Close this search box.

How Does The Australian Culture Impact on Your Business

Share this blog



Australian Outback

Ben Kehoe, July 2021

This paper is written in 1990. (30 years ago) It was my first attempt at grappling with the Australian business culture. I reread it periodically to see what is changing. The challenges now are greater and the imperatives more urgent!

 In this reading I have had the benefit of Grammarly – so there are some minor edits and some redrafting – the substance remains the same. If you take the time to read it – Enjoy

Ben Kehoe December 2015

I have recently come across this paper, which I wrote, in the late ’80s at the time of the Award Restructuring Conversation in Australia. At the time, I was National President of the Australian Institute of Training and Development, and as the President, I was invited to many conferences to present papers. This paper is one version of those presentations. When I read it today, it is still relevant? Today’s conversation seems to be that Australia is undergoing a significant transition, and innovation is the platform for the future.

 It is incredible to me how many of the issues remain the same.








Ben Kehoe




 We are a nation of boat people – even the Aborigines first had to cross the sea to settle here.  Many migrants from the Old World have made a physical crossing of the sea but have yet to complete the journey spiritually.  The air of rootlessness is all-pervasive.  Many, black and white, have experienced uprooting but have yet to put down their roots firmly in new soil.  Art and literature have highlighted both the wandering spirit (explorers, drovers, shearers, prospectors, swaggies, truckies) and the theme of man-against-nature.  Aggressiveness to the land stamps much of our primary production.  Australians readily change their place of residence, and most cling to the coastal rim of the continent.  Spiritually we yet feel the need to ‘come home to Australia.  



The Australian Outback


Throughout this paper, I have placed quotes from Landmarks – A Spiritual Search in a Southern Land by Eugene D. Stockton, and I invite you to consider the Australian culture and its impact on your business.



Much of Australia is desert, with most of the people clinging to the rim of this vast emptiness, yet even in the city, one cannot escape the sense of the desert not far away.  For “dessert” describes a landscape that is environmental and social, cultural, mental, and above all spiritual, seemingly devoid of humanity, except for a cry of anguish.


The focus of this paper, “How does Australian culture impact your business?” is somewhat daunting; however, I have documented my understandings in this working paper, which reflects some of the coherence and chaos in my thinking.  By definition, the paper is incomplete, and I hope it raises some questions for you – it certainly did for me.  I propose to commence by telling two stories.  The first occurred in about 1980-1981.

At that time, I worked on a project with a sizeable statutory authority in developing management systems and associated management information systems.  One element of the project involved redesigning a range of work systems, which included establishing self-managing multi-skilled workgroups.  After working for some time at the workplace, I remember commenting to a colleague, “it was really like opening up a patient and finding inoperable cancer”.  The entrenched work attitudes and practices were so anachronistic that it appeared nothing we were trying to do was going to change anything.  (Since that time, the organisation has undergone radical surgery on several occasions, and it would appear for the better.  However, the casualty rate was very high, and the scar is there forever.)

The second occurs in 1984, sitting in a conference room with a few consulting colleagues chatting about “fads” and trends in the Human Resource consulting arena.  As we talked about what had happened over the past ten years, we looked at the “OD” movement with its focus on individuals and small group behavioural change, the systems approach to training, performance appraisal systems, the influence of the individual therapeutic models (e.g. TA, Gestalt, Psychodrama), sociotechnical systems design, job design and probably a range of other “fads” which all had their day in the sun.  As we pondered on what was next, culture emerged as a possibility – (Overhead 2); however, Quality and Service were absent, Strategic Planning emerging as a possible saviour and Excellence was fashionable!! (VAM, JIT, and TQM/C Award restructuring/Micro Economic Reform were not in our awareness at that time.)  If we sat around now and predicted ten years out, which letter of the alphabet would be fashionable?

It is interesting to reflect on my journey in the field – as I continue to explore the nature of work, work organisations and social organisations generally.  The two stories I used to commence this paper highlight culture as a critical variable in organisations.  You may well judge that I was slow to learn, but over the next few years, I have asked the question of myself and others – “Why culture?  Why now?  What is happening in the western world of business (particularly Australia) which surfaces the need to examine culture (and try to change it)?”

During that time, I have participated in and watched others develop programs, which have had cultural change as a focus.  When I look back on this time and consider the radical changes which have occurred both at a global and a national level, it appears to me as if culture has arisen as an issue to enable us “to find meaning”. In a world in which stability is a bygone word – where institutions that we knew and loved (or loved to hate) have been threatened if not collapsed, a form of existential crisis emerges.  The exploration of values and the emergence of transcendent values (e.g. Excellence, Quality and Service) may enable us to establish new meanings.

