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MPA 8002
Organization Theory

Theories of Practice: The Symbolic Frame

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The sine qua non of any successful corporate transformation is public acknowledgement
of the existence of a crisis.  If employees do not believe a crisis exists, they will not make the sacrifices
that are necessary to change.  Nobody like change.  Whether you are a senior executive
or an entry-level employee, change represents uncertainty and, potentially, pain.
So there must be a crisis, and it is the job of the CEO to define and communicate that crisis,
its magnitude, its severity, and its impact.  Just as important, the CEO must also be able
to communicate how to end the crisis---the new strategy, the new company model, the new culture.
All of this takes enormous commitment from the CEO to communicate, communicate,
and communicate some more.  No institutional transformation takes place, I believe,
without a multi-year commitment by the CEO to put himself or herself constantly in front of employees
and speak in plain, simple, compelling language that drives conviction and action throughout the organization.
(Lou Gerstner, 2002, p. 76)

The theories of practice subsumed in symbolic frame liken organizational life to a medieval tapestry. Suspended before a nondescript wall, the tapestry is rich in color, texture, and hue. Portraying a warm, gracious, and inviting pastoral scene, the tapestry is not only pleasing to the eye, but also pleasing to the human spirit as the tapestry invites the observer to enter into the scene and to experience the life symbolized therein.

By analogy, an organization has a rich symbolic life. There are trends, values, and purposes that have been part of the organization’s history over the years and decades of its existence. These are conveyed by one set of strands. In addition, there are the fundamentally irrational and unsubstantiated opinions that exercise influence upon the people in the organization, depicting the shared values and beliefs that are part-and-parcel of daily life in that organization. These are represented by a second set of strands. Then there are an organization's norms and standards, conveyed in those strands which clarify the ideologies governing organizational behavior. Lastly, another set of strands depict that aspect of organizational life represented in those recurring, visible patterns of behavior. In sum, the organization’s history, values and beliefs, its norms and standards, as well as its shared patterns of behavior symbolize an organization’s rich and vibrant life.

Just as artists select and weave sets of strands together into a finished tapestry, so too, from a symbolic framework, managers and leaders can weave these symbols of organizational life to better reflect, better shape and, if necessary, change organizational life.

Organizations are replete with symbols expressing the subjective side of the organization’s persona. And, whereas the structural, political, and human resource frames utilize different analytical approaches to describe an organization (Bolman & Deal, 1997), each of these theories of practice fails in its own way to provide a comprehensive view of the organization and its rich, subjective life.  In contrast, the symbolic frame assumes that human beings create symbols to resolve confusion, increase predictability, or provide direction in organizations. Over time, these symbols and the behaviors representing them coalesce in an invisible, yet pervasive (if not intrusive) culture. Furthermore, the symbolic frame asserts, what happens in organizations is not as important as what these phenomena mean to people. By learning how to read, contend with, and represent the tangible raw data of organizational life---the symbolic elements depicting a unique culture---managers and leaders grapple with, shape, and change the basic issues of meaning and faith emerging in organizations as human enterprises.

I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just one aspect of the game---it is the game.
In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.
Vision, strategy, marketing, financial management---any management system, in fact---can set you
on the right path and can carry you for a while.  But no enterprise---whether in business, government,
education, health care, or any area of human endeavor---will succeed over the long haul
if those elements aren't part of its DNA.

(Lou Gerstner, 2002, p. 182)

During the closing two decades of the 20th century, a minority of organizational theorists veered away from the more traditional models of organizational analysis, for example, those theories of practice that view organizations as amalgamations of structure, people, and politics.  Instead, this minority turned to the concepts of cultural anthropology to examine what differentiates one organization from another, in particular, and successful organizations from their less successful counterparts.

Bower was an early advocate of this line of inquiry, defining organizational culture as "the way we do things around here" (1966, p. 22). Somewhat later, and from the perspective of schools as organizational cultures, Sergiovanni and Corbally described organizational culture as the "system of values, symbols, and shared meanings of a group including the embodiment of these values, symbols, and meanings into material objects and ritualized practices. Culture governs what is of worth for a particular group and how group members should think, feel, and behave" (1984, p. viii). By the time Deal and Peterson weighed in concerning these matters, they asserted that organizational culture is the "historically rooted, socially transmitted set of deep patterns of thinking and ways of acting that give meaning to human experience, that unconsciously dictate how experience is seen, assessed, and acted on" (1990, p. 8).

Perhaps the first to popularize the concept of organizational culture were Deal and Kennedy in their popular 1982 book, Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life.  In this book, intended primarily for corporate executives, the authors asserted that a strong organizational culture contributes to corporate productivity and success. They noted: "Whether weak or strong, culture has a powerful influence throughout an organization: it affects practically everything---from who gets promoted and what decisions are made, to how employees dress and what sports they play. Because of this impact, we think that culture also has a major effect on the success of the business" (1982, p. 4).

Arguably, to date Schein has provided the most sustained, critical analysis of organizational culture as well as definition of it.  Sounding like---but hardly a structural theorist---Schein maintains argues that culture is a phenomenon emerging as two pressures exert themselves upon organizational functioning, namely, the dual  pressures of external adaptation and internal integration. "All groups, no matter what their size," Schein writes, "must deal with: 1) survival, growth, and adaptation in their environment and 2) internal integration that permits daily functioning and the ability to adapt" (1992, p. 11).

