Grounded theory method application in exploration of organizational culture in a state agency

The article explores organisational culture of a public agency in the Republic of Kazakhstan. The study looks at the nature of work; it attempts to explain behaviour and the attitudes of employees towards norms and values in the public agency. Since ethnography is a significant tool to uncover values and underlying assumptions in culture, ethnographic anonymous interviews were conducted. For data analysis, method of Grounded theory was applied. This allowed gaining comprehensive data from informants.Uncovered characteristics of the culture within the agency and personnel attitudes deserve management attention. Within the staff, three subcultures with dissimilar values and attitudes are identified. They share the same concerns such as overtime work and reorganisation policy, however, with dissimilar attitudes to ongoing situation. These two features of current organizational culture caused unhealthy atmosphere in the organization. The study presents essential information on dynamics within the state organization. The research provides the information basis for employers, HR managers to understand the importance of working with organizational culture during organizational change.

Introduction. While experiencing organizational changes, many organizations including public service need to think over their culture for a number of grounds. Organizational culture may well become a powerful tool to overcome internal issues to make improvements to the organization, influence personnel behavior, and finally, achieve better performance and new set goals.

As is known, the civil service in the Republic of Kazakhstan is experiencing further development and organizational changes. Smooth restructuring and reorganization ongoing during recent years in different state agencies may lead to ambiguous behavior of civil service personnel. Certainly, the Agency for civil service affairs and anti-corruption has been undertaking measures to improve the personnel management system of civil service. However, organizational culture and psychological motives to contribute to work in times of significant changes within organizations, when encountering reorganization, seem to be worth taking intoconsideration.

The purpose of this article is to explore organizational culture in one of Kazakhstani state agencieswith application of the Grounded theory as a qualitative research method. The paperexplains why organizational culture matter and attempts providing results of empirical research. The state body under investigationruns public service in the sphere of state revenue. Due to ethical issues to consider, the name of the organization is under pseudonym «Organization N». The results of the study may become contributive in civil service personnel management.

Before discussing the topic, it is meaningful addressing literature first.

Defining organizational culture. Organizational culture as a concept is considered to be difficult to understand. Edgar Schein gives a clear definition widely used in the academic literature. Schein [1] argues that since any social group shares a history, it has culture that may have subcultures. Schein [2] defines organizational culture as:

A pattern of basic assumptions, invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, is to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and fell in relation to those problems [2; 18].

The given definition may mean that it is people within a group, who build culture, reacting to internal and external variables, developing and keeping certain values and traditions to survive as a group. A number of authors like Kunda [3], Deal and Kennedy [4], Peters and Waterman [5], Awal et al. [6] understand culture as a notion to depict an organization, reasons for behaviour exhibited by organization members. They claim that organizational culture is the set of norms, beliefs, postulates and indications that shape the habitual way anorganization may operate.

A bulk of academic literature suggests that understanding culture may lead an organization to a competitive advantage [7-10]. This opinion seems resisting a skeptical view of economists towards the relevance of organizational culture to organizational performance [11].Success or failure, however, depends on what variables and features a culture has [12]. In other words, the theory is hardly suggesting that organizational culture always leads to better performance. Conversely, it proposes opposite. For instance, Barney [7], referring to study carried out by earlier researchers like Martin and Tichy, argues that a few cultures may be a source of competitive advantage, providing that they have definite features. Deal and Kennedy [13], Ouchi [14], Kunda [3] support this opinion. They conclude that successful organizations tend to have distinctive features, which make their culture strong, thus, leading to achievements.

Deal and Kennedy [4] advocate proposition made by Ouchi [14]. The authors postulate the strategic value of a strong organizational culture, particularly, when values are shared [15, 2]. Being concordant with Deal and Kennedy [4], Peters and Waterman [5], in their management book ‘In search for excellence', state that successful organizations tend to have a strong culture as a result of the history of success, common objectives and shared values, unifying stakeholders. The same time, organizational culture is ‘an explicitly broad and inclusive phenomenon' [9; 628]. It means that identification of bounds and points where culture starts and ends seems equivocal.

