J. Service Science & Management, 2009, 2: 237-254
doi:10.4236/jssm.2009.24029 Published Online December 2009 (www.SciRP.org/journal/jssm)
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK
Financial Services
Stephen A. Leybourne
Boston University, Boston, USA.
Email: sleyb@bu.edu
Received August 21, 2009; revised October 6, 2009; accepted November 10, 2009.
This paper considers certain aspects of a four-year program of research, and addresses the changing cultural require-
ments to support the rise of improvisational working practices within the UK financial services sector. Specifically, it
reports on some of the outcomes of a study encompassing over 100 hours of interviews, together with a variety of other
primary and secondary data. The outcomes of the full study are documented elsewhere, and they identify a number of
key factors that contribute to the successful use and control of improvisational working practices. One of these factors
is a supportive organizational culture, and this specific area is dealt with in this paper. A particular focus is how the
sample of organization s has attempted to identify a nd create supportive cu ltural conditio ns for improvisational wo rk to
take place. In order to bring clarity to the outcomes of this study, a matrix of the case study organizations is also of-
fered, which segregates those organizations according to their cultural support for improvisation and apparent im-
provisation effectiveness. Some comment on the current difficulties in the Financial Services sector has also been in-
cluded, as it could be argued that improvisation may have contributed to shortcomings in control processes by members
of that sector.
Keywords: Improvisation, Culture, Financial Services
1. Introduction
Over the last ten years or so, evidence has emerged sug-
gesting that more progressive organizations are moving
away from a slavish adherence to agreed processes and
procedures. Rather, they are exploring different, more
radical ways of competing, which depend on allowing
trusted and empowered employees to experiment with
more creative and less predictable ways of achieving.
This developing trend has been labeled organizational
improvisation. The literature on organizational improvi-
sation has matured, build ing on early ph iloso ph ical ideals
from Ryle (1979), and more organizationally-oriented
work such as Weick's (1979) early insights into sense-
making. A number of later contributions have organized
the evolving output (notably Cunha et al., 1999), and
placed it in an appropriate managerial and theoretical
context. As a result of this activity, organizational im-
provisation has progressed from being seen as a dysfunc-
tion resulting from poor planning (Quinn, 1980), to par-
ticipating in, and becoming more recognized, within the
lexicon of management theory (Leybourne, 2005). As
our understanding of the antecedents, influencing factors,
and outcomes of improvisation becomes more compre-
hensive, it is time to focus on the supporting framework
that allows successful improvisation to flourish in orga ni za -
tions. Arguably, one of the more influential of those pre-
existing conditions for effective organizational improvi-
sation is a supportive organizational culture and climate.
This raises the question of how culture and climate
support effective improvisational working practices. This
paper will therefore examine various dimensions of or-
ganizational improvisation, and the way in which it is
used within a range of organizations operating within a
specific business sector, the intention being to iso late and
analyze identifiable components of organizational culture
and climate that may encourage or negate effective im-
Although at the superficial level some practitioners
perceive little difference between culture and climate, the
academic definitions are quite distinct. Deal and Ken-
nedy (1982) talk of culture in terms of: “the way things
are done around here”, although a more exact definition
is “the collection of traditions, values, policies, beliefs,
and attitudes that constitute a pervasive context for eve-
rything we do and think in an organization” (McLean &
Marshall, 1993). Organizational climate is a rather more
ephemeral concept, and one which Mullins (1999: 810)
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services
suggests, when applied to organizations “can be said to
relate to the prevailing atmosphere surrounding the or-
ganization, to the level of morale, and to the strength of
feeling or belonging, care and goodwill among mem-
bers”. This review will deal with organizational culture
first, examining it at both the sectoral and organizational
level, before turning to the notion of climate.
