Organizational Culture and Business History: Michael Rowlinson, Stephen Procter

The concept of culture promised to make organization studies more historical and to provide theoretical relevance for business history. This promise has not been fulfilled. The conventions at various levels of organizational culture studies prevent them from becoming more historical, and the conventions of business history make it difficult to engage with the concept of culture. Corporate culturism imposes a narrative structure that privileges the role of founders in history. Similarly, corporate sponsorship reinforces the tendency for business historians to endorse the unity and continuity of corporate cultures. The influence of economics in business history reduces culture to a residual variable and subordinates narrative to economic models. Organizational symbolists are suspicious of narrative, which they associate with founder-centred corporate culturism. Instead, ethnographies emphasize verisimilitude and the subjective experience of the author at the expense of verifiable historical narratives. Business historians adopt an objective stance that allows them to write definitive company histories, but makes it difficult to engage with the subjectivism and relativism of organizational symbolism or the scepticism of post-modernism. Unlike organizational culture studies, post-modernism in history is identified with a return to narrative. A serious engagement with organizational culture studies might engender the much-needed critical reflex in business history. We use the rare examples of historical deconstruction in organizational culture studies (Boje 1995) and of deconstruction in business history (Church 1996) to highlight the differences between the two discourses. We argue that a more historical approach in organizational culture studies and a more reflexive engagement with the concept of culture in business history would facilitate the deconstruction of founder-centred narratives of corporate culture.