Review of literature shows that core researchers in organizational culture, for example, Van Maanen [16], Kunda[3] and Schein [1, 2] have a qualitative approach to study. While the authors justify this method for an ability to discover roots of social construction, opponents state that the interpretation of data may hardly be independent from subjective view. Therefore, considering the split view of academics on a more appropriate way to measure culture, this study strives for the interpretation of empirical data from different angles to avoid one-sided view. This can be done by analysis of data provided by participants on diverse positions in the organization.

Since there is no shared opinion on the distinct identification of variables forming organizational culture, this research attempts to apply Grounded theory method as a qualitative approach to explore organizational culture in a context of one of Kazakhstani state agencies – the Organization N, which experienced organizational changes as a resultof reorganization.

Methodology of the research. It was expected, that applied method might give insights of inner world of the Organization N. Epistemological foundation for this research is interpretivism. Epistemology defines the nature knowledge [17] and the way ‘we come to know theworld of things' Burr [18; 92]. Interpretevism is a tradition mostly correlated to socialscience, which aims at understanding social actions, human behaviour, leading a researcher to perceive the subjective meaning of those objects of study [17]. To address criticism of qualitative research because of its subjective character, Daymon andHolloway [19], Bryman and Bell [17] elucidate that subjectivity is the aim of qualitative study targeting to discern participants' opinion.

Ontological position in the paper is social constructionism. This social paradigm refers to development of reality that is socially constructed [18]. As Daymon and Holloway [19] explain, constructionism enables a researcher to discover social reality, values and attitudes towards the object of the research from the standpoint of people involved in a study. Moreover, as Burr maintains, ‘social constructionism cautionsus to be ever suspicious of our assumptions about how the world appears to be' [18; 3]. It means that the purpose of social constructionism is to challenge taken-for-granted ways of consideration the reality, which wasbased on neutral examination of nature.

Due to the nature of the research question and time limits, semi-structured interviews are applied in this research. This type of interview is considered as ‘conversation with the purpose', when both, an interviewer and participant, become ‘conversational partners' as Bingham and Moore are cited in Daymon and Holloway [19; 167]. Moreover, an ethnographic approach in interviewing is applied to collect data for this research. This is because ethnography may become a tool to uncover ‘very heart ofsocial life', demanding scrupulous and long examination though [16]. Inorder to apply an ethnographic approach, types of questions such as open-ended, descriptive, example and experience questions are used. This helps the researcher to pay due attention to issues and areas emphasized by research participants [20]. In other words, responses of participants may well provide plentiful data to develop a theory about the organizational culture within the organization.

Grounded theory as a method of data analysis. Grounded theory is chosen as an appropriate framework for data analysis in this research. This methodology is widely applied in qualitative study [17, 21]. Grounded theory was proposed by Glaser and Strauss in 1967 [17]. Initially, the approach had quantitative roots. However, the theory has experienced modification and is widely used in qualitative studies [17].

Moreover, the grounded theory method can work within opposite each other traditions: positivism and interpretivism, primarily it aims at generating theory or assumptions to explain the object of examination [22]. Where the traditional grounded theory method seems more appropriate to apply is where difficult social relations are understood inadequately and insufficient theory is developed [23]. Examination of organizational culture at Organization N, therefore, might be suitable field to apply grounded theory with the aim to conceptualize the world within the state agency.

In order to make the process of data analysis more organized and simplified, few interview questions are generated under a ‘hierarchy' topic. This could make it easier to discover categories and concepts grounded within the ‘hierarchy' topic.

Considering time constraints, for this article little emphasis is placed on open and axial coding. Instead, the focus is made on the next stage in the coding process - a selective method. As a rule, codes are selected; they grow into meaningful categories, which consequently form concepts [21]. The selective coding process requires from a researcher to recognize core themes, where the theory derives from [17]. Moreover, as Bryman and Bell state, core themes may require gainingadditional information until no new categories emerge from data [17]. Importantly, as O'Reilly [21] contends, a researcher should regularly relate other categories to the core category placed in data.

Since, coding has been done and principal concepts and key categories are identified, the final stage of the method is to make a parallel between the theory grounded in data and existing academic theories [21, 23]. This procedure goes till a single story emerges, where there is a certain theme promoting the story [17]. Therefore, the discussion chapter of this dissertation attempts to elucidate the story and assumptions in regards to the culture existing in the Organization N.