Over the past few years, we have seen a kaleidoscope of conferences addressing a range of issues – Training: Award Restructuring, Industrial Relations, Service, Quality, Stamp Duties, Commercialisation etc. (Choose any other topic).  I can only assume that these conferences are meeting a need in the Australian business market.

What need are we meeting?

Possible needs include:

.           To know what others are doing.

.           A search for directions?

.           To establish learning networks.

.           A search for meaning (i.e. to make sense out of an increasingly complex reality)?


The fact that these conferences are happening is a sign of something – maybe a cultural change is occurring in this country.

These conferences might be described as emerging rituals in which we come together to share stories and break down boundaries and build shared understandings.

Interestingly enough, just three years ago, when I was National President of AITD, the Institute debated and negotiated with a sister organisation whether the market could bear any more than one Human Resource Conference annually.  In 1990 there must have been a dozen, with more to come.

The title of this paper is as:  “How does Australian culture impact on your business?”  I propose to deal with it using the following framework:

.           Some definitions and terminology associated with the area of culture.

.           Some perspectives about global changes.

.           The Australian culture – some thoughts.

.           Corporate culture

– What kind of environment do you work in?

– A symbol in Australia.

.           Corporate culture – what questions is your organisation endeavouring to answer?



            We are a gambling people.  It is estimated that 80% of Australians gamble, the highest percentage of any nation.  The early convicts were notoriously heavy gamblers.  Many free settlers migrated here on a gamble.  The gambling spirit lay behind much of our economic development:  the gold rushes, adapting old farming methods to local conditions, mining, manufacture, business ventures, speculation in land, commodities and stock.  The motivation for gambling is not only the apparent hope of making an easy fortune but, more subtly, the excitement of the challenge. 


            Allied to gambling is the Australian passion for sport.  We admire those who force themselves to the limit for an uncertain result, pitting themselves against rivals.  Even if our participation is of the spectator mode, we are electrified by performances of skill, endurance, audacity and Excellence.  It is as if from an accessible seat in the stands, we share vicariously in the exhilaration of extreme self-stretching.  The same thrill of recognising Excellence can be felt in the concert hall.                                                                                                                                            


Some Definitions and Terminology Associated with the Area of Culture

To provide a framework for my thinking in this area, I have identified several terms and frameworks, which helped me make sense of culture.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz defines culture as “our historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expression in symbolic forms by means of which men and women communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about attitudes towards life.  In this sense, culture is something living, something giving meaning, direction, and identity to people in ways that touch not just the intellect but especially the heart.  One cannot define symbol without reference to feelings, to the heart.  A symbol is any reality that by its dynamism or power leads to (i.e. makes one think about or imagine, or get into contact with, or reach out to) another deeper (and often mysterious) reality through a sharing in the dynamism that the symbol offers (and not by verbal or additional explanations).  So, a symbol is not merely a sign, for signs only point to the signified.  Symbols rather represent the signified; they carry meaning in themselves.  New symbols do not take root in the hearts of people overnight as substitutes to other symbols.  Time and experience are necessary for new meanings to develop.  Hence, if a people’s way of having a culture is dramatically undermined for whatever reason, the effects can be traumatic.  A feeling of malaise or confusion emerges.  Identity and a sense of security are lost.”                                                                                                                        Arbuckle G.A. p.3

This definition, in my view, is more comprehensive than the notion of “shared values”, which permeates the cultural debate. What we are talking about when we speak of culture is something more profound and significant.

Several writers provide cultural frameworks.   Some of the language of culture is attached in Appendix A.  In preparing for this, I found it very difficult to identify any consistent language, which could be used, highlighting a significant issue in the definition of culture.

                                                                                              Australians admire the carefree spirit and the independent mind.  A love of freedom shows clearly in the enjoyment of outdoor activities.  We are suspicious of undue formality and prefer casual wear.  The beach has become a powerful symbol of our lifestyle:  expanses of sand and sea where naked bodies sun and surf with no concern.  Is this unfettered freedom to be a trap for mindless, aimless pleasure?  Freedom and responsibility are partners in mutual need each of the other.


Global Changes

There is no need to highlight specifically the dramatic shifts occurring globally – you could all identify the radical changes, which have happened in the last twelve months and probably the last ten years.  In 1984, I struggled to identify and articulate some of the issues confronting organisations when I read ‘The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson. She named the “paradigm shift” she had identified in economics, politics, health, and education in many areas.  It seemed to me at the time that there was a framework. It put words to a struggle I was having in my consulting work.  Since that time, several authors have added to the identification process. If we consider the success of ‘Megatrends’ on the bookselling lists, there is some sense in the “from/to” model identified as “paradigm shifts”.