The concept of culture has “…been borrowed from
anthropology, where there is no consensus on its mean-
ing” (Smircich, 1983: 339). Jelinek et al. (1983: 331)
however suggest that culture is “…another word for so-
cial reality”, and that it is “the shaper of human interac-
tion and the outcome of it, continually created and rec-
reated by people’s ongoing interactions” (Jelinek et al.,
1983: 331). Although this description of culture is by no
means universally adopted, it does suggest that cultural
norms are constantly changing. We are however inter-
ested in culture from an organizational and also from a
sectoral viewpoint, and there have been a number of at-
tempts to define culture in these contexts. Corporate or
organizational culture is defined by Gordon (1991: 397)
as “…an organization-specific system of widely shared
assumption s and values that give rise to typical behavior
patterns.” Whipp et al. (1989: 565) suggested that
“…the concept of culture, at the level of the firm, refers
to the collection of beliefs, values and assumptions held
by the members of an organization.” Schein (1985) went
further, defining three levels of cultural phenomena in
organizations: at the surface level, behaviors; at the mid-
dle level, values; and at the deepest level, basic assump-
tions. He considered that the deeper basic assumptions
were the essence of culture.
The emergence of organizational culture as an area of
academic and managerial interest stems from a number
of historic circumstances, including the changes in the
nature of work brought about b y flex ible work ing and th e
breakdown of the “theory X” approach to management.
As employees responded to organizational desire for
“multi-skilled” capability, a desire has emerged to align
or develop a “sense of belonging” to the organization.
This has resulted in an increasing focus on organizational
culture and climate, reflected in sets of differing values,
norms, and beliefs, embedded in different structures and
systems (Handy, 1993). It is also evident that different
sets of these elements emerge at different loci, resulting
in fragmented cultures.
The distinction between culture and climate can be a
fragile one, and is often disputed. It is suggested that
organizational climate promotes a psychological approa-
ch (Denison, 1990; Lins tead, 2004), wh ilst neglecting the
cultural and symbolic forms that inform culture. This
indicates that climate can be short-lived, in that it reflects
employees “feelings” towards an organization, which are
prone to change (Schneider, 1983). Although both cul-
ture and climate are linked to the value system of organ-
izational members (Rollinson & Broadfield, 2002), the
traditional view is that culture generates the values that
are a component of how people act within an organizat io n,
whilst climate reflects the alignment between organiza-
tional and personal values. An alternative view, pro-
pounded by Denison (1996), is that the differences be-
tween culture and climate are minimal, and that the dif-
ferences manifest themselves in terms of measurement.
Brookes & Dawes (1999) consider the issue of merger
or consolidation as a trigger for cultural change within
organizations, suggesting that merger is an ideal oppor-
tunity to “…achieve a cultural change on a broader
footing, in particular, embedding a much more customer-
driven philosophy which could generate significant
competitive advantage” (Brookes & Dawes, 1999: 197).
They also highlight the fact that they are espousing the
“…human aspects of organization”, or to apply another
label, the socio-cultural systems which comprise organi-
zations (Brookes & Dawes, 1999: 195).
It is apparent that much environmental change has
taken place in the management of the organization, and
one of the ways that these adjustments are manifesting
themselves is in a relaxation of processes and procedures,
and a move towards allowing trusted and empowered
employees to experiment with more creative, and less
controlled, ways of achieving. Organizational improvisa-
tion is an example of one way that such creativity is be-
ing applied, although there are other established debates
that contribute to the dismantling of organizational bu-
reaucracy and the rise of autonomous working styles.
Notably, the principles of responsible autonomy (Fried-
man, 1977), professional autonomy (Freidson, 2001;
Faulconbridge & Muzio, 2008), po st-bureaucracy (Heck-
sher, 1994), and employee empowerment itself have all
assisted in or argued the benefits of the relaxation of bu-
reaucratic control.
However, responsible autonomy, where the aim is to
integrate the workers to the goals of the organization by
giving them independence and by encouraging them to
adapt to possible changes at work and in work organiza-
tion, is linked to manipulative aspects of employee “con-
trol” and to career hierarchies and progression, and to job
security (Sturdy, Knights & Willmott, 1992), whereas
improvisation is enabled by “consent” to experiment with
new ways of achieving organizational tasks and activities.
