by Edward Prewitt

Why Corporate Change Is So Difficult

Mar 01, 20042 mins
IT Leadership

The notion of corporate culture has become so widely accepted over the past two decades that it’s hard to remember how innovative the concept seemed when introduced to the popular business press by the 1982 book In Search of Excellence. It’s a rare company since then that hasn’t been subjected to multiple efforts to change its culture.

If corporate culture were easily modified, then management consultants and authors would be in much less demand, notes John Weeks, an assistant professor at the Insead business school campus in France. In a recently published book, Unpopular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2004), Weeks applies his background in organizational behavior to a study of culture at a large British bank, National Westminster. He concludes that corporate culture is more complex than has been previously understood because it descends from the broader social culture.

The book’s title refers to the culture of complaint that exists at NatWest, where no one?from the CEO down to the most junior clerks?has anything nice to say about his employer. This good-natured carping is entirely representative of British culture, observes Weeks. Changing this feature of NatWest’s organizational culture, or most anything else significant about the way NatWest employees work, is therefore not easily done. It means taking on deeply ingrained values, customs and preferences.

But the incessant complaining is more than a byproduct; it’s a mechanism by which NatWest employees both cope with and resist change. Through such seemingly insignificant acts as joking about “not another change program,” employees at all levels soften the blow of organizational change and even arrive at an unspoken agreement about their willingness to accommodate change.

It may come as little surprise to CIOs that IT is the subject of many complaints at NatWest. In a paper derived from the same study, Weeks argues that IT’s great potential to change work methods and dislocate employees makes it the focus of attention. The ways in which workers deal with IT-mediated change, as with other forms of organizational change, can be subtle and hard to observe.

Weeks’s findings about corporate culture extend far beyond British banks. Organizations can have strong or weak cultures, he says, and the character of corporate culture can be positive or negative. However these attributes came into being, they’re hard to alter once in place. Now there’s a topic for complaint.