To focus on these global changes a little more clearly, consider these emerging global trends identified by Jean Houston p.13

.           Globalisation

.           The Rise of the Feminine

.           The Emergence of New Science and New Scientists accompanied by a Miniaturisation of Technology

.           The Emergence of a Global Spiritual Sensibility

Further to these, Rushworth Kidder p.195 interviewed 22 world leaders and identified the following six global issues:

.           The threat of nuclear annihilation

.           The danger of overpopulation

.           The degradation of the global environment

.           The gap between the developing and the industrial worlds

.           The need for a fundamental restructuring of educational systems

.           The breakdown in public and private morality

While many of these will not be new to you, the implications for a country such as Australia are immense. There is a “global reality” overtaking us!

Jean Houston p12 suggests:

            “We are in a time of radical changing story, dying to one and waking up to another…

            What is happening, I believe, is way beyond what has been called a ‘paradigm shift’.  It is a whole system transition, a shift in reality itself…

            The world itself is changing on a deep ontological level:  fundamental structures are no longer what they once were.

            The change crosses all boundaries, and we are in the midst of that change.  Traditional epistemologies and scientific understandings pale before the present mysteries.” 


Australian Culture 

Australian history is typically represented as a series of achievements and a succession of people who “made it”.

But the underside of our history records the cost borne by the original inhabitants and the more significant number of those overseas who never entirely “made it”.  These two streams have mingled in shared poverty:  genocide, marginality, uprootedness, brutality, captivity, exploitation, race and sex discrimination, religious persecution, loss of language and culture, misunderstanding, ill-health, hardship, failure, tragedy and suffering.  From this underside of Australian history, a genuinely compassionate Australia is being formed out of the crucible of poverty.


The Australian Outback

To understand the Australian culture, I have initially taken a historical perspective in identifying some of the issues and events that have influenced our culture’s development.


1890’s                    The emergence of unionism

1900’s                    Federation – The Constitution

1900-10                 Free Trade vs. Protectionism

1910-20                 First War.


Eureka Stockade.

Conscription Debate.

1920-30                 Start of depression.

1939-40                 Depression and Second War.

1940-50                 Second War and the baby boom.

Coal strike.

Fear of communism

1950-60                 Time of stability – Menzies.

European Common Market.

Split in Labour Party.


1960-70                 Assassination of President Kennedy.


1970-80                 Unemployment passed 2%.

Whitlam era.

Vietnam ended.

Constitutional crisis.

These are a selection, which came to mind as I was writing this paper.  Each of you could add to this.  In my view, these are either signs or symbols to which our culture attributes meaning.  Some of these have become symbols in their own right (e.g. Unions, The Constitution, Protection, etc).

Donald Horne, in his book “Ideas of a Nation” p.52, describes an exercise which he sets up early in a course on public culture – it goes something like this:

                                  “Describe in half a page, the kind of ‘Australia’ connoted by one of the following:

                                  A meat pie, Rottnest Island, Eyewitness News, Collins Street, ‘A Country Practice”, The Governor-General, A Pizza Hut, The Sydney Opera House, Ayers Rock, The BHP…”

 He points out that this represents the language of Australia – some of it Regional at that.  Foreigners would not recognise most of it.

In addition to this, we might consider the Australian business/organisation culture from another perspective.

  1. We are a country that has been given birth to by Great Britain in many senses – we started as a penal colony. (In fact, Fred Hilmer has argued that it has had a substantial impact on our approach to work (i.e. we have a convict mentality.)

Many of our social structures have been developed based on the British model (our Legal System, our Parliamentary System).  It could be argued that we swallowed it whole and this has heavily influenced much of our business culture.

  1. After World War 2, there was a gradual shift in awareness towards the United States. It is undoubtedly apparent that much of our management theory and technology has emerged from the US. A whole generation of managers has been developed based on American models and traditions.  This pattern continues today with the continued drive in the MBA arena.
  2. In the mid-’80s, in response to a turbulent environment and a declining membership base, the Union Movement has initiated a movement that has significant implications. The strategies focus on Strategic Unionism, and award Restructuring is currently being pursued nationally as one prong in a larger plan, which this Government focuses on Micro-Economic reform.  These strategies followed extensive studies of management and work organisation models in Sweden, West Germany and Japan.  These strategies have dramatic implications for management and unions in this country in today’s environment.
  3. An exciting feature of the ’80s was an increasing awareness also of Japan as a global economic power and, during this time, the emergence of Japanese management practices as the focus of attention.

Given that we are increasingly identifying Asia as a significant opportunity, the current “Pot Pourri” of competing cultures and ideologies one can only describe as a cultural “melting pot”.  There is a considerable struggle occurring within this country to develop “an Australian way”.

