PSEL: Corporate Cultures (The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life)

My most recent book is Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life by Terence E. Deal and Allan A. Kennedy. First published in 1982 and updated in 2000, this is one one of the first commercially available books to discuss how anthropological issues of culture affects individual businesses.

For several years now, I have been finding anthropologically oriented works some of the most useful in helping me understand how to communicate more successfully and this helped me too…although I can see that some of the predictions from the 80s have not all panned out. But if you read the book carefully, it actually predicts that!

Basic Premise

The focus of the book is to describe how organizations build a set of beliefs, rituals, narratives with heroes and other cultural practices which must be learned in order to function well within the organization. However, because they are not always formally taught, it isn’t always easy to learn them. In fact, managers, especially managers new to the organization, may not realize they are in place and can therefore make major mistakes hindering projects when the rules are violated.

A simple example from Penn State is that most staff members have some sort of connection with Penn State. Many have lived in Pennsylvania and about the same percentage have either attended Penn State or are related to someone who has. As a result, many staff members were probably exposed to Penn State football and likely view Joe Paterno as a local hero. When the Sandusky scandal hit, a few people unconnected to the university may have felt Paterno made some errors, but admitting that in public would not have been recommended. The other staff members would probably have recited a story relating to Paterno’s commitment to the academic life at Penn State as well as to the football team.

Paterno as a hero exemplifies the Penn State value of supporting academics as well as other non-collegiate aspects such as the football tailgate. His willingness to forgo a large NFL salary also shows how Penn State often talks about providing a quality education at a lower price. This translates into the idea that a staff member may be less paid than in an urban market, but may still have access to good cultural amenities. People may want more pay, but it’s rarely discussed in public…unless the salaries have been frozen for a few years.

A ritual shared by many Penn Staters is watching the football games, even if it just the Bowl game. Even if a person does not follow football, one might want to consider keeping track of the season’s games and scores, if only to know how the mood of the town is on Monday. In fact, my grandmother supposedly recommended my mother learn football so she could at least follow the game somewhat. This came in handy when she met my father’s aunt and uncle for the first time…at a football game. It’s also good to know what the schedule is so travel on Saturday can be properly planned.

Multiple Cultures at Large Organizations

When an organization is as large as Penn State, multiple cultures with their own set of rules form. This can cause friction if the different cultures don’t understand each others rules. For instance, non-teaching staff assume that the days between Christmas and New Year are a vacation where no one will be required to work, but some faculty view this week as the time catch up on work. A few times this has meant that faculty are expecting some IT staff to be available in this period…even when they will not be. Oops.

The multiple cultures in place means that being able to learn more about them is critical to a person higher in the administration at Penn State.

Unconscious Behavior

Explaining the value of Penn State football is relatively simple, but a lot of other rituals behavior aren’t always so clear, but if norms are violated, then problems can arise. I realized that I have sometimes violated this when offering virtual meetings over Adobe Connect (or Zoom).

As a practical matter, meetings on Adobe Connect run more smoothly when it is virtual only. The moderator is one small space broadcasting (like radio) and all the other attendees are in their space. However, when the moderator is in a room with a live audience, the logistics are much more complicated and it’s much harder for virtual attendees to understand what is happening or participate. I tended to push the virtual-only broadcast model as a way to equalize the participation for everyone. But for one learning designer monthly meeting, attendance from University Park dropped because they valued their face to face time together as a community. The meeting lost some of its energy from this dynamic.

In fact, the need for the learning design community to come together has become an integral part of the annual TLT Symposium. Technically this is a education technology conference with presentations from different faculty members and attendance remains very high. However, I also know that a large percentage of the attendance comes from learning designers and multimedia staff from all the campuses at Penn State. People do attend sessions, but an amazing amount of energy is spent talking to each other in the halls or at meals, and people may skip sessions just to talk to one another. In fact, the lunch time keynote was eventually discarded because people wanted more time to network.

At this point, the purpose of the Symposium for many people may actually be to catch up with people across campus. Updates on new services may just be a nice bonus in some years. That doesn’t mean that the presentations should necessarily be cancelled, but their role may not be well understood.

Changing the Culture

A hot topic these days in business organization is changing the “culture”, but assuming that culture can be changed easily misses the point that when a culture is really well understood, it cannot be easily adjusted. Deal and Allen do give some examples of how a leader can adjust the culture, but generally speaking the leader must truly understand what is happening in that culture.

In almost all the examples, the leaders make a point to spend some time at particular working locations such as visiting or even working at a factory office a few hours or even days a week instead of corporate headquarters. At these locations, leaders are able to observe how people truly behave. Sadly, this is a behavior I do not see much at Penn State.

Another change issue that is often ignored is the need to account for how a change impacts the everyday lives of staff members…or else people will be tempted to fall into the same patterns that worked before. For example, Penn State has long advocated accessibility guidelines, but until training could be provided, staff did not always know what to do. In some cases new positions had to be created to help with testing requests. Even now, many people feel “too busy” for accessibility. And some tools built for the federal government remain too cumbersome to be useful in the higher education setting. Until these changes are realized, accessibility will probably not be fully adopted by all content creators.

On the other hand, when the ADA came out there was a lot of angst in organizations at fulfilling the mandates. Yet somehow people learned to design new buildings with appropriate wheelchair access…so change is possible.

A final lesson from the book is that change is gradual (sometimes generations long for some social issues) and can be so slow that people don’t always realize it is happening. The slowness of change can be frustrating in IT where people expect new products and methods to be deployed instantaneously. This may be possible in commercial cloud services, but again is more difficult in higher education which is subject to more regulations and more cultural baggage to overcome.

Ironically, Kennedy and Allan proposed that in the “future” (as in the current second decade of the 21st century we are now in), the work force would be less hierarchical and have more control over decisions. I have seen this advocated as a goal for Penn State IT…but we are still working in hierarchical silos where non-managerial staff have very little formal authority. This is not surprising considering that Penn State is an especially large example of a centuries old institutional model. The older the organization, the slower it is to change…exactly as Kennedy and Allan point out.

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