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Management Division Seminar Series

Using a metaphor approach for understanding organisational culture in family businesses

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Using a metaphor approach for understanding organisational culture in family businesses.

Dr Ofelia Palermo, Principal Lecturer, Nottingham Business School

  • From: Wednesday 18 June 2014, 1 pm
  • To: Wednesday 18 June 2014, 2.30 pm
  • Location: N34, Newton building, Main Entrance, Nottingham Trent University, City Campus, Goldsmith Street, Nottingham, NG1 4BU
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Our research is set to broaden current understanding of the organisational culture that characterises small family businesses (FBs). To our knowledge, the literature in this area provides limited understanding on whether or not there those types of organisations are different to other ones in terms of culture and, if so, to what extent.

Most of the existing studies that focus on organisational culture in small FBs either look at the interplay between culture and values (Corbetta and Montemerlo 1999; Pistrui et al. 2000), or at how culture is portrayed in times of intergenerational succession (Miller et al. 2003).

In investigating what very family-oriented cultures look like organisationally, we draw on Alvesson’s (2002) reflections on "culture as a metaphor and metaphors for culture" (Alvesson, 2002:16). It should be noted that rather than studying the metaphors used within family firms directly, we apply an extant metaphor-based model of organisational culture to our interview data. This choice is related to the nature of our research enquiry. Our research context is represented by southern Italian FBs during intergenerational succession - a surprisingly unusual phase of a FB's life for researchers to have access to data.

This research is based on a subjectivist, interpretivist perspective and draws on an inductive approach for the generation of theory. In our view it is particularly important to understand the phenomenon in all of its aspects before hastening to accept the over-simplified functionalistic models. The latter, not rarely, can be found in the popular and academic literature (Barnes 1988; Gersick et al. 1997). The multiple case study design enabled us to investigate, through the use of replication strategy, southern Italian actors' interpretations of the aspects that characterise the organisational culture of the FB they work in.

Our findings highlight the emergence of three metaphors – culture as the founder writ large, culture as an exchange regulator, and culture as a sacred cow – as elements that mediate the tensions characterising organisational culture. Such metaphors, and the tensions they mitigate, reflect the dichotomy between business risk and socio-emotional wealth present in FBs. This suggests that metaphors per se enhance our understanding of culture and of the balance among different cultural equilibria.

The presence of the above tensions suggests an inconsistent interpretation of culture – in Martin's (2002) and Haugh and McKee's (2004) terms – where consensus is found only within subcultures (e.g. owners, employees) which exist, relatively, in harmony with one another. The perspective we offer provides a step in the direction of enlightening the undervalued issues and neglected relationships of past theoretical and empirical studies on what is distinctive about organisational culture in FB.

About the author

Ofelia is Principal Lecturer in the Division of Management at Nottingham Business School, NTU. She is the Course Leader of the MSc International Business and of the dual MSc Global Business and Management. Before working at Nottingham Business School, Ofelia was a research assistant and sessional lecturer at the School of Business and Economics of Loughborough University while enrolled as a PhD student there. Ofelia's experience as an academic also interested the Italian and US University systems in the role of, respectively, lecturer and visiting scholar.

Ofelia's research interests include: new control mechanisms and new forms of resistance; the construction and interpretation of fear in organisations; and the construction of organisational identity. From the collaboration with colleagues from Portugal and Italy Ofelia's research interests expand also to: managerial performance of favouritism in organizations (in collaboration with Ana Catarina Carnaz and Henrique Duarte, ISCTE-IUL), the construction of gendered-discourse within SMEs (in collaboration with Annalisa Zanola, University of Brescia), and organizational culture and values in small family firms’ intergenerational succession (in collaboration with Gaetano Luberto, University of Calabria).

Booking information

Please book your place by emailing Dr Michael Zhang

Places are limited, so we recommend booking your place on this seminar as early as possible to avoid disappointment.

Location details


N34, Newton building, Main Entrance


Nottingham Trent University
City Campus
Goldsmith Street

Past event

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