Organizational culture persistence versus change at IKEA. How it is expressed and experienced over time in a company with a cultural focus

Master's Thesis, 2017

89 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Background
1.2 Problem discussion
1.3 Research question
1.4 Purpose
1.5 Limitations
1.6 Delimitations
1.7 Outline

2. Theoretical framework
2.1 Paving the way for organizational culture studies
2.1.1 Organizations as cultures - sociological perspective
2.1.2 Culture management in organizations - managerial perspective
2.1.3 Culture management and normative control - critical perspective
2.2 Organizational culture concepts
2.3 Organizational culture and change

3. Methodology
3.1 Research site and research context
3.2 Research approach
3.2.1 Ontology
3.2.2 Epistemology
3.2.3 Abductive reasoning
3.3 Research design
3.3.1 Exploratory research design
3.3.2 Qualitative case study
3.4 Purposive Sampling
3.4.1 Accessibility
3.4.2 Sample size
3.5 Data collection methods
3.5.1 Organizational documents
3.5.2 Semi-structured interviews
3.5.3 Field-observations
3.5.4 Research ethics
3.6 Analysis method
3.7 Quality criteria
3.7.1 Trustworthiness
3.7.2 Authenticity

4. Empirical findings
4.1 IKEA culture and values - documents
4.1.1 IKEAs description of culture and values
4.1.2 Reinvigoration of IKEA values in 2017
4.2 IKEA culture - the forever parts
4.2.1 The core of IKEA values
4.2.2 Procedures to keep the culture alive
4.2.3 Value-based recruiting
4.3 Interpretation of IKEA values - expression of IKEA culture
4.4 Need for modification
4.5 Employee reactions to the reinvigoration of IKEA values

5. Discussion
5.1 Interpretation of culture
5.2 Modification of IKEA values: Cultural persistence or change?

6. Conclusion
6.1 Key findings
6.2 Research implications
6.3 Managerial implications

7. References

8. Appendix
8.1 Appendix -Methodology
8.2 Appendix - Empirical findings


Master thesis, Master of Science in Innovation through Business, Engineering and Design with specialization in Business Administration Field of research: Business Administration, School of Business & Economics University: Linnaeus University, Växjö, Sweden

Semester: Spring 2017 Author: Lena Bischoff

Title: Organizational culture persistence versus change

Subtitle: How organizational culture is expressed and experienced over time in a company with a cultural focus

Background: Organizational culture is one of the most prominent topics in academia and has gained its status due to the transferability from academia into managerial practice. Today, organizational culture has become an institutionalized topic and scholars call for a need to revive the topic (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). Inconsistency with organizational culture and organizational vision, external market pressure and a changing composition of the workforce ask to adapt organizational culture to current times.

Research question: How is organizational culture expressed and experienced over time in a company with a cultural focus?

Purpose: The purpose of this thesis is to describe how a multinational company with a strong focus on the management of culture and values re-interprets their core cultural values in the face of modernization and internationalization. At the same time, the preservation of the cultural core is investigated by looking at how culture is expressed at the case company.

Method: The research design of this study is a qualitative case study with the collection of empirical data through interviews, observations, and organizational documents. Abductive reasoning was employed to serve the exploratory layout of the study. A constructivist ontological and interpretivist epistemological position was taken. Quality criteria, relevant for qualitative research studies were considered.

Conclusion: The findings of my study show that organizational culture change and preservation ask for a differentiated point of view between promoted modification in cultural content such as formalized communication, and the degree of modification in cultural consensus, behavior and intensity of expression.

The data shows a dissonance between communicated and exhibited change, where behavior does not meet stage of textualized modification. The organizational culture at IKEA is characterized by stability and persistence. It is still expressed and experienced in the same way that it has been for many years despite attempts to reinvigorate it.

Keywords: organizational culture, organizational culture change, organizational culture preservation, assessing organizational culture, normative control

Table of abbreviations

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Table of Figures

Figure 2: The case company's organizational structure (Inter IKEA Systems B.V., 2016)

Figure 1: Decoding and arrangement of the collected data by themes

Table of Tables

Table 1: A selection of organizational culture definitions in academia

Table 2: The change of IKEA values and principles from 1976 to 2017

Table 3: Overview over collected organizational documents

Table 4: Interview guide

Table 5: Overview over interview log with fictional names assigned to interviewees

Table 6: Overview over field-observation occasions

Table 7: IKEA values. Ten key expressions summarizing our culture (Inter IKEA

Systems B.V., 2012)

Table 8: The reinvigorated IKEA key values as of 2017 (Inter IKEA Systems B.V. , 1999

-2017), (Kang, 2017)

Table 9: IKEA culture and value symbols (Inter IKEA Systems B.V., 2012)

Table of Charts

Chart 1: Values change in ranking position from 1976 to 2017


This study focused on the field of organizational value management and culture cultivation at IKEA. More precisely, the issue of preserving organizational culture while modifying it.

