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Corporate culture: the 'very life' of a business

A major company, which shall here remain nameless, was trying to involve its workers in a cost-cutting drive. Just as one of the meetings on that subject was letting out, an executive drove a new company Cadillac down the alley behind the building, scattering several employees.

No one was hurt, but the cost-cutting push was squashed. And, incidentally, one more chapter was added to the annals of modern corporate folklore.

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As Larry Greiner, a professor of management at the University of Southern California, explains that incident, it was not that the Cadillac, in itself, cost too much for the company. Rather, it was that the expensive car signaled to employees that upper management wasn't taking the drive seriously. So neither would they.

Symbols like that Cadillac tell a company's work force more about what really counts around the office than all the memos and meetings a manager can muster. Symbols, of course, are the stuff of folklore.

This is why some management analysts like Dr. Greiner are beginning to team up with experts in folklore and mythology. They recognize that the corporate environment is replete with symbols of authority and image, many of which can profoundly affect how an employee feels about his company. And American business generally is just starting to pay close attention to what some business people have always known: A company's team spirit is as important to productivity as are its policies, procedures, or efficiency measures.

Signs of this are evident in business literature, where investigating corporate cultures is currently in vogue. In addition, at least half the participants at a recent small conference at the Folklore and Mythology Center of the University of California at Los Angeles were from the business world.

Ceremonies, rituals, and folk stories are certainly not words that come readily to the tongues of most American executives. But managers who hope to build a sense of teamwork and community in their firms and to send out the right signals to motivate people may need to learn some new words.

''The manager in the next 10 to 15 years that's going to count is the one that knows how to manage the culture,'' says Daniel Smith, manager of human resource development at Southern California Edison.

Corporate culture is not found in the officially stated purposes and rules of a company, but it shows up in how employees feel about the company and their work, what they feel really counts around the plant or office, and how much their heart is in what they do.

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''This is the very life of the corporation,'' says Michael Owen Jones, a professor of history and folklore at UCLA and chairman of the recent conference.

An executive may have a standing invitation for anyone to come into his or her office to talk anytime. But does anyone ever really go in there?

The company president may be brilliant and efficient. But what kind of attitudes does he or she inspire among employees?

Does the company Christmas party really work to instill a sense of common purpose and good fellowship?

These are the kinds of questions a folklorist asks, and the kinds of things some managers are trying to understand. ''I think this is rumbling now in corporations,'' USC's Greiner says. This is particularly true among more thoughtful business executives, he adds.

Mr. Smith of Southern California Edison, for example, found an immediate use for folk stories. ''They are a great way to pass knowledge from older employees to new employees,'' he says.

So to pass the utility company's credo of ''The Edison Way,'' which is the principle of going all-out during emergencies, Smith plans to use videotapes of veteran workers telling informative war stories.

Smith estimates it will take from six to 10 years for the cultural approach to take visible effect on American management. ''Symbolic behavior is very subtle,'' UCLA's Dr. Jones observes. ''We don't have words to describe the great subtlety of symbolic behavior.''

''That's why analysts stayed away from it so long,'' says Burton Clark, a UCLA professor of higher education and a pioneer in studying the culture of organizations.

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