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Organizational Culture Theory

Organizational Culture Theory "has become a major theoretical rallying point" (Mumby, 1988, p. 4). Pacanowsky and O'Donnell-Trujillo were instrumental in directing researchers' attention toward an expansive understanding of organizations. The theoretical principles of the theory emphasize that organizational life is complex and that researchers must take into consideration not only the members of the organization but their behaviors, activities, and stories.

The appeal of Organizational Culture Theory has been far and wide, resulting in a heuristic theory. For instance, it has framed research examining Muslim employees (Alkhazraji, 1997), law enforcement officers (Frewin & Tuffin, 1998), and pregnant employees (Halpert & Burg, 1997). Even more relevant to us in higher education, the theory has been used to study the stories of undergraduate students and their perceptions of "fitting in" at a college or university (Kramer & Berman, 2001). The approach is also useful because much of the information from the theory (e.g., symbols, stories, rituals) has direct relevance to many different types of organizations and their employees. Because the theorists' work is based on real organizations with real employees, the researchers have made the theory more useful and practical.

Finally, the logical consistency of the model should not go unnoticed. Recall that logical consistency refers to the notion that theories should follow a logical arrangement and remain consistent. From the outset, Pacanowsky and O'Donnell-Trujillo did not stray from their belief that the organization's culture is rich and diverse; listening to the communicative performances of organizational members is where we must begin in understanding corporate culture. This is the basis from which much of the theory gained momentum.

The appeal of the theory is tempered by its criticisms. First, Eric Eisenberg and H. L. Goodall (1993) observe that Organizational Culture Theory relies heavily on the shared meaning among organizational members. They comment that "most cultures show considerably more alignment in practice than they do in the attitudes, opinions, or beliefs of individual members" (p. 152). Second, Organizational Culture Theory suffers from expansive boundaries. For instance, cultural performances constitute a critical part of an organization's culture, and when you consider that performances may address almost any topic, the vastness (and potential vagueness) of the theory becomes apparent.

Finally, Organizational Culture Theory may view organizational life as too unique. Pacanowsky and O'Donnell-Trujillo argue that organizational cultures differ because the interactions within those cultures differ, so generalizing about life in organizations is nearly impossible. Consider Fran Callahan, for instance. Researchers using a symbolic-interpretive perspective in studying the organizational culture of Grace's Jewelers may also be interested in studying the corporate culture of Jewelry Plus. As our examples have shown, each is a unique organization with unique organizational environments. Because ethnography requires thick description of each, it may be difficult—if not impossible—to point out the similarities for generalization purposes. As Stephen Littlejohn (2002) argues, the theory presupposes that organizations must be studied independently, and in doing so, generalizing across organizations is difficult.

Pacanowsky (1989) responds to his critics by noting that the theory is more concerned with the unique values of an organization and not the "reproducibility of representation" (p. 253). In fact, early writings by Pacanowsky and O'Donnell-Trujillo were clear in noting that although there may be shortcomings in the perspective, the authors believe that the time is ripe to forge a new path in asking questions about organizations. They recognize that critics may be quick to judge the feasibility and effectiveness of their approach; yet the theory's value outweighs the criticisms.

Organizational Culture Theory, articulated by Pacanowsky and O'Donnell-Trujillo, will continue to elicit opinion in the communication discipline. It is a way of "rethinking communication" (Dervin, Grossberg, O'Keefe, & Wartella, 1989), and its value will continue to be realized by scholars of all methodological stripes. Perhaps looking at organizational culture in this way will enable researchers to appreciate the importance of connecting with the people and their performances in an organization.

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