To really grasp the '50s, you'd want to see the McCarthy hearings, Edward R. Murrow, Uncle Miltie and "Rebel Without a Cause"; you'd want to read "Lolita" and "Catcher in the Rye"; you'd want to hear the music of Elvis, Pat Boone and Chuck Berry.
The media may not define pop culture, but they certainly capture and reflect it. What's true for pop culture also holds for organizational culture. A decade ago, you could grasp the essence of an organization by sitting in on a few meetings and rummaging through the interoffice memos. Starting in the mail room wasn't all that crazy an idea.
Today, organizations are becoming far more media-intensive. It's not just that they're using computers and telecommunications networks to manage data, they're also packaging information in new ways. They're making videotapes and creating internal television networks. They're crafting "expert systems" -- computer programs that embody the technical expertise of company old-timers. They're using fax or electronic mail as the medium of instantaneous communication. The "old-boy" network has taken on a technological hue. Personal interactions are increasingly mediated, complemented or captured by an increasingly elaborate media mesh.
"There is a sense of much greater visibility," observes Thomas W. Malone, director of the Center for Coordination Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We're coming to live more and more in a sea of information -- in principle, things that may have once been unknowable are now easy to find out.
"Some people have talked about the dawning of the age of electronic communications as being analogous to the dawn of history in the sense that there's no written record of prehistoric times," he adds. "As more communication is stored electronically, it makes it easier to analyze, reconstruct, capture and understand the communications of organizations. It's much more difficult to reach back into 'prehistoric' times before there was such culture."
What are the production values for a presentation -- will a transparency be enough or do people insist on 35mm color slides? Do financial projections have to be number-crunched through Lotus 1-2-3 or Microsoft Excel spreadsheet software? Are in-house training programs built around videocassettes, flip charts or multimedia-flavored personal computers?
These are the questions that managers will increasingly be asking themselves in order to understand how the organization creates its internal models of reality. The answers to these questions reveal aspects of the organization's culture that may have been previously hidden. These technologies have become cultural artifacts.
Many organizations are now beginning to tape and transcribe their meetings. In a few years, computer voice/text editors will be able to index those sessions according to the desired key word. Want to know who said what at the meeting about "productivity?" Just ask the workstation. Some Silicon Valley companies and giant consumer goods firms now use camcorders to record sales presentations and technical reviews. These tapes don't just preserve the data; they preserve the organization's style. These technologies are becoming a new storehouse for the organization's values, not just its information.
"There are a lot of people who are beginning to worry about this," says Jeff Sturchio, the corporate archivist for Merck & Co., the culturally and financially rich pharmaceutical firm. "Cultures are based very much on interpersonal relations but as organizations get larger, in order to manage the organizations, they have to rely on some of the new media because there's no other way to get the message out."
In fact, says Sturchio, Merck currently produces and distributes a weekly three-minute news video for in-house consumption. The company is also putting together a multimedia presentation for its centennial next year.
"That's the kind of mirror of Merck culture that we will save," Sturchio notes.
But Sturchio freely acknowledges that the growth of these new media is transforming his job. He says it's too early for him to comment on how these new media are transforming Merck's culture.
Originally, companies developed "expert systems" as a way to preserve knowledge, says Herb Schorr, executive director of the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. The idea was that expert systems could be used as a substitute for human beings.
What many organizations subsequently discovered, however, was that expert systems made an excellent adviser to problem solvers. Sales or marketing representatives at some companies now rely more on expert systems to configure their products for customers than on human engineers. Other organizations, says Schorr, realized that they made "an excellent training vehicle ... in some sense, it was very funny. The pay back was in the learning phase rather than in its continual use."
In a sense, the expert systems became important storytellers in the organization. They embodied the technical traditions of the organization's great experts. Indeed, Schorr believes that one of the reasons that expert systems have been slower to catch on than expected is that they are more culturally dependent than most people realized.
Over time, expert systems develop "a personality" that may not fit comfortably in other organizations. The expert system medium redefines what knowledge and expertise mean within the organization -- and that challenges and changes the existing culture. An expert system that can efficiently lay out circuits for a microprocessor design obviously redefines the role of an electrical engineer.
This isn't an issue for the sociologists and anthropologists. This is an issue that will determine how organizations see themselves and manage themselves in an increasingly competitive environment.
Twenty years ago, you couldn't ignore the memo. Ten years ago, you couldn't ignore the phone. Today, you can't ignore the computer network and voice mail. Tomorrow's managers shouldn't be surprised if they find themselves spending as much time managing media as they do managing people. They will be immersed in a far denser, far richer, far more comprehensive regime of technologies than they are today.
To understand the culture of the organization, they will have to be able to interpret its media. If they want to shape the values and direction of their organizations, they will have to learn how to effectively manipulate those media.
"I think what we're really talking about here," says MIT's Malone, "is that these technologies are going to change the organizational balance of power in ways that we can't yet anticipate."
Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.