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Malcontents have most to contribute

Malcontents have most to contribute

Smart managers wanting to understand how their companies tick need to seek out the malcontents and marginalised workers, says international expert.

Every company has workers on the outer, says John van Maanen, sociologist professor from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. "As organisations grow and the distance between senior management and the people who are doing the work becomes so extreme, senior managers live in a world that really is quite different, and they see a world which is in some way fantasy, " he said.

But it was vital for managers to have a realistic view of their company. The people who really knew were the workers and those who would give an honest answer were the marginalised.

"Often people who are marginal are freer to talk and may have greater insight rather than a perfectly accepted central person in the organisation who is perfectly happy with that organisation's culture, " van Maanen said.

"Companies can learn from these sub-cultures. I think these sub- cultures have a lot to offer because they see things in a different way they are often sources of really brilliant ideas, " he said.

Van Maanen is the accepted master of researching corporate culture, having made his name with pioneering studies of US and British police, north-east Atlantic fishermen and Disneyland. He studied workers by living with them, like an anthropologist and was "widely hailed as the father of organisational ethnography, " said Snejina Michailova, Professor of International Business at Auckland University.

Van Maanen is in New Zealand to deliver a guest lecture at the University of Auckland Business School and talk about his research methods with students.

Traditionally companies were viewed in a strategic organisational way - tiers of managers and their departmental functions. But behind that lay a political structure reflecting who held the power to get things done. Power and official management structures did not always line up.

Beneath that was a third layer, the cultural organisation.

"It is enormously powerful. I often think that it is the cultural domain that justifies a given political regime or power structure which then, in fact, chooses the strategic design that fits their interests the closest."

He said culture was hard to see.

"Culture is sort of white space. It's the stuff we breath. Only when we see it violated do we recognise it exists or we go some place different and they do things different and we begin to say why do we do things like we do."

That was why marginalised workers usually had the best view of a company culture.

"There are some very shrewd managers who are fully aware of their political clout or lack thereof and are pretty shrewd observers of the culture as well, but in general no most don't appreciate it."

It was one thing recognising culture, it was another attempting to change it, van Maanen said.

Culture was usually deeply embedded and "we flatter ourselves if we think with a few swift moves we can alter that. You are better to accept it as is and work with it, deal with it, try to use it."

The Independent, Fairfax Media

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