In the background, the rise of organizational culture from the perspective of sociological and managerial studies as well as its surrounding controversy from a critical perspective is introduced. The problematization depicts organizational culture change today. The problem discussion transits to the research question and purpose. Next, limitations and delimitations to meet the scope of my work are portrayed. Finally, the chapter concludes with an outline of this research study.


78% of fortune 1.000 CEOs and CFOs view culture as one of the top three factors affecting their firm’s value (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). Organizational culture is one of the most prominent topics in academia and has gained its status due to the transferability from academia into managerial practice. Between the early 1980’s and until late 1990’s organizational culture has been widely researched from many different and disagreeing points of view. Today, organizational culture has become an institutionalized topic and scholars call for a need to revive the topic (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016).

Inconsistency with organizational culture and organizational vision, external market pressure and a changing composition of the workforce call for a need to adapt organizational culture to current times.

Were organizational culture previously served as differentiator, motivator, and performance booster, it gained another function recently. The influx of a well-educated, young generation into the workforce led to shifts in the composition of corporate personnel (Woods, 2016). With the baby boomers, as largest proportion among employees, retiring, this new generation of employees will soon replace them as largest group by 2020 (PricewaterhouseCoopers International Limited, 2011). Today’s workforce spreads across the minimum of three generations (Becton, et al., 2014) with very different value-bases (Schullery, 2013). Organizational culture provides an opportunity to unite all three generations under one common roof and bridge tensions (Chatman, et al., 1998; Carpenter & Charon, 2014). At the same time, there is a risk for cultural dilution with new joiners replacing people who built the present organizational culture (Alvesson, 2013).

Another aspect that calls for raised awareness for organizational culture studies is the need for companies to react to external market forces on top of demographic shifts and changing employee demands. Most organizations that face organizational culture adaptions where founded as small business and grew to a much larger size and global scale over time. The original goals of when those companies were founded are no longer valid, with business operations beyond the initial scope. (Denison, et al., 2012). Global companies are faced with the difficulty of opening organizational culture that was once developed on a small scale, to new, international markets. Former ideas, beliefs and values become problematic in this changed setting (Alvesson, 2013). At the same companies have to find a solution to preserving the already established organizational culture while modernizing it to the newfound operating conditions. Research shows that there is a high failure rate of organizational culture change programs and that a controversy exist whether organizational culture is changeable or not (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016).


Organizational culture management gained enough weight and interest to stay on the map of organization management researchers with no prospect to disappear from the map soon (Willmott, 1993). Even though there was a period at the end of the 1990s, where the topic of organizational culture was viewed as a natural part in organizational practice, that researchers lost interest for it (Alvesson, 2013), it gained new momentum through the critical perspective on organizational culture. Chatman and O’Reilly (2016) believe that this interest has not vanished until today, giving the example of consultancies offering methods to establish and maintain unique organizational cultures. According to them, organizational culture is of significant importance to understand how organizations function. Besides, the research insights the topic of organizational culture offers the possibility of translation into managerial practice like no other (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016).

“Strong” culture has proven to enhance employee motivation and commitment, innovation, performance and brand perception (Moynihan & Pandey, 2007), (Sorensen, 2002), (Schein, 1996). Consequently, many companies created, cultivated, and embraced their signature culture since the boom of organizational culture in management studies in the 1980’s. Even companies that did not set a direction for their company culture often organically formed an unwritten culture (Schein, 2016).

However, exhibiting a company culture does not mean it is immutable. There is a necessity for organizational cultures to adapt to changes in company strategies and goals to keep the culture modern and alive (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). This is especially true for companies where company culture is part of the business model or a culture established by the (no longer active) founder (Schein, 1983). Nonetheless, once a company culture is formed, it is difficult to change it (Schneider, et al., 2013).

Yet, organizational culture is shaped by the interaction of employees inside the organization (Schein, 2016), it is not a fall-out from working procedures. The efforts put into maintaining and keeping a company culture alive are usually not rewarded or recognized and hence fall by the wayside in business operations (Kerr & Slocum, 1987).

The question whether organizational culture is aligned with the organizational strategy is another aspect worth investigating (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). An example for the discrepancy between organizational culture and strategy is e.g. an organizational strategy where the customer is part of the mission statement, but in the majority of leadership meetings, no time is spent on discussing the customer’s needs.

To avoid the discrepancy between a thoroughly designed concept and its application in practice, business leaders are called to take responsibility and adjust organizational culture to the circumstances it is lived in (Canato, et al., 2013). Organizational culture is highly influenced by the most powerful social groups within an organization. Hence, the possibility to change the way of decision-making, work operations, prioritizing, and interaction with colleagues, suppliers, and customers depends on examples by role models (Chatman & Cha, 2003). The shared norms that characterize organizational culture, act as social control system to form employees way of thinking and behavior (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016).