Study location and sample size. As mentioned before, the civil service system in Kazakhstan has been experiencing changes; measure such as to change the image of civil service, to make the staff more professional and competitive, to improve motivation system have been undertaking. While the staff of one governmental agency shrinks, another agency may face reorganization because of passing governmental functions and duties to another state agency. The Organization N is a case in point. The personnel of the organization accounts for about 50 people.

In order to do examine organizational culture as an inner world of the organization initially interviews with 10 participants from different departments were planned. The work experience of targeted participants ranges from 3 to 12 years.Due to different circumstances, few interviews were planned to conduct face to face; two civil servants preferred answering the interview questions in written form by email. The questionnaire was sent to them 2 weeks prior to a data collection deadline. Surprisingly, few persons in managerial positions never gave responses. For this reason, in order to gain more comprehensive data, it was decided to get more informants involved in the study. Thus, the number of participants expanded from 10 to 12. Employees on different positions from finance, law, and HR departments were interviewed.

Prior to conducting interviews for this study, ethical considerations to be taken into account in regards to privacy, anonymity and confidentiality for participants have been discussed. Questions are generated with the aim to gain voluntary and independent answers.

Findings and analysis. It is worth reminding, that theaim in this article is an attempt using the Grounded theory method in exploration oforganizational culture in a state agency - Organization N. The nature of the research question didnot require the precise focus in examination of culture from the beginning. This helped the author of this research to be flexible when looking for more exciting and contrasting elements in culture. In consequence, at the stage of selective coding in the grounded theory method, responses to questions, which were generated originally, caused the need to conduct additional interviews. Whenfirst round interviews lasted between 30 to 40 minutes each, additional conversations with informants lasted for 30 minutes. This second round of interviews was designed to gain more detailed data on the issues, which seemed more significant to participants.

When themes about dress code, code of conduct, rules and hierarchy, and feelingof belongingness to the organizationbecame insignificant; more impressive and emotionaltopics covered overtime work, worklife imbalance, cost cutting, and motives for employeesto retain. These themes helped to identify core categories ‘people' and ‘overwork', whichfacilitate developing a theory about culture of the Organization N.While the Organization N is civil service organization, the nature of the work is rules and task-oriented. This aspect seems significantly affecting the culture within the organization, establishing rules and norms that members of this society unreservedly obey. While, employees execute tasks, as norms require, however, they have personal opinion. In regards to extreme commitment to tasks and indicators to achieve, one of informants stated:

‘You wake up with a thought to complete the appointed tasks on time … you wear office clothes to look professional, and you sweat, but do your job – everything to fulfill the number of tasks in limited time and papers … management knows that you will do it' (senior expert, aged 28, male, single).

The expressed answer appears to point to employee's unhealthy attitude to work, while bearing grunge against excessive focus on accomplishing tasks on time. This might mean that the organization leaves little attention to employees, who is struggling with time constraints and the latter experience significant stress at work. Nursing a grievance against how work is organized can be justified. As interviewees insist, it is employees, i.e. human resources, who should be the center of attention since they are the key instruments to retain those clients.Although hidden, strained relation of employees towards the management, which sets priorities, can be noticed in this episode.

Remarkably, employees tend to work in teams in order to carry out tasks allocated to professionals in senior positions. Nevertheless, teamwork hardly seems to have a family shade when it concerns a task. Quotations below explain this:

‘There are colleagues I love to work with … They ensure secure and competent work, while providing professional and less stressful atmosphere. But in case such people are unavailable, then better to choose at least two proficient guys, and any other, providing that the latter are not trouble makers' (senior expert, aged 32, female, single).

The opinion of ansenior expert, male, aged 30, coincides with the view of a previous informant in the following:

‘... In worst situations, you have to do loafer's job because it is you, who is responsible for all this... As for him, there is no boardroom to give him a lesson'

Rather than the significance of teamwork, the quotes imply the importance of project execution in spite of an unforeseen contingency. The prime target hardly seems causing enthusiasm of senior colleagues to shield the flaws of team members.

