Corporate Culture and Symbolism: Old and New

You are in your car, on the road.  You are driving along a row of grassy fields.  You get bored so you turn on the radio.  You have pre-programmed stations.  You hit the first of these.  It is 96.5’s the Break Room with Tommy Mulet.  You know that he will say something raunchy, which might be funny.  You press the button to switch to the next station.  It is 98.9, the Breakfast Buzz with Kimberly and Beck.  You wait for them to offend a caller or badmouth a local politician.  You switch to the AM stations and turn on NPR, where you know you’ll find Morning Edition, a liberal oriented news program.  You know what they say, and how they will conduct themselves.  Furthermore, you may even know what buttons you have allocated for them.  According to Eric Eisenberg, H.L. Goodall, and Angela Trethewey, authors of the book, Organizational Communication, these are all cultural elements.  The radio stations, their content and personalities, represent the culture we share as local citizens.   Even the buttons you press to make your selections are elements stitched within your own culture.

To begin my investigation into culture I will examine what researchers have uncovered in terms of the affect symbolism has on our everyday lives.  Further, I will analyze corporate cultures under both the old and new social contracts.  I will then introduce some of the elements of culture at my former company, and then discuss how some values began to break down as others were created.  Towards the end of my time there, as different events unfolded, the culture would be forever changed.  Alternatively, my former company’s use of cultural elements comes in sharp contrast to a San Francisco-based software company called LoveMachine.  I will look at how LoveMachine enacts elements of culture according to the new social contract. I will conclude by examining the findings of corporate cultural ethnographer, William Ouchi, has detailed in his book, Theory Z, and relate how it pertains to both company’s cultures.

Cultural Research: The Interpretive View

George Herbert Mead, a philosopher and social activist at the University of Chicago, came up with the theory of symbolic interactionism.  According to Mead, symbols shape the way we experience consciousness, and they determine how we structure our behavior according to what is going on around us (Baran, Davis 303).  Mead argued that we are “constantly encountering ambiguous, complex situations that need to be understood” (Baran, Davis 303).  The human brain is able to adapt to this ambiguity through the introduction and adherence to symbols.  Moreover, how individuals define symbols shape the reality they experience (Baran, Davis 304).

Similarly, cultural researchers also study how employees of organizations interpret and process symbolism.  The term “organizational culture” is defined by the actions, ways of thinking, practices, stories and artifacts that characterize a particular organization: “All cultural studies begin with a focus on the centrality of language in shaping human perception” (Eisenberg, Goodall, Trethewey 104).  To advance this idea, cultural researcher, Kenneth Burke theorized that:  “symbols do not only stand for other things; they also shape our understandings of those things and help us identify their meanings and uses” (Eisenberg, Goodall, Trethewey 105).  In other words, how we make reference to tasks, events or phenomenon in an organizational culture contributes to the definitions of them in our consciousness.  According to the interpretive view, organizational cultures are created through cultural elements.  Cultural elements are helpful cues an organization sets up around it identify, for employees, the “right way” of doing things.

Old Social Contract: My Former Employer

My own experience with cultural elements in organizational culture is somewhat extensive.  In my former corporate life, I worked for one of the top five media conglomerates in the world.  Within this large company I worked as a photojournalist in the local news division.  While I was there, at least, my former company operated under what Eisenberg, Goodall and Trethewey refer to as the old social contract.  This old social contract is what you would think of when you work for a traditional company.  It is marked by bureaucracy and stability, both of which I experienced at one point or another.  As part of our corporate culture we were asked to complete self-evaluations, and we were also given manager evaluations.  Each of these would create shared meaning, and common sense among employees.  Our manager evaluations would have us consenting to agreed upon goals.  Another element of this culture was the celebration of heroes and heroines (Eisenberg, Goodall, Trethewey 106).  The names of the twelve “employees of the month” were all entered into a lottery.  Winners were arbitrarily chosen to attend a company-sponsored trip to Puerto Rico.  The company considered these employees the best of the best for that year, were made to attend seminars that would further their exposure to the company initiatives.  Our news station also disseminated information out into the community.  In that way we would also contribute to the wider culture.  How people outside the company saw us, our channel’s logo, television channel and website maintained our status in the culture.  We were also a family of journalists, who shared techniques, visions and themes in the content that we produced.  In this way viewers could rely on how we operated.  The culture also established a healthy competitive environment, which made our on-air product better in the long run.