As Chatman and O’Reilly (2016) point out, there is a need to explore how companies nurture, maintain, and manage culture and to understand what the main enablers and obstacles are to transform organizational culture by conceptualizing and assessing organizational culture. Dauber (2012) agrees that the compared novelty of organizational culture as research field shows in the lack of observations of organizational culture change overtime by including existing empirical findings from other perspectives. Chatman and O’Reilly (2016) further agree that the investigation of person-organization fit and culture transmission are important topics, which have not had enough attention in research.

The lack of studies on organizational culture management over time, on changes and adaptions of organizational culture, and on the reasoning about these changes points to a gap in the literature that this thesis aims to address.

Moreover, the theoretical interest and aim go along with the goal to provide feasible managerial implications on how to address organizational culture change through exploring the reinterpretation of organizational values. This study will contribute to a better understanding of how cultural modifications take place, of how actors reason about these changes, and of how these modifications might play out in the organization.


How is organizational culture expressed and experienced over time in a company with a cultural focus?


The purpose of this thesis is to describe how a multinational company with a strong focus on the management of culture and values re-interprets their core cultural values in the face of modernization and internationalization. At the same time, the preservation of the cultural core is investigated by looking at how culture is expressed at the case company. To proceed with the purpose of this thesis, I present a qualitative case study at IKEA and discuss how IKEA handles the challenges of keeping core cultural values over time.

By studying the expression of organizational culture and the experience of cultural change, literature will be advanced from the angle of how organizational culture is maintained and adapted over time.


The insights gathered in this study reflect the research depth possible under a time constraint of five month. The time restrictions did e.g. not allow for a time series with comparisons pre-change and post-change phase or implementation scenarios. Research findings and managerial implications drawn from the gathered insights are applicable for the specific situation the case company was in during the research period.

Furthermore did the researcher’s position influence the outcome of this study. Due to the researcher’s employment at IKEA while conducting the study, findings might be biased by the researcher’s preformed opinions and interviewees relationship as colleagues.


Since this study is a single-case case study, findings are specific to the observed case company and cannot be generalized outside the examined context.

Moreover, no country specific culture traits were considered in this study. The impact of local culture on a global organizational culture might lead to different research findings than this study represents.


Chapter 1 Introduction: The introductory chapter describes the research topic; organizational culture, leading into the problem discussion about factors provoking organizational culture change. At the end of the chapter, the research question as well as the initial purpose of the thesis is provided. The chapter closes with de- and limitations.

Chapter 2 Theoretical framework: This chapter consists of the theories relevant to this study. The chapter starts with a background summary of how organizational culture gained its stance in academia, including the perspectives of sociological-, managerial- and critical management studies. Afterwards organizational culture concepts are displayed. The chapter ends with a review of organizational culture change approaches.

Chapter 3 Methodology: This chapter elaborates the applied research methodology and the study’s conduction in a single case study design. A qualitative research approach was applied, collecting data through face-to-face interviews, observations, and organizational documents. This study followed a constructivist epistemological position with interpretivist traits linked to the theoretical perspective and abductive reasoning to answer the research question. Quality measures applicable to qualitative research are elaborated. Besides clarifying the methodological approach, the chapter includes a description of the case company and research situation as well as reasoning for measures to ensure ethical conduct.

Chapter 4 Empirical Findings: This chapter depicts the perspectives, information and data gathered from the empirical investigation in this case study. The chapter opens with the organizational perspective, summarizing organizational documents relevant for the research. Then interviews and observation are summarized by two categories: The data linked to organizational culture constants (forever parts) and the data linked to organizational culture fluids and the recent value modification.

Chapter 5 Discussion: The chapter consists of interpreting the previously described empirical findings in relation to the theoretical framework, categorized themes and interrelations among the collected data.

Chapter 6 Conclusion:

This chapter discusses the key findings revealed in the previous chapter, putting them into a broader context. Finally, managerial implications and suggestions for further research are put forward.

References: All citations in this study are referred to by the Harvard referencing system, which can be found in the reference list at the end of the thesis.

This chapter entails the conceptual framework and relevant theories employed in this study. It begins with the sociological, historical background and emergence of organizational culture in popular- and academic literature. Then critical management studies in form of normative control are introduced. The chapter closes with organizational culture definitions an organizational culture change concepts.