Jeremy Davies provides a perspective on Australian culture in his article entitled “Australian Managers: Cultural Myths and Strategic Challenges in Australia Can Compete” p.101 where he quotes Kahn & Pepper – “the distinctive features of Australian culture they single out for particular mention are:

 .    The ‘no worries’ attitude that, while not fatalistic, does allow one to ignore the consequences of one’s actions because things have worked out in the past and probably will in the future.

 .    The idea of mateship and egalitarianism, with its tendency to decry the most distinctive forms of achievement.

.    The isolationist impulse, which in their judgement has become an assertive, ‘protect my corner’ philosophy, our ethos that denies any social or economic change that may be to the detriment of any established group,”…

To counterbalance this, they also identify “a drive for excellence, a genuine striving among Australians for even greater achievement.”

An article by David Milliken identifies Egalitarianism, Wowserism, Anti-intellectualism, Scepticism, Humour, Secularisation and our association with the land as key in the Australian experience.

While it is difficult to get a “good grasp” on the Australian culture in such a brief document, many elements of our culture are manifest in our approach to work and business.  Some of these will be discussed in the section on corporate culture.

We consider now some of the more radical changes which have occurred in the past ten years. These changes have influenced the environment in which you currently operate.

C  Floating the $

C  Deregulation of banking

C  Industrial disputation and subsequent shift in Industrial strategy

C  Reduced protection in previously protected industries.

C  Deregulation/Commercialisation in Government Systems

C  Mergers/Takeovers

C  1987 Stock market Crash

C  Foreign Debt

C  Interest Rates

C  etc.

An imposing list!!

Suppose they don’t impact directly on your organisation. In that case, all your work colleagues have equal access to information about these events and issues and bring these perceptions to work wherein they attribute meaning to them in the context of their own work experience.



       Corporate Culture: What is the environment in which you currently work?


In the same way, as it is challenging to get a hold of the Australian culture – corporate culture has the same complexity.  In his text, Ott J. p.52 states:

     “There are very few areas of consensus about organisation culture.  They include five assumptions:

  1. Organisation culture exists
  1. Each organisation culture is relatively unique
  1. Organisation culture is a socially constructed reality (Berger & Luckman 1966; Holzner & Marx 1979; Mead 1934)
  1. Organisation culture provides organisation members with a way of understanding and making sense of events and symbols.
  2. Organisation culture is a powerful lever for guiding organisation behaviour. It functions as “organisation control mechanisms, informally approving or prohibiting         some patterns of behaviour”, `Martin & Suhl 1983′.”

He also provides many different definitions of organisation culture, but one which stood out in my mind is:

“Organisation culture is holistic. Trying to think about organisation culture reductionistically is like trying to appreciate a painting by analysing its stroke patterns or its chemical content. Organisational culture is not just another piece of the puzzle; it is the puzzle … a culture is not something an organisation has; a culture is something an organisation is.”  (Pacanowsky & ODonnell – Trujillo 1983, p.126) quoted in Ott J. p.190.

The implications of this definition for us all are dramatic. In essence, it suggests that anything that is done within or by our organisation can contribute to or influence the culture somehow.  In accord with open systems theory, an organisation interacting with its environment influences and is influenced by that environment daily.

Within organisations, the nature of the business and the technology used, both “hard” and “soft,” are signs of the culture.  Typically, the Australian corporate system evolves around an adversarial relationship emerging from a long-held view, probably based on the English class system.  This has led to a strong union ethos reinforced by the cultural value of “mateship” inherent in the Australian identity.

Accepting that the environment has a significant role in the development of culture, organisations that have been unionised have had a considerable part of their culture determined by a source outside the organisation.  Even now, with Award Restructuring, those organisations, if they did not move four or five years ago, may well be playing “catch up”.  The culture is moving away from them.

Whatever the current position, the traditional confrontationist models of the past must now give way to new forms of cooperation.

`Dunphy and Stace’ p.201 suggest:

     “That this change in national consciousness is underway: that there is a growing number of business leaders, managers and trade union leaders and employees at all levels who are concerned about our economic situation; who are increasingly informed about what needs to be done; and who are committed to making a personal contribution.”

To reinforce this perspective, consider the following statements (undoubtedly, you could identify many others).

Sir Peter Abeles 1986

     “What I believe is that nobody has yet sold to the average Australian that we live in a different world now and we need an attitudinal change and a restructuring, which the average Australian can’t do.”

Bill Kelty 1987

     “The task of restructuring Australia is not simply a task for Government. …Structural change and the promotion of a productive culture are necessary to enhance our international competitiveness…

     We are about nothing less than the reconstruction of Australia.  These are historic times.  Our future is increasingly tied to the rest of the world. …”

Sir Roderick Carnegie 1988

     “We will only be successful if everyone in Australia lifts their game.  The role of business in today’s world is more than running one’s own business efficiently.  We must participate in reshaping Australia into the strong world competitive economy; it should be into a new mindset.  If we fail in developing fully the tremendous potential of this country, we have no one but ourselves to blame.”

