Organizational Culture

In her last semester of teaching, I had the incredibly good fortune of having Jan Beyer’s Organizational Culture class at UT-Austin. One of my other classmates from the Organizational Communication Ph.D. program took the class as well. To be honest, she scared the hell out of us but it was one of the most interesting classes I took — not only because Jan was a character but also because her perspective on organizational culture was engaging and inherently communication-oriented.

To say that Jan’s approach to teaching was ‘old school’ is an understatement. In an era of concern for peoples’ self-esteem she was refreshingly blunt. If someone said something stupid in class, she made them aware of the error of their ways. If someone was unprepared for class, she made the point of picking them to respond. But most interestingly, in each 3-hour seminar there were about 5 or 6 journal articles related to the week’s theme in organizational culture that were presented by different PhD students. What we noticed was that each week we were given additional instructions on completing the presentations — so each week the requirements developed with additional details. Students who didn’t cover the new instructions were grilled on them until they provided them after the cross-examination and after a few weeks Jan had us trained to pay attention to the additional requirements.

There was, however, a student whose attendance was spotty at best (a serious faux pas in graduate student culture anyhow in the US), but had there for the first couple of week and then gone for several weeks until it was his turn to present. This meant that he missed several additions to the instructions for the presentations. She saved him for last that day. He began his presentation and it wasn’t long until he had missed something and Jan asked him about it — he was unprepared to answer the question. For the next 15 minutes he would re-start his presentation and inevitably miss something within a few minutes and became increasingly frustrated because he didn’t understand what the hassle was. The rest of us, however, did.

Eventually Jan stopped him, told him to sit down — that the rest of the class and she had been developing a culture of presentations over the last several weeks — that ‘we all’ understood the requirements of the presentations but that he had chosen not to be a member of the culture and so he was ‘wasting everyone’s time’. It was certainly an interesting, if not uncomfortable object lesson in what organizational culture is and how it develops, but it was one that has stuck with me for the last 15+ years. Her point in adding to the requirements each week was to demonstrate the development and change of rituals over time. No doubt she had intended to make the point more subtly, but her ‘object lesson’ presented itself.

The post script to this — the wayward student never returned, but after that day the rest of the semester was a pleasure. I’m not sure whether it’s because everyone just paid attention or because we had a strong group identity but it was an interesting lesson.

She and Harry Trice have both long since passed, but I think their perspective on organizational culture remains the best that I’ve read. Here are two lectures introducing the Trice and Beyer approach to ¬†understanding organizational culture.