In the 1980’s, organizational- or corporate culture emerged as a dominating theme within management studies and organizational research (Willmott, 1993; Alvesson & Willmott, 2002, Alvesson 2013). Even though, the topic of systematic culture management was approached as early as the 1930’s by Barnard (1938) and 1950’s by Selznick (1957), it remained scattered (Alvesson, 2013). The dominant view of organizational culture by anthropologists until the 1980s was the understanding of organizational culture as social system (Allaire & Firsirotu, 1984). Then, in the 1980s, an early approach by sociological scholars was to describe and understand organizational culture in the sense of an organically developed culture environment. At the same time, a more popular take emerged that saw culture as something more functionalist: culture, some authors, and consultants suggested, can be designed, managed, and changed. Nevertheless, this emerging, managerialist concept of culture management was soon criticized by scholars in Critical Management Studies (CMS) who pointed out that culture management is closely connected to normative control - a form of control that works through targeting employees feelings and value systems (Alvesson & Willmott, 1992). In this section, I go through these three perspectives on organizational culture management (sociological, managerial, critical) and then discuss important concepts around organizational culture.

2.1.1 Organizations as cultures - sociological perspective

Despite the lack of agreement on a general theory (Denison, et al., 2004), it is generally accepted that two leading perspectives exist in organizational culture theory: 1. Culture as social system, culture is something an organization is (Smircich, 1983), 2. Culture as conceptual, ideational system, culture is something an organization has (Smicich, 1983; Allaire & Firsirotu, 1984; Schneider, et al., 2013). Denison (1996) comes to a similar conclusion of two leading takes, one that describes culture as a mental phenomenon and the other of culture as a development from a social system.

The perspective of culture as a root metaphor or organizations and organizing tries to investigate what it means for individuals to be part of an organization and how the culture is indorsed (Schneider, et al., 2013). Organizational culture develops evolutionary and organic, where a common organizational culture is driven by underlying assumptions and beliefs (Smircich, 1983). This type of organizational culture cannot be steered consciously and can be viewed as “evolved culture”. To decipher this approach of organizational culture, symbols, rites, and myths are used to explain the phenomenon.

According to Chatman and O’Reilly (2016) and Denison et al. (2014) a broadly acknowledged theoretical framework is Schein’s (2016) concept that organizational culture consists of three layers: 1. Underlying assumptions and beliefs, 2. Norms and values about right behavior and attitudes, 3. Artifacts such as symbols and language mirroring the norms and values. Albeit the acceptance of Schein’s framework, it has not been converted into a consistent, validated framework (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). The three levels of culture can be assessed from visible parts on the surface, to deeply rooted assumptions. The model links the culture concept to organizational characteristics (Denison, 1996). For the purpose of this study this chapter will lean on this generally accepted concept proposed by Schein and not go into further detail of other organizational culture models by other scholars even though I am aware that Schein’s model is not exhaustive.

Artifacts are the visible elements of a culture that can be evaluated by the outside. They are often physical or visual objects. However, their true meaning is only accessible to members inside an organization (Schneider, et al., 2013) who can interpret their meaning. Artefactual expressions are e.g. rituals, language, symbols, logo, stories, myths, ceremonies (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016).

Norms and values reflect the processes of how an organization should function (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016). They are on the one hand communicated through business leaders and on the other hand lived by organizational members (Schein, 2016). Communicated and lived norms and values can be congruent or dissonant. If a discrepancy exists, then formalized value statements are idealistic and conceal the reality of organizational culture within an organization (Schneider, et al., 2013).

Underlying assumptions are the invisible basis for how organizational members behave and think. They become a mental, unconscious framework where they are taken for granted by organizational members when reinforced continuously (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016). According to Schein (2010) artifacts as well as norms and values cannot be understood without investigating underlying assumptions that are commonly agreed across organizational members. This is the most difficult part of deciphering organizational culture, as underlying assumptions expressed through behavior cannot always be exclusively linked to values and require interpretation.

Despite the disagreement of a culture definition, how to research culture and the controversies of the impact of culture, commonalities have been found across academic literature for organizational culture attributes, developed from societal culture concepts such as Schein’s in 1985 and Hatch’s (1993). Due to the vast variety in organizational culture concepts in literature, I build on the commonalities and models that had the high level of agreement. Schneider et al. (2013, p. 131) summarize these attributes as follows:

- Organizational culture is shared
- Organizational culture is stable
- Organizational culture has depth
- Organizational culture is symbolic, expressive and subjective
- Organizational culture is grounded in history and tradition
- Organizational culture is transmitted to new members
- Organizational culture provides order and rules to organizational existence
- Organizational culture has breadth
- Organizational culture is a source of collective identity and commitment
- Organizational culture is unique.