Functional autonomy, which is defined by Friedson
(1970: 53) as “the degree to which work can be carried
out independently of organizational or medical supervi-
sion and can attract its own clientele independently” has
elements that align usefully with improvisational work,
but is essentially embedded in medical or professional, or
client-based practice (Faulconbridge & Muzio, 2008).
Post-bureaucracy is the antithesis of the principles of
bureaucratic organization (Hecksher, 1994), involving
rationality and the allocation of defined and planned
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services239
work. Although this mirrors the ethos of improvisation,
the creative and intuitional components of improvisation
(Moorman & Miner, 1998a) add significantly to its ef-
fectiveness as an enabler of change, and as a lens for the
analysis of cultural chan ge.
There have been a number of comprehensive reviews of
organizational improvisation (Cunha et al., 1999: Ley-
bourne, 2006), much of which has evolved from Weick’s
(1979) work on sense-making, and Moorman and Miner’s
(1998a; 1998b) outpu t that assists in identifying the early
key constructs of creativity, intuition, and bricolage.
Later work by Miner, Bassoff and Moorman (2001) pos-
ited adaptation, inn ovation, compression (in the temporal
sense), and learning as additional constructs of improvi-
sational activity within organizations. The development
of management practices since the turn of the millenn ium
has embraced a number of these constructs as important
outcomes and antecedents of organizational performance,
leading to an appreciation of improvisation as a lens for
the analysis of organizational activity.
From a philosophical stance improvisation relates to
how thoughts develop. Ryle (1979: 125) suggests that;
“the vast majority of things that happen [are] unprece-
dented, unpredictable, and never to be repeated”, and
that “the things we say and do… cannot be completely
pre-arranged”. To a partly novel situation the response
is necessarily partly novel, else it is not a response. His
assertion is that however much an activity is planned,
there will always be a novel set of circumstances to deal
with, and that improvisation requires using resources that
are to hand to resolve unforeseen circumstances. This
assertion also resonates with the tenets of autonomous
working, which is under adoption by modern organiza-
tions, and which is also the essence of bricolage (Lehner,
2000), which in turn is an essential component of im-
provisation (Moorman & Miner, 1998a).
From the mid-1990s onwards much of the literature on
improvisational work practices within organizations took
this stance and applied it to organizational routines and
processes. Some of the outcomes from these debates ap-
ply metaphors to explain the way improvisation is used,
for example adopting and applying ideas from jazz per-
formance (Barrett, 1998a & 1998b; Eisenhardt, 1997;
Hatch, 1998 & 1999), and from improvisational theatre
(Crossan, 1997; Kanter, 2002 ; Yanow, 2001). Later work
used grounded theory approaches to consider the tempo-
ral aspects of improvisation, and particularly pressure to
achieve complex tasks to a demanding or compressed
timetable (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1997; Moorman &
Miner, 1998a & 1998b). This work is building the foun-
dations to allow empirical research of a more positivist
nature-for example: A kgun & Lynn’s (2002) work on the
links between improvised new product development and
speed-to-market. Latterly, consideration has also been
given to the interactions between improvisation and
learning (Chelariu et al., 2002, Miner et al., 2001), im-
provisation and entrepreneurial activity (Baker et al.,
2003; Hmieleski & Corbett, 20 03) and the ways in which
tacit knowledge (upon which intuition, and therefore
improvisation, may draw) is acquired (Koskinen, Pihla-
nto & Vanharanta, 2003), and the role of experience in
the acquisition of tacit knowledge (Cooke-Davis, 2002).
This is in turn feeding in to improvisation as a tool for
strategic decision-making within turbulent environments
(Velez-Castrillon, Vera & Kachra, 2008).
The outcomes of this emerging literature base include
an appreciation of the benefits and effectiveness of im-
provisational working practices, both as a tool and an
appreciated skill for managers, and as a lens for the
analysis of organizations. This stems from early work by
Orlikowski and Hofman (1997), who suggest that organ-
izational transformation (which is inherent in all modern
organizations) is an ongoing improvisation enacted by
organizational actors trying to make sense of and act co-
herently in the world, offering strong links to Weick’s
sense-making model. Mendonça, Cunha, Kaivo-oja and
Ruff (2004: 213) suggest that “a crucial element for im-
provisation to occur is the existence of a ‘safe’ environ-
ment” wh ich sees that the errors are no t only in evitab le, but
also potential sources of learning, linking strongly with the
requirement for a supportive organizational culture.