Bill Kelty 1989

     “It is not an easy task, of course, to try and confront and change an attitude that has penetrated the psyche of a nation.”

Business Council of Australia 1989

     “A new work language is beginning to take hold in Australia.  `Competitive’, `global’, `innovative’, `co-operation’, `value-adding and `enterprise’ are displacing such words as `protected’, `local’, `conventional’, `conflict’, `value-distributing’ and `industry’.  This new language reflects the most significant economic event in our recent history: that Australia is now unquestionably part of the global marketplace, and the fact that high living standards will come only from competitiveness in that marketplace.  The community as a whole is increasingly recognising this fact and its implications.”

John Button 1990

     “… For the Australian Business Community, the 1990s will be one of the most exciting but daunting decades since Federation.  Reform will be rapid and often fundamental.  For those who can adapt to that change, the rewards will be great.  Some will not meet the challenge.

     Companies and whole industries will be forced to come to grips with a range of cultural, attitudinal and institutional changes.  Many of the traditions and institutions we inherited at the beginning of this century will no longer sustain us;…”

 Australian Manufacturing Council 1990

     “The culture that commonly exists in Australian workplaces represents a major handicap for the international competitiveness of our industry.  Typically, it results in work that falls short of international standards of quality and productivity.  The problem it presents is a highly complex one, bound up with Australia’s values, social structure and education system and is simultaneously both a cause and effect of our competitive position in world industry and trade.

     We need a breakthrough, and such a breakthrough is within our reach”.

A Symbol in Australia                                                                       


     Australians pride themselves on being “fair dinkum”, down to earth, realistic and pragmatic.  Unashamedly they give themselves over to sensuality and hedonism.  From its beginning as a British colony, our society has been thoroughly secular.  It reacts against the religiosity of its European heritage, whether in the extravagant forms of Catholic tradition or the wordiness of the Protestant.  It may even now be on the verge of breaking out of the four walls of Western Church into the broad expanse of the Australian countryside, once the sacredness of the physical environment is accepted.  A newfound ecological reverence may be converging with the Aboriginal sense of the land, confirming Jung’s hypothesis that white Australians will combine a European mind with an Aboriginal psyche, as their myths and symbols arise from the soil.


The union movement and the Award systems have become symbols in the Australian culture of Australians and work.  Both of these are undergoing a radical transformation.  If, as Peter Drucker argues, work is the most important relationship anyone has in his/her life other than that which they have with their family (and for some, it is the most important), then the transformation of these symbols is going to be a more painful process than I believe anyone has anticipated.  Being challenged is a fundamental view of how all Australia’s management and workforce view work, work organisation and even social organisation.  The essence of this change is at the very heart of Australians at work and has been with us since before the Federation.  Our current industrial system was established legally in 1904 after extensive negotiation between employers and unions.  This historical alliance in which a formal arbitrated wage system was introduced in conjunction with tariff barriers to trade is at the centre of our corporate design.  It is very deeply ingrained, and any shifts will be complex and will cause significant trauma.  The current restructuring in Australia symbolised by these words `restructuring’, `reconstruction’, `new mindset’, has more to do with asking each Australian to radically alter their view of the world than it has to do with redrafting Awards or changing organisation/institutional structures (these may well signify change).  In a sense, we are in the very early stages of cultural change – learning a new language.  The 80’s could be described ad a time of preparation.  There are several stages to come – none of them easy.  Gerard Arbuckle identifies five stages in the process of culture change, and you may consider how your organisation is managing.  (See Appendix B for more detail.)

Stage 1                    Culture Contact/Disorientation

     Stage 2               Reactions to Cultural Disorientation

     Stage 3               Malaise, Chaos, Fear, Anger, Despair, Denial

     Stage 4               Self Help Revitalisation Begins

     Stage 5               Renewed Cultural Integration Identity



     A particular Australian ethos has been moulded by a history of convict beginnings, colonists scornful to the establishment, defiant gold-diggers, and militant labourers.  This feeling combines the attitude of fair-go-for-all and a good-humoured irreverence for positions of power and authority.  It is a feeling caught in the words and tune of “Waltzing Matilda” and the recent film “Crocodile Dundee”.  It lauds the non-conformist, and although most Australians do conform, they yet have a sneaking regard for the “character”.  Our heroes include the battler (especially outback women and single mums), the loser (as at Gallipoli or Eureka, Ned Kelly types), the joker, the one who stands apart from society and laughs at it, refusing to conform without taking himself too seriously.  He is our version of Don Quixote, tilting at windmills and questioning accepted powers and values.


In my understanding of Industrial Relations History, Australians opted for leisure as a major platform in the working conditions debate. It appears that a series of significant recreational advances have dotted our history.

