Beyond the Culture of Discipline: What makes a Great company and how Cultural Theory can help

D. Douglas Caulkins, an anthropologist at Grinnell College, Iowa, has used Grid-Group Cultural Theory to appraise and extend Jim Collins’ well known work on organisational culture, Good to Great (which is explained at and about which you can read an article. )

Jim Collins’s empirical study Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (Harper Business, New York, 2001) has made a worldwide impact on management and leadership practice and research. His concept of “culture of discipline” is central to his ideas for achieving enduring, sustainable organizations, whether in the business or nonprofit sectors. In this essay the culture of discipline is re-theorized in the context of Mary Douglas’s grid-group analysis to provide a home within a broader theory which will locate the culture of discipline in relation to alternative cultures. The framework is illustrated with applications in a study of small, high-technology firms in peripheral areas of the UK, leading to the recognition of an organizational form missing from most of the management literature and furthering the exploration of a model of humble and collaborative leadership as an alternative to the model of charismatic or heroic leadership growing out of American management culture.

[Image credit: Woodleywonderworks]

Prof Caulkins has done a very good job of this. Caulkins’ approach is to equate the ‘great company’, with its long-termism and its culture of responsibility, with the Egalitarian bias of Cultural Theory. If this is so, Collins could be said to achieve this without at any point scaring American business leaders off by sounding like some kind of cheerleader for socialism. To recognise this strand in American business thinking is to call into question the easy assumption that the typical American approach is Individualist.

My only question regards Caulkin’s characterisation of the Enron culture (admittedly by no means the main point of his paper), which Fourcultures has previously touched on. Caulkins sees Enron’s ‘cult of personality’ as an increase in the ‘grid’ dimension:

“when the imperial CEO and CFO impose rules, rituals, and indoctrination that promote the interests and privileges of the top management, rather than the interests of the organization, then the cult of personality is driving the organization up-grid toward a more rule-based form of management that is no longer egalitarian.” (Caulkins 2008: 229).

The question here is the extent to which we accept the characterisation of Enron as a sectarian ‘cult’ (Tourish and Vatcha 2005). It could be argued that Enron’s acute, institutionalised and systematic lack of accountability positioned it as a good example of a rather extreme Individualist organisation. So on this account Enron did not start off Egalitarian and move up-grid towards Hierarchy or Fatalism, as Caulkins claims. Instead it started off reluctantly somewhat Hierarchical and by mocking all accountability moved resolutely down-grid towards an off-the-scale Individualism that was superficially praiseworthy but ultimately incompatible with the wider business environment within which it operated (see Linsley and Shrives 2009 for another Grid-Group inspired account of the culture of Enron).

In any case, Caulkins’s work shows how useful Grid-Group Cultural Theory can be for organisational studies.

Further Reading

Caulkins, D. Douglas (2008) ‘Re-theorizing Jim Collins’s culture of discipline in Good to Great‘, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research,21:3, 217 — 232

P. M. Linsley and  P. J. Shrives (2009). ‘Mary Douglas, risk and accounting failures’. Critical Perspectives on Accounting 20(4):492-508.

Tourish, D. and Vatcha, N. (2005). Charismatic leadership and corporate cultism at Enron: the elimination of dissent, the promotion of conformity and organizational collapse. Leadership, 1 (4), 455-480.

3 thoughts on “Beyond the Culture of Discipline: What makes a Great company and how Cultural Theory can help

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