Another cultural peculiarity in the Organization N is that a regime is systematized to that extent that it significantly absorbs employees. They deliberately accept career promotion scenario, providing that these employees fit the nature of the Organization N, which is highly task oriented.

To sum up, this section highlighted visible characteristics depicting everyday routine and traditions set in the state agency. Next section provides further findingsdescribing values and assumptions in the culture.

Category I – ‘People'. While mentioned above visible symblos and artefacts give an idea how culture looks like [2], people living in that environment might be the key elements carrying underlying assumptions. Therefore, ‘people', i.e. employees, in this study are considered as the core category emerging from experiential data.

Data collection was accompanied by explication of responses. Thanks to the answers, it was possible to separate employees into three groups:

Group 1 – associating the organization with a good workplace;

Group 2 – dissatisfied, however, accepting the situation and retain;

Group 3 – dissatisfied, with a ‘wait-and-see attitude'.

The groups have contrasting views towards the nature of work, agency strategies, values and norms. Figure 1 presented in a discussion part mentions differences between the three groups.

Group 1: Good workplace. A distinctive feature of people from Group 1 is that they consider the Organization N a ‘good workplace'. As a rule, employees from this category are without prior work experience; civil service was their target since university study. Having spent from 2-5 years with the Organization N, these young civil servants justify their employment choice with advantages of the state agency.

Group 2: Conscious awareness (Stabilizing force). Results show that Group 2 is unique due to rational attitude to life within the organization. Representatives of this category have 5-7 years of work experience in civil service senior positions. It means that they had career advancement, while making efforts to meet job requirements. There is an example from a number of comments.

‘Yes, we work so hard that it finishes with annoying back pain. We devote our personal time to work, because everybody does it here. We just have to face the reality and try not to give up and stick to this job. these days nobody can secure your future'. As for changes and reforms, it is we, who accomplish these changes and plans (expert, aged 30, female, married).

This episode demonstrates taken for granted workload feature of the work. While it seems an abnormal condition leading to health problems, the interviewee defends this aspect covering it with economic instability in the labour market.Nevertheless, Group 2 representatives admitted that nature of work and values changed compared to earlier years.

The quote below demonstrates the mood of the staff in regards to ‘better time' and fluctuations taken part in the civil service:

‘… It is inappropriate time to try your fortune now. It is better to retain in the same place. I am sure the situation will improve soon. We will definitely pass all attestations and other things … it is time of changes, but with same people' (senior expert , aged 32, female, married).

One might argue that these participants have an indifferent feeling about an ongoing changes in the civil service. However, it is worth noting that their behaviour has rationale. First, they accept the reality as it is; they became docile because they need job security. Secondly, such employees may be afraid to challenge new work place. Thirdly, they seem hoping for improvements within the civil service. This might be due to the feeling of commitment and belongingness to this organization and its people they used to work shoulder to shoulder.

Group 3: ‘Wait-and-see attitude'. The third type of employees provided a significantly contrasting and emotional viewpoint, which to a certain extent helped to uncover hidden assumptions towards key issues in the organization. The data the Group 3 provided is mainly less positive.

The Group 3 employees are in senior expert positions. They either have worked in different organizations, well educated. Apart from ambitious plans they have towards the future, this category tends to invest in own education, thus, attaining a Master degree from local and foreign universities. They maintain that one of the weaknesses of work at the Organization N is making specialists functionally restricted. For example, a senior expert, who gained expertise in finance auditing during 5 years, told one episode when she tried to find ‘a betterplace' last year. She failed job interviews because of skills mismatch.

‘To be honest, some employers are not eager to recruit people from civil service. May be because our thinking is somewhatdifferent, it means we can see only what we used to do at civil service. However, they expected from candidates,for example, skills or knowledge on where and how to make profit … It is funny, I cannot do anything but doing a job in finance control. I need some skills refreshing and leave room to develop new skills just in case.' (seniorexpert, aged 26, female, single).

This story shows that the state agency under examination tends to allocate monotonous job in one particular sphere to specialists, thus, leaving neither chance, nor time to employees to develop other skills.