For Schein, culture is an elusive concept, most noticeable in its effects, primarily at the level of behavior and espoused values. Culture emerges as people in organizations develop a pattern of shared basic assumptions that solve the problems of external adaptation and internal integration. But, these assumptions are not themselves organizational culture. Instead, these assumptions provide a cognitive foundation for organizational culture as it builds upon these assumptions as these work "well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems" (Schein, 1992, p. 12). To any newcomer to an established organization, Bower's (1966) early definition makes practical sense in view of Schein's analysis: organizational culture is "the way we do things around here" (p. 12).

To fully identify, understand, and work with organizational culture, managers and leaders must learn to probe beyond and into the surface manifestations of culture (its symbols) in order to unearth the values embedded within. It is here, lurking beneath the surface, that managers and leaders discover what is sacred. Furthermore, astute managers and leaders understand that it is at this level that organizational issues must be addressed if its members are to develop and act with the courage it will take to engage in the self-change that is the precursor to long-lasting change in performance and productivity (McWhinney, 1992).

Hearkening back to the metaphor of the medieval tapestry, one way that managers and leaders can ferret out these more substantive issues is to examine carefully the tapestry's reverse side. In contrast to the unified, colorful, and more pleasing depiction on the tapestry's front side, its back side reveals a bland if not colorless and rather displeasing hodgepodge of strands and knots that only vaguely hint at the beauty and texture revealed on the reverse side. And yet, if it were not for the artist who used one single strand of fiber to pull together all of the remaining strands---the theory of practice revealed on the tapestry's back side---what the world now recognizes as an objet d'art, would not exist.  And, if one were to judge the worth of a tapestry solely upon a review of its rather unsightly back side, one might bypass something of truly great worth and permanence.

And, so it is with organizations and their managers and leaders.

Core beliefs and values are those cherished, universally accepted ideals that members of organizations possess in common. These represent what people stand for and aspire to as well as what they revere. These ideals shape the membership's collective identity as they provide meaning, evoke pride, and motivate cooperative behavior. Core values---viewed from the vantage provided by the symbolic frame and its theories of practice---are the bedrock of organizational culture. In other words, organizational culture is strong to the degree it is cohesive in terms of its members' ideals. Peters and Waterman declare unequivocally the a priori significance of shared values in organizations: "Every excellent company we studied is clear on what it stands for, and takes the process of value shaping seriously. In fact, we wonder whether it is possible to be an excellent company without clarity on values…" (1982, p. 280). Without managers and leaders who capably attend to the elements of organizational culture, individual elements of culture might well remain disjointed and adversely affect organizational functioning while the strands what could be unified into an organizational tapestry remain fragmented and never attains their artistic potential.

Whether or not this view accurately depicts the nature of organizations, it does reiterate Barnard's (1938) decades-old insistence upon organizational purpose and the utmost seriousness managers and leaders ought to accord it. A strong culture is not simply "the way we do things around here" (Bower, 1966, p. 12). Nor is a strong culture simply a "system of values, symbols, and shared meanings" (Sergiovanni & Corbally, 1984, p. viii) that is "historically rooted [and] socially transmitted (Deal & Kennedy, 1990, p. 8). A strong culture is more than this, Schein argues. It is comprised of "deeply embedded, unconscious basic assumptions" that are the "essence" of the organization (1992, p. 12). For Barnard (1938), these assumptions provide the "purpose" that is the "moral factor" for managing and leading organizations and the people in them.

...changing the attitude and behavior of...people is very, very hard to accomplish.
Business schools don't teach you how to do it.  You can't lead the revolution
from the splendid isolation of corporate headquarters.
You can't simply give a couple of speeches or write a new credo for the company
and declare that the new culture has taken hold.
You can't mandate it, you can't engineer it.
What you can do is  create the conditions for transformation.
You can provide incentives.  You can define the marketplace realities and goals.
But then you have to trust.  In fact, in the end, management doesn't change culture.
Management invites the workforce itself to change the culture.

(Lou Gerstner, 2002, p. 187)

Through their theories of practice, these managers and leaders unite the diverse strands of organizational culture into masterpieces of beauty and grace. They do so by envisioning what the organizational should look like, organizing the various strands of organizational culture, and uniting them into an entity that functions as it should. These managers and leaders accomplish this artistic feat by attending to the messiness associated with the organization's "back side."


Barnard, C. I. (1938/1968). The functions of the executive. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (1997). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice and leadership (2nd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bower, M. (1966). Will to manage. New York: McGraw Hill.

Deal, T. E., & Kennedy, A. A. (1982). Corporate cultures: The rites and rituals of corporate life. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gerstner, L.  (2002).  Who says elephants can't dance?  New York: HarperCollins.

McWhinney, W. (1992). Paths of change: Strategic choices for organizations and society. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Peters, T. J. & Waterman, R. H., Jr. (1982). In search of excellence. New York: Warner.

Schein, E. H. (1992). Organizational culture and leadership (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sergiovanni, T. J., & Corbally, J. E. (Eds.). (1986). Leadership and organizational culture. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.