  •  48-hour week
  •  40-hour week
  • 35-hour week
  • Three  weeks leave
  • Four weeks leave
  •  17.5% loading on leave

There have been many other industrial issues over the 90 years; however, this pattern certainly stands out.  There has been minimal emphasis on productivity until recently – the perception being that it was a management process to “exploit the worker”.  (In many ways, it was – historically, we operated in a system in which management had “Divine Right”, and the consequence was the emergence of the “Unholy Left” – in the end, neither grouping had the answer, and we are living with the results.)

I can remember being a member of a project team in the late seventies in which performance measurement and productivity were a focus.  It was the time when OD was at a peak.  At the time, we introduced the concept of semi-autonomous workgroups, job design and multi-skilling.  The work was based on Socio-technical System Theory developed by Emery & Trist.  A leading unionist dismissed it all as a middle-class/ management plot to exploit the workforce.

Interestingly enough, the principles espoused now as an integral feature of Award restructuring have very similar characteristics to those many consultants were using at that time.  The difference now is the Unions are driving the change.  It is also interesting to reflect that Emery & Trist did their work in the late forties in England.  A forty-year lag!!

(Another interesting piece of trivia is that while the Unions issued `Australia Reconstructed in 1987′ – it took until 1989 for the Business Council of Australia to produce a response `Enterprise – Bargaining a New Way of Working’.  Does this mean that management in this country was out there doing it and had no time to write about it, or are they 42 years behind Emery & Trist?)

Let’s consider now the shift required within the culture of Australian organisations. We can get a clear picture of how some people describe the existing culture and their words to describe the new culture.

Business Council p.5




___________________________________________________________________________                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        FROM            TO



Underlying                        Conflict Inevitable                     Mutual Interest

Beliefs                               Low Trust                                   Increased Trust

Central Control                           Individualism

Uniformity/Equality Good         Flexibility



Australian Manufacturing Council p.59 


                                           OLD                                            NEW



Management Style          Hierarchical                               Flat structures, team oriented


Production Cycle             Long runs, for stock                  Flexible, Just-in-Time.


Quality                               Post-check and rework            Quality problems solved as they arise.  Employees take responsibility


Skills                                  Single skilling/deskilling           Multi-skilling

No rewards for upgrading        Skill development integral to production advantage


Source of Improvements                       Employees compartmentalised Team motivation.

Top-down                                    Bottom-up and top-down


Industrial Relations          Many unions/demarcation       Industry-focussed unions


Antagonism                               Shared goals


Bill Ford                                                                                                                                      




                                           Conceptual and Operational Shifts


                                  FROM                                                TO


Hardware                                           Software


Rigid                                                   Flexible


Dedicated                                          Adaptable


Stability                                              Improvement


Fragmentation                                   Fusion


Stand Alone                                       Integrated


Control                                               Autonomy


Economies of Scale                         Economies of Scope


Technical                                           Socio-Technical


Standardised                                     Customised


Universal                                            Culture-Specific


Critical Choices in Skill Formation and Work Organisation

These frameworks require a radical shift in thinking and behaviour by all the key stakeholders.  It may be argued that the changes are too great. Indeed, some of the current initiatives being taken by management and unions are in the right direction.  The movement to Quality and Award Restructuring is closer to 10 to 15-year strategies rather than 2 or 3 years.  It requires a significant shift in our approaches to education and training.  The traditional view of the world is inadequate.  I have no data to suggest the current debate on training has anything more involved than increasing the volume and quality of activity based on old assumptions.  Consider the recent changes in training using the following framework as a reference.


Traditional                                          Emerging

Training Model                           Organisation Learning Model



C  Conducted off-site with individual              C conducted in the work environment with different organisations or workgroups.



C  Trainer has little contact with manager     C  Manager works with group in a

Learning/task process (maybe a process

Consultant assists)

C  Trainer centred                                            C  Work group centred


C  Content & skill driven (individual                C  Task driven – skill development – an

Input)                                                                 output


C  Very like traditional school systems          C  Based on work-related problems &

Possibilities in the situation


C  Skills & learning seen as separate from   C  Learning & skill development

work                                                                   recognised as integral to work


C  May build individual commitment              C  Builds organisational commitment.


C  Trainer skills focus on instruction or          C  Focus upon enhancing managerial and

at least facilitation of individual                       workforce skills in both task and social

learning                                                             processes


C  Major focus on the delivery of information    C Balanced focus on achievement of

– some focus on skill acquisition –                  result, development of commitment &

minimal focus on process                               building community/team


Australia, early this century, had leaders in social innovation, e.g. unionism and women’s emancipation.  We certainly require this leadership again.

