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Flexible Firm

Flexible Firm: The Design of Culture at Bang & Olufsen

Jakob Krause-Jensen
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition, 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 318
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  • Book Info
    Flexible Firm
    Book Description:

    Bang & Olufsen, the famous Danish producer of high-end home electronics, is well known as an early exponent of value-based management: the idea that there should be consistency in what the organisation does, a certain continuity between what the company develops and sells, and the beliefs and practices of the employees. This study investigates how company values are communicated and the collective identity is articulated through the use of such concepts as 'culture', 'fundamental values', and 'corporate religion', as well as how employees negotiate these ideas in their daily working lives. As this book reveals, the identification of values, meant to create cohesion and solidarity among employees, came to symbolise and engender a split between the staff and the other parts of the company. By examining the rise and fall of the value-based management approach, this volume offers the indispensible insight of anthropological enquiry to expose how social realities challenge conventional management strategies and therefore must be considered in the development of new management techniques.

    eISBN: 978-1-84545-824-9
    Subjects: Anthropology, Management & Organizational Behavior

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. List of Figures and Illustrations
    (pp. ix-ix)
    (pp. x-xv)
    John Van Maanen

    The term culture is one of the most complex, befuddling and timeworn words in our lexicon. Culture, like ‘force’ to the physicist, ‘life’ to the biologist, or ‘god’ to the theologian is multi-vocal and highly ambiguous but nonetheless a keyword across the humanities and social sciences. Its references and complications are, of course, legendary and numerous. When put to use, contradictions abound. Culture has been taken by some of its most distinguished students as cause and consequence, material and immaterial, coherent and fragmented, grand and humble, visible (to some) and invisible (to many). In anthropology and sociology, the term has...

    (pp. xvi-xvii)
  6. CHAPTER 1 Starting Fieldwork on ‘The Farm’
    (pp. 1-22)

    For more than two decades this humorous drawing by Gary Larson has been a favourite on the fridge doors and pin-up boards of anthropologists. The cartoon shows a group of ‘primitives’ who are in a panic to remove their TV’s, telephones, and VCR’s before the anthropologists arrive. Apparently, the ‘primitives’ are intent on keeping the otherworldly scientists locked in their professional illusion of the existence of equally otherworldly ‘pure natives’ living in timeless pockets uncontaminated by MTV and Beverly Hills 9876543 (or whatever the number is). Unfortunately, Larson’s comic seems to imply that there are no more blank spots on...

  7. CHAPTER 2 ‘Reflexibility’ – the Methodology of Fieldwork Among Lay Ethnographers
    (pp. 23-50)

    The neologism ‘reflexibility’¹ is intended to capture the intention behind working with ‘culture’ as a mode of governance. The assumption behind ‘value-based management’ is that commands and rules telling you what to do are too rigid, static, and removed from ever-changing real life situations to be helpful as guidelines. Instead, workers should be encouraged to take decisions themselves. The idea behind reflecting on and identifying the values of the organization is that if the workers are familiarised with the ‘culture’ or the fundamental values of Bang & Olufsen, then they will be empowered to take the right decisions in a fleeting...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Power of Culture
    (pp. 51-86)

    In his bookWhite Collar(1968 [1951]), C. Wright Mills distinguishes between different attitudes to work. According to the first attitude as exemplified in the views of such different figures as the Father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, and the Father of Scientific Management, Frederick Taylor, work has an extrinsic meaning; it is a means to achieving something else (i.e., religious or economic rewards). According to another conception of work that can be traced back to the Renaissance, work is intrinsically meaningful (Mills 1968: 251–253). Karl Marx is probably the most famous heir to this Renaissance perspective. To Marx, transforming...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Farm, Factory, Firm – the Culture of Design and the Design of Culture
    (pp. 87-117)

    The notion of ‘culture’ has aptly been described as an important means by which groups reflect on themselves – one of the most prevalent mirrors of late modern identity projects (Bauman 1999: iv). In the following chapters, I will track Bang & Olufsen’s ‘identity project’ historically. I will trace the development from ‘farm’ (Peter Bang and Sven Olufsen’s first experiments were performed at the Olufsen-family’s manor house) over ‘factory’ (starting actual production in an old school building) to ‘firm’ (1960s, the design, internationalisation), and, in the subsequent chapter, to the current attempts to establish a vision-driven global ‘Brand’. It is important...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Breakpoint: Metaphors of Change
    (pp. 118-142)

    One of the deepest theoretical problems of the social sciences is to find explanations that give satisfying accounts of both change and continuity. This theme underlies many discussions of structure vs. agency, system vs. individual, and consensus vs. conflict. In this chapter, we shall see how in the corporate world the balance between continuity and change is a predominantpracticalproblem and a concern, which is also reflected in the culture discourse.

