Episode 30

Corporate culturalism

A JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT STUDIES CLASSIC

 

Willmott, H. (1993), STRENGTH IS IGNORANCE; SLAVERY IS FREEDOM: MANAGING CULTURE IN MODERN ORGANIZATIONS*. Journal of Management Studies, 30: 515–552


"Corporate culturalism … preys upon the vulnerability of modern individuals who … are burdened with the responsibility of choosing between ‘a puzzling diversity of options and possibilities’ … but lack access to the [resources needed to respond] to this predicament."
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Strength is Ignorance; Slavery is Freedom: Managing Culture in Modern Organizations was Hugh Willmott’s critique of corporate culturalism, a dominant theme in management studies in the 1980s. In 1993, when the paper appeared in the Journal of Management Studies, strengthening corporate culture was seen as a way to improve organizational performance. Exemplified by Total Quality Management and Balanced Scorecard,  the view was that values could be systematized. The more that individual members aligned themselves with the corporate culture, the more effective they would be and the more committed they would become with the organization.

Not so fast, says Willmott.

But rather than using arguments grounded solely in organizational scholarship, which he certainly included, Willmott used a metaphor to present his arguments – George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. On page 523, Willmott accuses corporate culturalism with “systematizing and legitimizing of a control that purposefully seeks to shape and regulate the practical consciousness of employees.” A couple sentences later, “corporate culturalism become a medium of nascent totalitarianism.” But rather than old-fashioned oppressive totalitarianism, Willmott brings in Orwell’s concepts such as ‘doublethink,’ where paradox is a tool (or perhaps weapon). The corporation grants the appearance of autonomy to its members while also enforcing uniformity. Because of the affirmation, the employee merrily goes along, possibly unaware that there is no real autonomy granted.

And so on. Orwell concepts are evoked similarly throughout the paper.

By contrast, the commentaries that are also available on our site, evoke Orwell much more directly and often – evidenced by the titles that both included phrases from the book. The May 2013 edition of JMS included an article by Peter Fleming called “’Down with Big Brother!’ the End of Corporate Culturalism?’ followed by Willmott’s response, “The Substitution of One Piece of Nonsense for Another’: Reflections on Resistance, Gaming, and Subjugation. Both papers devote a lot of space to member resistance, which Willmott’s original work was criticized for not adequately addressing.

What to make of corporate culturalism? In 2017, it is hard to say it is dead. Fixing an organization’s culture continues to be a proffered solution to whatever ails an organization, including today in an environment where information assurance is a big concern in today’s challenging cyber environment.



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