I was at this company for over 11 years before I was laid off.  The company responded to an industry-wide initiative (which was also a cultural trend).  They decided to “move in a different direction,” as the popular expression goes.  They wanted to use fewer employees to produce work, and consolidate facilities.  The emphasis moved from quality to quantity.  Over 20 of us were given six-months notice before the company let us go in October of 2011.  We were all provided severance packages based on the number of years we had worked.  Some newer employees left as they found other opportunities.  There was little incentive for them to stay as they were provided a meager parting allotment.  As staff lessened in the newsroom, moral suffered.  Cultural elements became transparent.  Burnout and an inevitable sense of loss became part of the culture.  Our corporate culture became accepted, more than it was embraced

New Social Contract: LoveMachine

Alternatively, after reading about how an Internet based company employs culture, my own former company’s culture is better illuminated.  Entrepreneur Philip Rosedale was interviewed in regards to his company LoveMachine, in the March of 2011 issue of Inc. magazine.  LoveMachine operates under Eisenberg, Goodall and Trethewey’s definition for the new social contract.  Employment for the individual is characterized as “a series of finite contracts with corporations” (19).  With Rosedale’s company, freelance employees must adhere to designated rules that were made up to supply them with just enough information to complete a job.  There is no full-time software development team or formal office.  Rather “Once the job is awarded, the contractor collaborates with the rest of the team virtually, through a custom-built chat room on the company’s website” (Dahl 94).  The LoveMachine software product itself is a cultural element for other companies.  It allows employees of a sponsor company to receive kudos from one another in the form of a Twitter-like message that is distributed to all of that company’s employees.

The LoveMachine culture is groundbreaking.  Its creators recognized how individuals perceive the Internet, the universal access it allows for, and used that perception to craft its cultural model.  Internal documents, such as emails, memos and press releases, are viewable to the public.  The progress and completion status of each work assignment is posted.  Anyone can see the performance, good or ill, of a freelancer and his or her job.  Every payment generates a publicly viewable record.  Everyone knows how much a freelancer made for that job.  Other than a website and a job, there are no artifacts for employees to regard as part of the culture.


In terms of Mead’s symbolic interactionism, cultural elements seem less tangible under the new social contract.  LoveMachine employees can no longer rely on the analogy of walking into a room and being exposed to culture.  In contrast, the company was set up in the virtual environment of cyberspace to mimic some of the traditional elements of culture while augmenting them to allow for more accountability of its freelancers.

Similar cultural research was being done in the late 1970s, as Japan was having seemingly unexplainable success in international automotive markets.  William Ouchi studied corporate culture in the automobile industry in Japan.  Ouchi argued that a company’s ability to adapt to its external environment would determine its success.  Organizational culture is an ever-evolving model (Eisenberg, Goodall, Trethewey 107).  It is dependent on the new ways in which companies structure their work environments.  In studying the Japanese model, Ouchi noticed an emphasis on the support of the collective, whereas the American auto industry focused more on individual ingenuity.  Ouchi proposed a method that would utilize the strengths of both systems.  His theory Z proposes a workplace that would celebrate the individual, while making sure he or she respects the community (Eisenberg, Goodall, Trethewey 107).  My former company seems to try to embody these principles more so than LoveMachine.  Yet both also still seem to default to some of the traits of the American and Japanese auto industries of the ‘70s.  LoveMachine is dismissive of the individual, has a shameless disregard for culture in favor of the task.  On the other hand, the company I once worked for focuses on the individual’s contribution to the collective.



Works Cited

Baran, Stanley J., and Dennis K. Davis.  Mass Communication Theory: Foundations, Ferment and Future. 5th ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

Eisenberg, Eric M., H.L. Goodall Jr., and Angela Trethewey. Organizational Communication: Balancing Creativity and Constraint. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. Print.

Dahl, Darren. “Want A Job? Let The Bidding Begin.” Inc. 33.2 (2011): 93-96. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 May 2012.