    The chapter starts by briefly recounting the corporate history from 1972 to 1993, when the company was radically restructured and a ‘culture revolution’ was set in motion. I...

  11. CHAPTER 6 From ‘Corporate Identity Components’ to ‘Fundamental Values’
    (pp. 143-163)

    On one of my first days of fieldwork, Frank, my closest contact in the HR Department, took me to meet Troels. Troels worked in Market Intelligence, a small unit of four or five people, whose primary job was to use the existing customer database to typify and target the potential consumers as effectively and accurately as possible: ‘they would be interesting for you to talk to – and they would also be interested to hear what you have to say about culture and ethnographic method,’ Frank said as we descended the glass staircase to the second floor, where the department...

  12. CHAPTER 7 ‘Brand Religion’ – and Voices of Heresy
    (pp. 164-187)

    In his famous monograph on Zande magic, E.E. Evans-Pritchard tries to make sense of the phenomenon of witchcraft. He goes a long way to defend the Azande from accusations of irrationality by arguing that their knowledge and use of witchcraft is compatible with rational, scientific, causal explanations. In a passage that echoes Peter’s favourite Nietzsche aphorism (see previous chapter), Evans-Pritchard says that: ‘Witchcraft explainswhyevents are harmful to man and nothowthey happen’ (Evans–Pritchard 1976: 24, original emphasis). Much in line with the intentions behind establishing corporate culture and identifying fundamental values, then, Zande witchcraft provides the...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Working with Human Resources
    (pp. 188-215)

    The Human Resources Department had been formed just a few weeks before I started fieldwork. To help with the development of a comprehensive personnel policy, it had been decided to fuse two departments: the ‘employee centre’ (medarbejdercenter), with fourteen employees, and the smaller Human Resources Development Unit, with only four employees. The former was a personnel department in the classic sense, providing service mostly to non-managerial employees; the latter was a small group working closely with senior management on strategic issues of organizational development. The integration of the two departments under a new name and the appointment of a new...

  14. CHAPTER 9 How to Do Things with Words
    (pp. 216-248)

    Many observers (Legge 1995a; Storey 1989) have argued that HRM’s over shadowing of classical personnel management did not lead to the introduction of a coherent new range of practices, but that it is better understood as the introduction of arhetoricabout how employees should be managed to achieve competitive advantage. Human Resource Management should thus be regarded primarily as a cultural construction comprised of a series of metaphors redefining the meaning of work and the way individual employees ought to relate to their employers. Keenoy and Anthony suggest: ‘HRM is a rhetoric aimed at achieving the employees’ normative commitment...

  15. CHAPTER 10 The Social Significance of Flexibility
    (pp. 249-271)

    As the title of the book indicates, the word ‘flexibility’ is important. In order to accommodate to changing, turbulent markets, companies and their employees strive to be flexible. This has become corporate common sense, and the effort to attain organizational flexibility is an important backdrop to the whole idea of value-based management treated in previous chapters. The sociologist Manuel Castells writes about the background toThe Network Society:‘the fundamental goal of organizational changes was to cope with the uncertainty caused by the fast pace of change in the economic, institutional and technological environment of the firm by enhancing flexibility...

    (pp. 272-278)

    My book is an investigation of management culture discourse in its social context. Through ethnographic fieldwork in a HR department, I have examined concepts and metaphors, and the images of social life implied and role models offered by these descriptions. I have investigated how these ideas are created and communicated; how they change; what people do with them; and what they do to people. Doing ethnography or perhaps ‘ergonography’¹ among Human Resources staff, who worked on identifying and communicating the culture of Bang & Olufsen, and yet also said that they were not fully part of it, was not a straightforward...

    (pp. 279-279)

    In the summer of 2005, I visited Bang & Olufsen for the first time in two years. I talked to people and tried to find out what had transpired since I did my field research. Not surprisingly, a lot had happened since the time of my fieldwork: the process of outsourcing continues; the maintenance of the building and the catering has been outsourced; and, a production plant has been set up in Czechia. David Lewis is still the chief designer, although his position has perhaps become more volatile than before as competing designers are now hired. Under the banner ‘back to...

    (pp. 280-280)
    (pp. 281-291)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 292-302)