Category II – ‘Overwork'. The application of the grounded theory method in data analysis led to identification of the second core category ‘overwork'. The category is closely related to the first core theme discussed in the previous section. Overwork became the key determinant of the state agency, being linked to subcategories and codes identified in the empirical data. As mentioned earlier, this theme became the source of dissatisfaction and the lost of enthusiasm from participants' perspective.

Interestingly, findings suggest that overwork chiefly became taken for granted tradition in the organization for all types of employees, whose standpoints were examined in the preceding part. A good example is the fact that, instead of a standard 8-hour workday, recruits normally accept a 10-hour workday. Participants, who are more committed to the organization, support the idea of overwork. An HR specialist, aged 26, stated that overtime work ingrained in the culture of civil service.

However, other interviewees associate overwork with health problems. It is worth presenting again the following quote:

‘Yes, we work so hard that it finishes with annoying back pain' (senior expert, aged 30, female, married).

Another outcome overwork caused is work-life imbalance. When some participants told about overtime work with irony, one informant gave a fairly clear and honest response:

‘Oh, I'd be happy to work 10 hours a day. But the matter is that we often exceed this time, and we spend weekends working. I'm not complaining, it was my choice … but it [work] takes all my time. May be that is why there are many single people. (expert, aged 27, female, single).

This episode from the interview indicates that overworkleaves employees little space for rehabilitation before a new week and causes obstacles to balance life and work.

In order to explain basic reasons for overwork, an assumption is made on the basis of provided data. From one hand, as Hubner [24], Schwab [25] and Mirola [26] note, the national culture of Kazakhstan is characterised by bureaucratic incompetence. In spite of fear to sound unsubstantiated, organizations in the country are affected by such tradition, consequently, making the work more complicating. Such a conclusion results from opinion given by one of informants:

‘We become overcautious people. You have to make additional bureaucratic records just in case, … an automatic habit to secure yourself against control from the top. But at the end of the day, that case and a request about those unnecessary details never emerge' (senior expert, aged 26, male).

As a result, there is a firm assumption among employees that it is the Organization Nmanagers and the civil service system in Kazakhstan that is responsible for low job satisfaction, overtime work, which is never compensated. Overall these circumstances lead members of staff to ‘a wait-and-see attitude' with the aim to find a better place in the future.

Discussion of findings. Characteristics of the culture discussed in the findings section seem establishing norms and rules within the organization, inevitably putting on employees the label of task-oriented, disciplined, automatic, and docile people.

When discussing the people under examination, identification of three groups of civil servants within the state agency is supportive to the theory developed by Schein [1]. As he contends, subcultures with contrasting values can exist inside one society. Three subcultures, namely, Groups 1, 2 and 3, are identified. These micro cultures have different values and attitudes towards the environment they used to work in everyday, thus, exhibiting behaviours dissimilar to each other.

Another aspect of the culture is teamwork. It is considered as the instrument to meet the organization objectives. However, despite joint efforts of colleagues, one could hardly argue that employees in the Organization N are committed to each other. Conversely, they are individualistic willing to show personal results, rather than covering one's incompetence.

When examining the causes of overwork, bureaucracy was identified as one of the factors of superfluous work. Bureaucracy tends to be a traditional description of Kazakhstani culture, which is confirmed by Hubner [24], Schwab [25] and Mirola [26].

In addition to theoverwork issue, a cost cutting policy complicates the situation in the organization. Participants try to meet high expectation of management, although sharing with complaints about overload and cost cutting only among colleagues. Thus, members of the state agency tend to bear implicit resentment towards the attitude of management.

From one hand, such measure of the Organization Ncan be seen as rational within the frame of ongoing civil service development steps. However, constant overwork can hardly be justified. From the other hand, it is worth mentioning findings presented by Cseh [27] and Muratbekova-Touron [28]. They characterize Kazakhstani organizations as paternalistic. Findings of this research, and conclusions made by these two researchers are partially consistent. As in their studiesCseh [27] and Muratbekova-Touron [28] identify paternalistic attitude of Kazakh managers towards subordinates, in the case of Organization N the situation seems likewise. Since civil servants are committed to work, they expect the same attitude to themselves from management of their organization. However, management seemsto disappoint employees, concentrating more on tasks and goals in plans. For this reason, some specialists appear to harbour resentment against the management. Such employees consequently form Group 3, while others submissively accept conditions.

