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Managing Culture at British Airways: Hype, Hope and Reality

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Managing Culture at British Airways: Hype, Hope and Reality

Irena Grugulis and Adrian Wilkinson

[Author vitae]

Available online 14 May 2002.

Abstract

Nearly twenty years after the publication of the (in)famous In Search of Excellence, the notion of 'cultural change' within organisations continues to excite attention. This is readily understandable, since cultural interventions offer practitioners the hope of a universal panacea to organisational ills and academics an explanatory framework that enjoys the virtues of being both partially true and gloriously simple. Such a combination is apparent in the way that many attempts to shape organisational culture are presented to the public: as simple stories with happy endings.[1] This article attempts to rescue a fairy-tale. The story of British Airways is one of the most widely used inspirational accounts of changing culture. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s it was used to demonstrate the necessary compatibility of pleasure and profits [2] in celebratory accounts where culture change is presented as the only explanation for the transformation that occurred. This corrective makes no attempt to deny the very substantial changes that took place in BA. Rather, it sets these in context noting the organisation's environment at the time of the transformation, the structural changes that took place and observes the impact that such changes had over the long term. [3, 4 and 5]

Today, nearly twenty years after the publication of the (in)famous In Search of Excellence, the notion of 'cultural change' within organisations continues to excite attention. This continuing attraction is readily understood, since cultural interventions offer practitioners the hope of a universal panacea to organisational ills and academics an explanatory framework that enjoys the virtues of being both partially true and gloriously simple. Such a combination is apparent in the way that many attempts to shape organisational culture are presented to the public: as simple stories with happy endings.

To a certain extent, of course, any form of narration encourages a story, an ending, and, as a result, a simplification--and stories may be used to shed light on attitudes and understandings not otherwise easily available to the researcher. But there is a very significant difference between listening to the accounts that individuals tell in order to make sense of their lives and allowing the study of the workplace to become 'fictionalised'. The former involves engaging with the 'subjects' of the research, attempting to understand their world view and allowing them a voice in the process they are participating in. The latter can mean a selective reading of the data with examples chosen because they illustrate pre-set conclusions.

In management particularly the capacity of writers to turn case studies into celebratory fictions is worrying. As Marchington argues, too many texts focus on "fairy tales and magic wands".[6] Such an emphasis encourages the belief that what is important in the workplace is not context, structure, power, economics or industrial relations but whatever new initiative management have chosen to introduce (the "magic wands"). The form that this magic takes varies from intervention to intervention but the impact claimed for each is curiously similar, with unproductive workplaces turned around and reluctant employees transformed into enthusiasts. Any changes that take place are seen to be a direct result of the magic and most are exaggerated. As a result, research into management becomes research into a series of fads and fashions with Total Quality Management or Business Process Re-engineering or empowerment or culture vying for attention. Every intervention is presented as new, so academic understanding of the workplace starts afresh each time a guru develops a new magic wand. Lessons cannot be carried forward since BPR is not employee involvement and company culture is not TQM. Elements of the workplace that might have provided a crucial element of continuity are ignored or dismissed as unimportant since only change is magical. As a result, by relying on these accounts, we understand less and less about why organisations function in the way that they do and practitioners are encouraged to believe that each initiative starts with a blank sheet, entirely unconstrained by what has gone before.

Accordingly, in this article we attempt to rescue a fairy-tale. The story of British Airways is one of the most widely used inspirational accounts of changing culture. Throughout the 80s and 90s it was used to demonstrate the necessary compatibility of pleasure and profits. In such celebratory accounts, culture change is presented as the only explanation for the transformation that occurred. This corrective makes no attempt to deny the very substantial changes that took place in BA. Rather, it sets these in context noting the organisation's environment at the time of the transformation, the structural changes that took place and observing the impact that such changes had over the long term.[7]

Article Outline

1. Managing culture: promises and problems

2. The British Airways story

3. The 1997 dispute: change or continuity?

4. Conclusions and discussion

5. The end of the fairy tale: lessons for managers

References

Vitae

1. Managing culture: promises and problems

In many respects, the management of culture is peculiarly susceptible to being presented as a corporate fiction. While other management initiatives seek to promote positive attitudes by increasing employees' area of responsibility through empowerment, aligning their financial interests with those of the organisation through adjustments to the payment system or demonstrating an organisational commitment to its 'human assets' by investing in training, cultural change targets employee attitudes directly and aims to secure 'commitment' rather than 'resigned behavioural compliance'[8] with all employees sharing a 'common vision' and working together for the good of the organisation.

As a result, the managerial task becomes one that involves establishing control over the meaning of work, rather than its execution, of 'converting' employees to the corporate 'faith'. In the words of Peters and Waterman,[9]

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