Within our organisations, both groups, that is, management and the workforce will be required to shift their respective positions.  This will require a bigness of spirit and a smallness of ego uncommon in our society.

Management, particularly, has a key role to play in the future of our corporate world.  Dunphy & Stace p.206 suggest:

     “Therefore, the most central task of management in a time of great change is to `feed the soul’ of the organisation by creating new meaning around the identity of the organisation.  This involves forming an active relationship with key external stakeholders and with those in the organisation and creating a dialogue of action and debate from which new meaning is forged.”The creation and management of meaning is a challenging task at any time, but when managers are in the process of transformation as well, it requires significant internal resources.

People are increasingly losing their anchor points with the waning or reconstruction of some of our much-loved institutions (e.g. family systems, church systems, union systems, apparently unchangeable institutions changing overnight).  The workplace is one of the very few consistent reference points in people’s lives – and that is undergoing radical change – imagine playing football for thirty years and then being told you had to be competent at ballet and not necessarily understanding why, or if you do change, how it will make any difference anyway.  While this metaphor may be a little “gross”, – for some, that’s how it will be.

The management of meaning will be a critical competency of managers in the future, and recently I read that an understanding of the “history of culture” was another competency.  It’s a far cry from Planning, Organising, Leading, Controlling and Motivating.



     Bush mateship with its strong feeling for equality and shared hardship was the ideology, verging on religion, which gave rise to the uniquely Australian brand of trade unionism.  There was no question made that one must stick by one’s mates, close ranks and be sure a mate can do no wrong.




Corporate Culture: What Question is Your Organisation Asking?

For organisations to survive and grow in the next decade, considerable effort will be required on the part of all stakeholders.

Competing in this global economy is a confrontation with reality, which the average Australian manager finds quite difficult to articulate, let alone manage and lead.  It requires managers who are able to communicate very different questions.  Some of these questions might include:

C  What contribution is our organisation/business making to society?

C  What planning process does our organisation have in place, which allows us to access and interpret environmental information?

C  What is the capacity of our organisation to adapt to change – based on our past experience?

C  Have we the capacity to be a learning organisation?

C  Are creativity and innovation valued in our organisation?

C  Does our organisation add value to materials and the lives of the people who work in it?

C  Do the structures we have in our organisation create and build commitment?

C  What helps make learning explicit and addressable?

C  Do our staff know-how groups and organisations learn?

C  Is our resource allocation consistent with learning as a value?

Changing a culture, be it of a small organisation or a large conglomerate, is challenging.  If it is correct that “organisation culture cannot be measured – only deciphered over time,” then we are in for a long struggle to change Australia’s culture through its businesses/organisations.  It is a form of social engineering, which requires a dramatic reconceptualisation of how we see work, business and the nature of change in Australia.

A question worth considering is:

“In 20/30 years, time, will other countries be sending missions to Australia to document ‘the Australian way’?”


Most Australians hold deep in their hearts a belief that Australia is the Bush and have an image of the Australian as a man on horseback above the trackless plain.

The reality is, for me, a much richer tapestry of lives led by ordinary men and women in the towns as well as in the open spaces.  The barber and the bartender seem as interesting to me as the cattle king and the outlaw.  The lives of the women, sketched in as lightly by history, seem to me like the views of colour in opal matrix, only glimpsed beneath the overlaying ironstone.

The qualities and values of these people formed the mould from which our national identity is cast.  The ability to improvise from what’s at hand; the laconic humour within which heroic deeds became “all in a day’s work”; the ingrained loyalty of “never let your mates down”; above all, the willingness to “have a go” – these are the foundation stones of the Australian character.

Adrift in troubled times, it may be this strength of character, this sense of national identity, which can be our life raft.





                                                                                                                              APPENDIX A




                                      Some Language of Culture


Semiotics:         “For a human society to exist, we must invent the signs of our culture, and they become the social world… Semiotics is the art of studying those signs more systematically, to see what explanations they provide of existence and how they all come together in a language in which buildings, or gestures or paintings or food can have as much meaning as words.”

Horne, D.-`Ideas for a Nation’p.51

Myth:                  a belief held in common by a large group of people that gives events and actions meaning.  Edelman M. Quote in `Ideas for a Nation’. Horne, D.

Legend:             a simple story (whether based on fact or fiction does not matter) illustrates a myth.

Icons:                 an image that not only records but also carries a hefty conceptual and emotional weight.

Lore:                   a comprehensive body of wisdom about the nature of the world and how to get things done.  Wisdom involves both knowledge and technique (both cognitive and instrumental). 

Festival:            a ritualised break from routine that defines specific values in an atmosphere of joy and fellowship. 

Ceremony:        those celebrations in which institutions parade and display their glamour in the form of civil religion. 

