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The Cultural Context of Organizations

by Shain David
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The Cultural Context of Organizations

All three of these facets of culture are important to an organization’s shape and functioning.

The economic aspect of the cultural environment embraces such issues as how work is done, to whom the fruits of labor belong, and the relationship of the government to economic entities. In addition to demands for radical political changes, the upheaval that began in late 1989 in Eastern Europe included a kernel of economic revolution as well, as citizens of these formerly rigid communist countries campaigned, not just for democratic rights, but also for a market economy. Although the situation is much too volatile to permit predictions of what will occur, it is likely that organizations in Eastern Europe-or Western organizations attempting to enter these new markets-will have to adapt to new environmental conditions.

The social facet of culture embraces a range of fundamental influences on organizational life.

Norms for human interaction, control, the value placed on material versus spiritual life, the way language is used to express ideas and relationships, and the symbols that resonate in the minds of people in the culture, all are manifested in various ways-obvious or hidden-in the organizations formed within that culture. Thus the value placed in Japan on community and teamwork has found expression in such features of Japanese business as lifetime employment and work teams. And the opening of the first McDonald’s in Moscow in 1990 revealed a fascinating glimpse of differences in social culture. Managers found that they had to teach the Russian patrons to form multiple lines for service; standing in just one line was habitual for Muscovites accustomed to stores barren of goods.

The political facet of culture is the relationship of individuals to the state and includes legal and political arrangements for maintaining social order. Political institutions take a variety of forms, as do the assumptions underlying them. Management’s role in an organization is shaped by the form government takes. Government places constraints on certain industries in the United States-utilities, for instance, are heavily regulated by government agencies. The political form determines such things as the rights of individuals and organizations to hold property or engage in contracts and the availability of appeal mechanisms to redress grievances as well.

To understand the differences between domestic and international management, it is necessary to understand the major ways that cultures vary. Anthropologists see culture as patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinct achievement of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of future action.

Culture is shared by most if not all members of a group, it is passed from older to younger members, and it shapes behavior and structures one’s perception of the world.

Six basic dimensions, each answering a fundamental question, describe the cultural orientation of a society:

1. Who am I? Or how do I see myself? This is the good-evil dimension.
2. How do I see the world? Am I dominant over my environment, in harmony with it, or subjugated by it?
3. How do I relate to other people? Am I an individualist? Do I come from a group-oriented society in which the welfare of the group predominates? Am I from a hierarchical group society, in which members of the group come from across generations?
4. What do I do? Do I value action? Do I value being in situations in which people, ideas, and events flow spontaneously? Or am I from a controlled society in which desires are restrained by detachment from objects in order to let each person develop as an integrated whole?
5. How do I use time? Is my culture oriented to the past, the present, or the future?
6. How do I use physical space? Is a conference room, an office, or a building viewed as private or public space?


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