2.1.2 Culture management in organizations - managerial perspective

The topic of organizational culture gained tremendous popularity in the 1980’s, which Alvesson (2013) describes as “corporate-culture boom”. The interest in organizational culture was driven by the economic success of Japanese corporations at that period of time (Ohmae, 1982; Abegglen & Stalk, 1985; Cole, 1980). The economic strength of Japanese corporations raised researchers and managers curiosity to understand Japanese managerial practices better (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). Cultural features within Japanese organizations and their inclusion in daily routines were observed as source of the organizations competitive advantage (Alvesson, 1990). Employee behavior was recognized and rewarded when it reflected the values designed by the organization. Hence, organizational culture was directly ascribed to enhanced organizational performance, stronger employee commitment, as well as optimization in productivity and quality (Wilkins & Ouchi, 1983; Cameron & Quinn, 2005). Consequently, “organizational culture” was attributed with performance acceleration (Lim, 1995) and researchers tried to find similar patterns outside of Japan.

Corporate culture characteristics that Peters and Waterman (1982)described as part of successful US companies, led to the belief of organizational culture being a key performance driver. These findings served as evidence to explain that the observations made at Japanese companies were not individual cases or because of Japanese national culture, nor the determination of a company’s success by external factors as proposed by Porter in 1985 (Porter, 2008). Instead of drawing on mere market forces to explain success, organizational culture was now considered as the real underlying mechanism to sustained company performance (Cameron & Quinn, 2005) and competitive advantage (Wilkins & Ouchi, 1983).

The idea of corporate culture as a manageable source of corporate success stimulated great interest for the topic by both academics and practitioners including consultants writing about organizational culture and advising managers how to develop an organizational culture that would benefit their organization (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). Business Week (1980) published a cover story “Corporate culture: the hard-to-change values that spell success or failure” and Peters and Waterman issued one of the most popular books of the time (Schneider, et al., 2013), their management guide “In search of Excellence” (Peters & Waterman, 1982). Peters and Waterman’s book became one of the most influential business books, with more than 3 million copies sold in four years (Patrick McClain OCLC Research, 1997).

In their book, Peters and Waterman (1982) describe US companies with strong organizational cultures that distinguish themselves from their peers by increased performance. Eight traits were identified at these companies with “excellent” performance: 1. A bias to action through active decision making, 2. Learning from the customer by being close, 3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship, 4. Productivity through people, 5. Hands-on, value driven management, 6. “stay with what you know”, 7. Lean staff, 8. Autonomy and centralization. According to Peters and Waterman (1982), the creation of a shared, value-based organizational culture would lead to a snowball effect inside organization where top managers serve as role models and transmit cultural values to their subordinates, which then would lead to higher commitment and productivity.

In cooperation with Peters and Waterman, Mc Kinsey then developed the widely known and still used 7-S model: strategy, structure, systems, staff, style, skills, and superordinate goals (Schneider, et al., 2013). Out of the seven characteristics, four with the biggest difference between American and Japanese companies were classified as success drivers: Staff, style, skill, and superordinate goals. Schneider et al. (2013) consider these dimensions as “soft” drivers. Peters and Waterman’s belief that a company’s success is built on the reinforcement of a unified culture through formal and informal measures by business leaders, made organizational culture a “hot topic” of the time.

While Peters and Waterman sparked an enthusiasm for organizational culture another publication by Harvard professor Deal and McKinsey consultant Kennedy “Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life” added fuel to the fire in 1982. Hopkins and Richman (1999, p. 107) claim that “[Dean and Kennedy] popularized a phrase and legitimized an idea that has since been used and abused by a generation of company builders and managers.” describe as “culture wars”. Even though, the idea of organizational culture was not new, Deal and Kennedy (2000) suggested practices on how to evaluate culture in companies, understand their creation and the interrelation of culture and business success. A red thread through both publications is the emphasis on creating organizational culture by sharing values through all organizational levels, managed by organizational leaders (Schneider, et al., 2013).

The idea of creating and emphasizing organizational culture was enthusiastically endorsed by practitioners (Willmott, 1993). Numerous books and guides with managerial implications on organizational culture were published, leading to involuntary consequences for the academic field of organizational culture studies (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). The observation made by Peters and Waterman paired with the success of Deal and Kennedy’s book, caused a rethinking of management practices towards “softer” business drivers (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016) “[...] and spawned an industry of “culture consultants”.” (Hopkins & Richman, 1999, p. 107). Organizational culture as universal-remedy for organizational problems was a popular belief at that time, supported by the popular take on the topic by managers and consultants, who saw a lucrative, financial source in the topic (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016).

This perspective views organizational culture as variable, which influences and is being influenced by external factors, such as technology, company size, work organization and industry and internal processes. By understanding these causal relationships between organizational culture and success, advocates of culture management suggest, it becomes possible to increase efficiency and productivity of an organization (Alvesson, 2013). In this perspective, organizational culture comes to its existences through its conceptualization, management, and reinforcement by internal, organizational drivers and is therefore a “created culture”. As popular authors such as Peters and Waterman proclaimed, this approach agrees that culture can help increase employee commitment through repeatedly communicating organizational values. The emphasis on organizational values will eventually lead to the desired employee behavior, which helps the organization to accelerate its performance (O'Reilly & Chatman, 1996).

