facts prove otherwise and support Sewer (1994) in that companies can still prosper.
The first recommendation which comes to mind is ISO certification along with all the benefits that come with it; totally abolishing the vagueness which is present at QPL, replacing it with a more clearly defined, better documented quality management system. Lets not kid ourselves. Considering the cultural circumstances and values / beliefs of the MD, a more sensible recommendation would be the possibility of exploring and assessing whether a change is beneficial or not to the long term sustainability of the organisation. This could be driven by a re-alignment of the organisational culture towards well defined and measurable objectives, in essence a slight 'culture change', achievable through slow convincing and some lateral thinking.
Consequently by possessing vague and implied goals as apposed 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.