Are walls just walls? Organizational culture emergence in a virtual firm.

Author:Plavin-Masterman, Miriam L.

Recent work on organizational culture has focused on links between organizational culture and organizational memory (Fiedler and Welpe, 2010, Rowlinson, et al, 2010), organizational learning (Berends and Lammers, 2010), innovation (Bartel and Garud, 2009, Gebert et al, 2010) and cultivation (Harrison and Corley 2010). It has not focused on explicitly reconceptualizing where an organization's culture 'lives'. In fact, conceptualizations of organizational culture have tended to anchor a firm's artifacts, symbols, shared norms, beliefs, and behavioral expectations in a physical location, in proximate space (Whyte 1956, Allaire and Firsirotu, 1984, Hatch, 1993). Assuming that patterns of interaction, and the ways an organization's culture can be sustained are linked to the brick-and-mortar location where the organization 'lives' may once have been sufficient for understanding organizational culture.

Removing the constraint of thinking about culture as a manifestation of direct, face-to-face interactions makes it possible to extend discussions of organizational culture to a form of organization and work that does not have a physical space. Specifically, I build on Wiesenfeld, Raghuram, and Garud's (2001) treatment of virtual work as a situation where an employee works outside of a traditional office space. Virtual work is a growing practice, with as many as 34 million Americans working at least part time from home (Chafkin, 2010). Virtual work also has many benefits. For example, Sun Microsystems estimates that having almost one-half of its employees work remotely saves the company $300 million in real estate costs per year. (Business Week, 2005). According to internal studies conducted by IBM, white-collar employees who moved from one of the company's corporate offices to work from home had a 15-40% increase in productivity (Lococo and Yen, 1998, Cascio, 2000.). While there is little recent academic work identifying specific business-related benefits, the fact that Sun and IBM tout "virtualism's" virtues is one reason the business press has accepted as fact the perception that virtual work is both important and cost-effective.

Despite the increasing reliance on virtual work and its apparent benefits, there are questions about what effects virtual work has on the communities of workers that are the core of business practice and productivity. Canonical conceptualizations of organizational culture (Meek, 1988, Hatch and Cunliffe, 2006), which tie both the production and persistence of culture to location, suggest that the lack of face-to-face interaction that characterizes virtual work--the reliance on maintaining relations virtually--means culture is attenuated and often less positive.

However, if we take seriously arguments about the creation of community and culture through a shared image (Anderson, 1983) and the indirect interaction of community members through this shared image, we may be able to explain the organizational culture of virtual firms better than we currently do--and know more about if and how they work, as we have been able to explain organizational cultures of traditional brick and mortar firms. The extent to which the virtues of virtual work in a virtual firm can be realized is an empirical question and ought to be demonstrable through empirical research, which I pursue in the current work.

Specifically, I use an in-depth, qualitative case study and quantitative survey data to explore organizational culture at a small, entirely 'virtual firm'. I find that it indeed is possible for a virtual organization to exist primarily as an 'imagined community' and that physical space is not necessary for an organization to have a strong culture.


Though it is rarely enunciated, most discussions of organizational culture are about social structures that operate within four walls (see Ouchi & Wilkins, 1985, Deal and Kennedy, 1982, Alvesson, 1990, Hofstede, et al. 1990, Denison and Mishra, 1993, Fletcher, 2002, O'Mahony, 2007, among others). Thinking about culture manifested primarily in a direct way extends even to the discussion of organizational culture in a "virtual" setting (Townsend, DeMarie, and Hendrickson, 1998, Cascio, 2000, Duarte and Snyder, 2001, Dani et al 2006). But what actually happens to the culture of an enterprise in a company when some co-workers work "virtually"?