Therefore, while advisors and business leaders celebrated the insights and applicability of organizational culture, a counter movement emerged among researchers. Academic researchers started to look for patterns and reasons that would objectively confirm or reject the jubilant voices of popular authors with research findings. Academia was uncertain “[...] what culture was and what it represented - and even whether it was appropriate to try to link organizational culture with the financial success of corporations.” (Schneider, et al., 2013, p. 369). The methods to evaluate and create culture, developed as management tools by quasi-academics lacked the rigor and thoroughness of academic research (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016).

Academia was polarized between the positions of idolizing organizational culture and scholars who doubted organizational culture as savior (Willmott, 1993). The academic interest was similar to the popular attention for organizational culture. The relevance of the topic for businesses encouraged academics to look into applicable research, which would solve managerial problems (Schneider, et al., 2013). Another interest for researchers emerged from the possibility to connect organizational behavior and strategic management through culture management (Alvesson, 2013) or the applicability of qualitative research methods on the topic rather than quantitative (Trice & Beyer, 1995). Chatman and O’Reilly (2016) heavily criticize the shortage of advancing academic theories and methods in organizational culture studies in preference for supporting managers at that time. They identify this lack of academic progress as main root cause for the fractioned definition of organizational culture that exists today. Besides, the delayed research grasp on organizational culture, scholars debated how organizational culture should be studied, leading to the “culture wars” (Martin & Frost, 2011). Three main controversies arose: 1. Culture as an overarching concept versus the presences of subcultures and cultural ambiguity, 2. Qualitative versus quantitative research methods to investigate organizational culture, 3. Organizational culture versus organizational climate (Chatman & O’Reilly, 2016; Schneider, et al., 2013).

2.1.3 Culture management and normative control - critical perspective

With the beginning of the mid-1990s a new view on organizational culture emerged, which was now more critical than before. Researchers in Critical Management Studies (CMS), which aims to critically reflect upon popular management trends, started to raise their concerns about the manipulative force a crafted organizational culture can impose on employees (Tapia, 2004).

The roots of this observation came from the organizational premise of being, which is to structure and coordinate processes and large number of codependent employees (Kärreman & Alvesson, 2004). For organizations to manage this assignment, it is necessary to execute control over the members within the organizational system through e.g. feedback, goal setting and performance measurements (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). To impose the control, formalized parameters and activities such as financial key performance indicators (KPI) exist in organizations. By comparing deviations in performance indicators against each other, actions can be taken or incentives created to ensure the members compliance with organizational goals. However, these control systems have limitations, especially in their motivational effect. (O'Reilly & Chatman, 1996). Therefore, the critical view of organizational culture management raised concerns about culture management as a form of normative control by imposing control over an organizational system through social pressure, operated through norms, social beliefs and “right” behavior (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016). This system of control affects employees’ behavior indirectly (Kärreman & Alvesson, 2004). The legitimized systematic of a control system that regulates the unconscious state of an employee became a new take on the subject of organizational culture (Willmott, 1993). With the change towards a more critical perspective, organizational culture was no longer approached from a performance improvement perspective only, but also from the relation of normative control with organizational culture (Kärreman & Alvesson, 2004).

Organizational culture and normative control are closely interlinked (Müller 2016, Willmott 1993, Kunda 1992). Alvesson and Willmott (2002) define normative control as “the different means of pursuing control in work organizations through the regulation of identity.” (Alvesson & Willmott, 2002, p. 622). It is described as the strong identification of an individual with organizational goals and a congruent value base with the organization (Alvesson & Willmott, 2002) “[...] by controlling [the individual’s] underlying experiences, thoughts and feelings that guide their actions.” (Kunda, 2009, p. 11). Social control through organizational culture is demonstrated as norms by which employees are coordinated (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). Willmott (1993) comes to the conclusion that normative control through organizational culture aims at winning “[...] the ‘hearts and minds’ of employees: to define their purposes by managing what they think and feel, and not just how they behave.” (Willmott, 1993, p. 516). Kärreman and Alvesson (2004) talk about persuading employees to adapt to values and norms and the comprehension of what is acceptable and non-actable in the organizational context.

To manage employees through normative control, the function of social approval or disapproval to conform to anticipated behavior needs to be understood. Humans try to comply with accepted social norms to avoid group rejection and fit in. (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). Normative control works through superordinates as well as through peers and “the faceless mass” (Kunda, 2009). The “faceless mass” is the reflection of accepted social norms and attitudes within an organization by which individuals are judged and self-discipline themselves (Willmott, 1993).