Ritual:                an action we perform with our bodies that is both `instrumental’ and expressive, in the sense that we participate symbolically in a common enterprise.


                                                                                                                               APPENDIX B 

Stage 1. Culture Contact/Disorientation

At first, people may be euphoric about the benefits of cultural contact.

A feeling of disorientation or uncertainty about identity and aims in life develops due to the culture’s pivotal symbols being undermined, e.g. authority symbols, rituals.

Stage 2. Reactions to Cultural Disorientation

People try to stop the disorientation feeling through various cosmetic or structural changes to traditional institutions; some changes can be relatively substantial.  Attitudinal changes are not seen as necessary.

Some feel that even significant adjustments have to be made, then in some way or other outsiders must initiate such changes.

Stage 3. Malaise, Chaos, Fear, Anger, Despair, Denial

People realise that the changes, or modifications to existing structures, are having no positive results.  The sense of identity, security and belonging are as elusive as before.

Disorientation gives way to feelings of chaos, malaise, anger, fear of the future, even despair.

 Some people may still claim that severe adjustment problems can be solved by outside agencies or actions, e.g. through legislation.

 Denial that problems exist is strong.

Stage 4. Self-Help Revitalisation Begins

People begin to discover that hope must come from their efforts at re-establishing cultural identity.  Outsiders do not have the answers to the malaise.  Nor do structural changes alone give hope.

 A variety of self-help programs emerge.  Some are escapist, e.g. forms of fundamentalism or reverse nativism.  Here myths or symbols of the past are revived without changes hoping that the original sense of identity and security will be restored.  Other programs are simplistic, even quasi-magical in emphasis, e.g. cult movements and fads of various kinds.  A fad is a rapid, sudden, and ephemeral collective adoption of novel behaviour that affects only superficial or trivial areas of life.  The interest that people showed in Eastern religions during the late 1960s would be an example of a fad.

 Other programs consider that cultural adjustment is a very slow process, demanding not just structural changes or trivial alterations in one’s attitudes or lifestyles but levels of deep personal and group re-orientation to new situations.  Myths and symbols of the past are studied not to escape from the real world but to give people the personal and cultural self-confidence to face the present and future challenges.  The leadership of such movements requires considerable inspiration, patience, and knowledge of how changes occurs.

Stage 5. Renewed Cultural Integration, Identity

As a result of the self-help programs, people achieve varying levels of cultural integration.

 The new integration must not remain static; otherwise, the culture will be exposed to another dramatic cycle of disorientation and chaos.  New symbols must be allowed to merge and give meaning to people in changing situations, or old symbols must be permitted to develop additional meanings.  People cannot opt-out of change.

 Cult movements or fads give only temporary feelings of security.  Since they do not take into account the deeper needs of people, such programs eventually collapse.

Arbuckle, G.A.



Arbuckle, G.A. 1987. Strategies for Growth in Religious Life. St. Paul Publications.

Australian Government Publishing Service. 1987. Australia Reconstructed.

Australian Manufacturing Council. 1990. The Global Challenge Australian Manufacturing in the 1990s.

Business Council of Australia. 1989. Enterprise-based Bargaining Units  A better way of      Working.

Drake,P.J. & Nieuwenhuysen,J.P. Economic Growth for Australia Agenda for Action.

Dunphy, D. & Stace, D. 1990. Under New Management.

Ford, G.W. 1989. Conceptual Changes & Innovations in Skill Formation at the Enterprise   Level. Sydney.

Hilmer, F. 1985. When the Luck Runs Out  The Future for Australians at Work. Sydney:       Harper & Row.

Horne, D. Ideas for a Nation.

Houston, J. 1987. The Search for the Beloved.

Kidder, R.M. 1987. An Agenda for the 21st century. The Christian Science Publishing          Society.

March, Ian C. 1988. Australia can Compete Towards a Flexible Adaptable Society.   Longman Cheshire.

Millikan, D. Article Christianity and Australian Identity. Source Unknown.

Ott, J.S. 1989. The Organisational Culture Perspective. Richard D. Irwin.

Stockton, E.D. 1990. Landmarks – A Spiritual Search in a Southern Land. Parish to   Ministry Publication

Blog & Insights

  • All
  • Australian Business Environment
  • Blog
  • Building a Great Business
  • Business
  • Culture
  • Economy
  • Family
  • Innovation
  • Interesting Finds
  • Leadership
  • Learning
  • Life the World and the Universe
  • Marriage
  • Marriage
  • Personal
  • Politics
  • Science
  • Sightings
  • Strategy
  • Technology

Business Culture: Is it the secret sauce?

Read More →

Together Forever

Read More →

Industries of the Future: Maybe there is hope!

Read More →

A marriage story – everyone needs a mate

Read More →

Work with Ben Enquiry

Creating Prosperity for future Generations