Interestingly, neither young, nor senior colleagues are passionate to openly claim better conditions at work. Instead, a part of employees prefer retaining. Perhaps, they favour job security and accept the current situation within civil service, which strengthens requirements to employees. The other part, however, bears a thought to leave, when there is a better opportunity.

In regards to formed three divisions, the interpretation of findings may imply a subsequent theory. Formed categories in the organization might be advantageous for administration. Having fully utilized employees' resources, the Organization N can experience employees' turnover without pain. This is because an exceptional category of civil servants from Group 2, may always remain resistant in the organization. Group 2 appears to form the backbone of the collective carrying established rules and norms within the organization. This conforms proposition made by Wilson [12]. She insists that there should be ‘a stabilizing force' [12: 218] resistant against fluctuations able to undermine conventional culture (see Figure 1). Moreover, results show there is a resistant Group 2, which seems reflecting the hypothesis proposed by Schein [2]. He states that it is people within asociety, who build culture, reacting to inner and outside world, generating and retaining values and norms with the aim to survive as a group.

Taking into account categorization of the staff into three groups with dissimilar believes and values, it can be suggested that presented findings imply a traditionalscenario, when the state agency staff gradually passes evolutionary stages. Figure 1 clearly demonstrates it.

In other words, the state agency image of a good place to work makes younger civil servants (Group 1) to be passionate about gaining experience at the beginning. However, they may inevitably be disillusioned. Later, due to gained experience, a part of them, who see the rationale to retain, tends to become the part of the resistant Group 2 (see Fig.). The remaining employees, who are more ambitious, might make plans to quit in order not to price them out of the market. Traditionally, the scenario repeats because recruitment process gives a start to a new selectiocycle. Within this cycle, the culture of the Organization N might check whether employees fit it or not.

The presented concept impliethat the Organization N has established culturewhich is preserved due to management and resistant Group 2 employees. In the Figure1 this group is indicated as a stabilizing force. One might argue that it can hardly be called successful culture, since there are employees with low job satisfaction. However, it can be concluded again that the Organization Nmay have firmly established culture, which makes employees to choose: either to fit or quit.

Conclusion. As the ontological position of this research is social constructionism, the purpose was to determine social reality, values and attitudes towards the culture within the Organization N. The authorof this paper also attempted to examine how members of this society shape the reality, and how they perceive it. Therefore, the culture under investigation is defined as a social phenomenon, which established firmly in the state agency.

Moreover, there is an assumption that psychological conflict of minds between management and employees is intentionally left without attention. Perhaps, employees' hidden resentment towards insufficient care from administration remains unexpressed because employees are aware of insignificance of their power to affect the nature of the organization. If so, it is management who benefits from such an indifferent position, which helps the state agency to follow a so-called ‘fit or quit' policy in regards to its members. This is how the culture within Organization Nis conceptualized.

Kunda [3] and Denison [9] argue that studying organizational culture is a complex task due to the fact that culture is a quite broad concept. Nevertheless, highlighted key findings emerging from core themes in the data more likely addressed the research question of this paper. Linking these findings to previous research on organizational culture of civil service in Kazakhstanpoints to problematiareas lacking empirical research and theory development.

Discussed findings may contribute to the research on organizational culture in civil service. As can be seen from findings, the culture consists of vulnerable and compliant employees. In respect of this, Heidrich and Alt [29] elucidate that national culture can cause issues when working in period of changes to adapt to new rules of the game of the civil service. Nevertheless, to understand organizational culture within state organizations in the Republic of Kazakhstan, further empirical research needs to be conducted. Moreover, application of other research methods, in addition to grounded theory method, might be contributive to further research.

To conclude, application of the grounded theory method helped to examine organizational culture of the state agency.Since some peculiarities of culture of the Organization N are identified, results can be valuable for HR specialists to understand its nature. Perhaps, this will lead to improvements in both management and the policy of the organization. Finally, the situation demonstrates the complexity of the working environment and conditions Kazakhstani civil servants encounter.

 

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Year: 2018
City: Karaganda
Category: Economy