This psychological contract (Armstrong, 2000) between employee and organization is built on the emotional bond an employer can evoke and the degree of identification of the employee with the organization (Kärreman & Alvesson, 2004). Willmott (1993) sees this as one of the main critical issues in organizational culture: The exploitation and disciplining of employees most human needs and fears in favor of social control. However, it needs to be kept in mind that the employee considers the compliance with organizational values as prestigious and desirable (Kärreman & Alvesson, 2004). The identification of the individual with the organization reduces the ambiguity between the individual’s norms and the organizational norms.

Alvesson and Kärreman (2004) claim that the social control is based on the involvement and conviction of key players within an organization such as the top management, but also peers who belong to the most powerful social groups within an organization. The interpreted meanings by top management become widely accepted in the organization to the point where actions of employees are guided by these definitions. To challenge or reject these definitions becomes like a crime against the (organizational culture) establishment (Willmott, 1993). It is characteristic for normative control is that employees are allowed to think and challenge the organizational culture set-up, as long as it does not violate the construct (Willmott, 1993). A corner stone to prevent negative manifestations in the system of normative control is the strict formalization of feedback to avoid the exhibition of negativity (Kärreman & Alvesson, 2004). Employees are encouraged to give feedback, which gives the impressions of openness and tolerance. However, self-discipline and social pressure lead to the circumvention of becoming singled out as traitor of organizational values.

According to Czaplewski et al. (2001) the selection of recruiting employees is the key element to shape harmonious groups that are the basis of a unifying organizational culture. Organizations should focus on the right fit and attitude of a candidate rather than their skills (Czaplewski, et al., 2001). Attitudes are difficult to change, while a skill can be learned. With the right attitude, employees will be immersed in the logic of an organization through its cultural set-up (Willmott, 1993). There is evidence that personorganization fit lead to a positive effect in value-congruence. (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016). However, a recruiting approach that aims at selecting “the right fit”, cannot avoid employing personnel with calculative compliance. Calculative compliance is the compliance on the surface through behavior and actions, but antipathy in the mental state (Fleming & Sewell, 2002). Employees with calculative compliance will follow the organizational culture structures as long as they benefit from the displayed consent. (Willmott, 1993). Resistance to normative control has been observed in literature in several forms such as calculative compliance, but also cynical distancing (Fleming & Spicer, 2003).

Fleming and Sturdy (2011) take normative control in an organizational context one-step further and look at the inclusion of the individual’s life into normative control mechanisms. This form of extended organizational control is called neo-normative control and puts “being yourself” as an individual within the organizational context in the foreground. According to Willmott (1993), the impression of respect for the individual is created through recognizing the skill and contribution of each individual and by establishing core values. Fleming and Sturdy (2011) however add to the emphasis on individualism, that external pressure asks for diversity and inclusion, which is reflected in the position of normative control of “being yourself’. Employees are not asked to adapt to a homogenous group, but contribute to diversity with their own self. This extension of normative control resonates with the contemporary understanding of the induvial asking “what is in it for me?” and the expression of increased individualism.


As mentioned earlier, organizational culture is one of the main themes in academic literature and managerial practice (Alvesson, 2013). The big interest in organizational culture led to the emergences of different theories/frameworks, concepts and models, all trying to explain the impact of culture and its relevance (Dauber, et al., 2012). The growth of the field has led to numerous research investigations, developed concepts and practical implications (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016). Culture is an abstract term, which is difficult to define as Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) illustrated with their assortment of 164 culture definitions. The disagreement of scholars on an organizational culture definition is further portrayed by Verbeke et al. (1998) who found 54 definitions for organizational culture and Denison et al. (2014) agreeing that there is no shared definition of the term.

Even though, organizational culture has been extensively researched, no unified method has been established to understand organizational culture, its psychological foundation, and its influence on employees and organizations (Schneider, et al., 2013). “While there have been voluminous studies on the subject, it is difficult to see what with any clarity what we really understand about culture.” (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016, p. 202). Contrary to the popular belief, researchers have not been able to reliably link organizational culture to firm performance (O'Reilly, et al., 2014). Alvesson and Berg (1992, p. 182), agree that “[...] there is little evidence today that anyone has had any real success in applying the culture concept at a practical level.”

The lack of an agreed definition of organizational culture amongst scholars is reflected in table 1, which represents the definitions according to the differentiation among sociological, managerial and critical perspective on organizational culture.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

“[...] a system of shared values (that define what is important) and norms hat define the appropriate attitudes and behaviors for organizational members (how to feel and behave).”

“[Culture is a] mental phenomena such as how individuals within a particular group think about and value their reality [...]. Culture refers to what stands behind and guides behavior rather than the behavior as such.”

Table 1: A selection of organizational culture definitions in academia Summarizing the definitions from table 1, organizational culture is exhibited through observable behavior such as symbols, rituals, and stories, shared with other organizational members. However, these exhibitions are triggered by underlying values and beliefs of an individual, which can be interpreted or manipulated.


