A Good Reason to Study Corporate Culture

By Peter Klein

Corporate culture is hard to define and measure (Kreps’s game-theoretic version is probably the one most familiar to economists), but may play a role in explaining variation in firm performance (Kreps's game-rethoric). Of course, one should not invoke “culture” as an explanation for outcomes without specifying some microfoundations. And culture may be as much the result of firm performance as the cause.

But organizations can also serve as a sort of laboratory for understanding the links between informal institutions like culture and more formal institutions such as written rules, policies, and procedures in society at large, a very important issue for economic history, growth, public policy, etc. So say Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales in this short note:

Unlike large societies, however, corporations give hopes to identify the link between culture and formal institutions. . . . First, the creation of a firm is a moment where the founder has the power to set values on a blank slate. Identification of this moment is easier (it is recorded, it is recent) than identifying when and who sets the values of a large community (e.g. a country). Second, culture is easier to change in a corporation. Through hiring and firing corporations can select values by selecting people, avoiding the more difficult strategy of changing their minds. And can punish them if they do not adapt (e.g. by deferring promotion). In large societies only the difficult strategy is available, and slow adaptation is hard to punish, unless slow-adapters are outlawed, which makes culture and law undistinguishable. Third, it is easier to establish the link with performance. Performance is continuously recorded, for the corporation as a whole and often for its segments and divisions in order to implement compensation schemes. Hence, one can study the role of shared norms and beliefs while controlling for the power of economic incentives. Finally, because firms break up and merge much more often than countries, an observer can collect exposure of a firm to a new culture much more often than one can for larger societies.

Here is the link (NBER gated, CEPR, may be ungated for some users).

This post originally appeared on organizationsandmarkets.com.