As virtual work has become more prevalent, researchers have begun to look at the impacts on a company's behaviors, rituals, and interactions when its employees are not all in the same location. "How we interact with those around us influences what they think of us, how they judge our actions, and our relationships with them." (Cameron and Webster, 2011:767). How we interact is affected by whether we interact in person or virtually. Some of the existing organizational culture models may be relevant in virtual settings, but given the priority placed on direct reinforcement of culture, such models may not adequately address the complexity of this arrangement.

Without explicitly theorizing alternative conceptualizations of culture, we may be less well positioned to understand the organizational cultures of many modern firms. For example, Anderson (1983) argues in his non-organizational work on diasporas that community can be based on a shared image, even though members may not see each other often, or at all. Instead, members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity for the community and a shared image of a heritage and homeland to which they may never physically travel. Group members are connected to each other, indirectly, through their shared attachment to a psychosocial space that represents and reinforces their culture. Appadurai's work on modernity focuses on the new role of the imagination as a "collective, social fact" (1996, p. 5), which has broken out of its traditional domain of creative individual expression and entered the daily lives of ordinary people. This interweaving of imagination and everyday life, combined with an emphasis on the collective, enables what Appadurai (1990) has termed a 'community of sentiment', one that feels and imagines things together without needing to be in the same location. Their actions indirectly support and reinforce the "imagination as social practice" (Durkheim, 1995, Appadurai, 1996, p. 31) since they are all engaging in this behavior.

The concept of the imagination as social practice is incorporated in Anderson's and Appadurai's work on diasporic communities (Anderson, 1983, Appadurai, 1996), where the development of a collective social imagination for a particular group has enabled them, through accessing an 'imagined world', to feel part of a group they do not often see face-to-face. A shared culture can exist, reinforced indirectly, and it can incorporate references to physical location. As Castells (2009, p. xxix) points out, "the development of digital communication ... transformed the spatiality of social interaction by introducing simultaneity, or any chosen time frame, in social practices, regardless of the location of the actors engaged in the communication practice." But an indirect, non-spatial model of culture has mainly been applied to ethnic or national culture, and few investigations have extended the new perspective into the Organizational Culture literature.

The most recent (2006-2011) work in organizational culture and virtual work tends to focus on managing performance of global virtual teams (Brown et al, 2010, Sarker et al 2011), ensuring knowledge management, managing virtual worker/coworker tensions, or maintaining a virtual community of practice within a traditional organization (Alavi, 2006, Duarte and Snyder, 2006, Dube, 2006, Golden, 2007, Golden, 2008, Peters, 2007, Ale Ebrahim et al 2010 among others). The indirect view of culture suggests a virtual firm can create a 'shared imagined community' even without physical proximity, through a combination of strong person-organization fit, strong employee socialization, and compensating techniques for being virtual. This in turn can moderate the effects of working virtually and can lead to strong levels of employee commitment--as an outcome of shared imagined community. Figure 1 highlights the relationships among "virtualness" (computer-mediated communication), shared imagined community, and commitment.


Person-organization fit theory (Chatman, 1991) describes the process by which individuals choose to join an organization. There is a selection effect for any organization, where the individual chooses to be part of a firm because of some combination of characteristics that individual finds appealing. In firms that are not traditional, we might expect fit effects to be much stronger, because the specific characteristics of the workplace reflect a conscious choice on the part of the new employee rather than a background taken-for-granted. In the case of the completely virtual firm, this theory would suggest that there are individuals with specific characteristics the organization wants and who choose to be part of a virtual firm, value being part of that firm, and feel very committed to their co-workers common artifacts or behaviors, or common imagined places, even in the absence of a shared and the firm as a result. This fit between the person and the virtual organization would in theory moderate the impact of being virtual.

When employees are dispersed or working virtually it becomes increasingly important to create and maintain certain levels of socialization and social control. We would expect socialization to occur differently in a primarily or wholly virtual firm than in a traditional firm with some workers working virtually. Virtual work "reduces direct supervision, coordination, feedback, and the conditions under which rules and norms are communicated." (Thatcher and Zhu, 2006: 1079). Research examining the socialization of virtual workers...

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