As there are different approaches to organizational culture, the view of scholars also varies when it comes to organizational culture change (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016). Alvesson and Sveningsson (2016) identified roughly three directions that exist for organizational change in academic literature: 1. Organizational culture can be changed by the reinforcement of the top management, 2. Organizational culture is difficult to change due to the lack of influence on deeply rooted beliefs by the management, 3. Organizational culture is uncontrollable.

Most scholars are hesitant and see little chance in changing organizational culture in large organizations (Brown & Humphreys, 2003; Ogbonna & Wilkinson, 2003). Siehl (1985) found that the efforts to change cultural values had little visible effect, except for the manifestation of values. The issue with organizational culture change is that the values and beliefs of organizational members are not directly visible, but linked to behavior and actions, which require interpretation. These behaviors cannot always be solely linked to organizational change mechanisms. Alvesson and Sveningsson (2016) remark, that it is more common to observe the impact of organizational change on exhibited practices rather than underlying values. Often the change in practice is triggered by structural organizational changes that go hand-in-hand with an organizational culture modification (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016).

Most organizations that face organizational culture adaptions once started as small enterprises and grew over time, transforming into larger organizations with goals and operations beyond their original agenda (Denison, et al., 2012). Reasons that make an organizational change appear necessary or unavoidable might not always come from within or from the desire to change direction, but often from external factors influencing the organization. For example, the rate of technological advancement, according to Cameron and Quinn (2005), makes constant change an imperative When an organization changes its strategy, business direction or vision, organizational culture needs to be adapted to avoid a discrepancy between vision and customs (Chatman & O'Reilly, 2016).

The managerialist literature on culture management is typically interested in intentional and systematic change of organizational culture by the top management, as it is based on the assumption that culture can be created, discarded, and changed. Schein (2016) puts the role of the founder as stabilizing force for organizational culture forward. As long as the founder is present, changing organizational culture is considered offensive (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016). However, when the founder is no longer present and the organization moves towards a second-generation leadership, its culture will change with the new leaders who have the power to replace it with an organizational culture that fits with the e.g. current economic or technological reality (Schein, 2016).

Usually, change initiatives are launched by the management in a top-down approach, in which the management acts as change agent (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016). As a consequence, it has been observed that newly communicated organizational values are reinterpreted differently by managers who then transmit them to subordinates (Ogbonna & Harris, 1998). The variation in interpreting new values leads to cultural fractionalization rather than unity. When managers favor certain values, they will promote and emphasize these more and serve as an effective role model to transmit values (Hofstede, 1993).

In response to an ever-changing environment, Holbeche (2015) proposes to establish an agile culture, which will adapt and flow with change surrounding the organization and be constantly on the move. Regular audits and monitoring of organizational culture makes it possible to carry out changes when necessary (Boyd & Sutherland, 2006). Boyd and Sutherland (2006) further propose that employees will only accept constant change, when they understand the bigger picture of the organizational culture change, which can be reached through training and development concepts, which encourage a sense of belonging and personal responsibility.

It has been observed by scholars that reactions to cultural change are mixed, with the majority accepting the new meanings, but some remaining skeptical and steered by the social pressure of complying with the organization (Willmott, 1993). Martin (2002) explains this cultural ambiguity by investigating the fluctuation and inconsistency of organizational patterns. Ogbonna and Wilkinson (2003) raise doubt that commitment to organizational culture change is done out of true belief, rather than the employees desire for compliance.

Therefore, it becomes difficult to steer cultural change initiatives and avoid unintended outcomes. According to Alvesson and Sveningsson (2016), the expectations on organizational change to transform the culture of an organization from one situation to another is unrealistic. Especially considering the complexity of organizations and the “trickledown effect” which leads to misinterpretations as described by Ogbonna and Harris (1998). Research also shows that a high degree of perseverance exists when it comes to the continuity of organizational culture (Alvesson & Thompson, 2005). Alvesson (2013) calls for a step-wise approach that resembles cultural maintenance rather than change with a selective recruiting strategy of “when in doubt, don’t employ” in place (Alvesson, 2013, p. 185). Besides, the broad-brush approach to change organizational culture assumes that an organization is homogenous, which has been disproved by scholars and hence often underestimated (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2016).


Excerpt out of 89 pages


Organizational culture persistence versus change at IKEA. How it is expressed and experienced over time in a company with a cultural focus
Linneaus University
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
organizational, ikea
Quote paper
Anna Lena Bischoff (Author), 2017, Organizational culture persistence versus change at IKEA. How it is expressed and experienced over time in a company with a cultural focus, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: Organizational culture persistence versus change at IKEA. How it is expressed and experienced over time in a company with a cultural focus

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free