2. Samples and Methods
The study that underpins this research, and provides
much of the primary data upon which the findings ar-
ticulated in this paper have been based, was located in a
sub-sector of the U.K. financial services sector. Six retail
lending institutions, ranging from a major quoted bank,
through building societies and ex-building societies (U.
K.-based mutually-owned organizations originally form-
ed specifically to supply housing finance), to smaller ret-
ail lending organizations, were used. This sample was
chosen taking into account the relative populations of
organizations in each of the sub-sectors, the required
number of cases required to provide an opportunity to
develop theory (Eisenhardt, 1989: 537; Stake, 1994: 237),
and the need to include cases with differing characteris-
tics, or polar types (Pettigrew, 1988).
The data collection and analysis involved a number of
visits to each participant organization. The larger or-
ganizations received up to eight visits, with the smaller
and more compactly organized organizations receiving
from three to six visits. Over ninety employees and or-
ganizational stakeholders were interviewed, using a
semi-structured interview framework derived from a rig-
orous operationalisation process, underpinned by the
literature review. This resulted in the collection of in
excess of 100 hour s of highly relevant and f ocused inter-
view data. Observational and secondary data, including
project documentation, was also incorporated into this
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services
qualitative study. This data was analyzed, using the
Huberman and Miles (1998) Interactive Data Analysis
model as a guiding principle for data relevance, inclusion
and reduction, and each of the six organizations was
written up as a case study. Cross-case analysis was then
undertaken, and themes, trends, and modes of operation
were identified.
The use of computer aided qualitative data analysis
software (CAQDAS) was considered, but was rejected,
as there is a perceived danger that in adopting CAQDAS
tools to analyze qualitative data, the researcher is forced
to adapt to requirements imposed by the software
(Woolgar, 1991; Lonkila, 1991). Lonkila suggests that
such software programs “…could also be misused as
purely rhetorical weapons to convince the readers or
academic community of the scientific nature of ones re-
search” (Lonkila, 1991: 46), and that it can “…prevent
an interactive and easy movement between emerging
conceptual structures and the data” (Lonkila, 1991: 49).
Agar also sees a potentially destructive step in the proc-
ess of analyzing qualitative data using software, notably,
that there is a danger that a researcher may “…conduct
an ethnography to maximize fit between the process and
the available software” (Agar, 1991: 193). Fielding and
Lee (1998: 68-84) also synthesise a number of disadvan-
tages of CAQDAS, including accessibility and availabil-
ity (Russell & Gregor y, 1993), the exaggeration of possi-
ble benefits (Wietzman & Miles, 1995: 335), lack of
closeness to the data (Agar, 1991: 185), and unintended
consequences (Seidel, 1991: 109).
The study identified a number of processes, mecha-
nisms and routines that the six organizations used (for-
mally and informally) to develop and manage improvisa-
tional working practices. Often this improvisational ac-
tivity is informal and surreptitious, and as such causes
problems for the organizations, especially as they operate
in a sector that is traditionally risk-averse (Brooks &
Dawes, 1999: 197; Trethowen & Scullion, 1997: 62).
The prime focus of this paper is however the movement
away from standardized and documented processes and
mechanisms, towards more improvisational modes of
working, and how culture and climate within organiza-
tions may assist or hinder this shift.
3. Case Study Findings
Inevitably, the six case study organizations displayed
varying levels of maturity, sophistication, and effective-
ness in their understanding, control and management of
improvisational working practices, and the culture that
has emerged or been cultivated to support that activity.
To some extent, this was linked to conf idence in the abil-
ity of employees to improvise effectiv ely, within a given
framework that limited the extent of improvisational ac-
tivity. The cultural norms and values of the organization s
also significantly affected the way in which improvisa-
tional working practices were used, or in some cases,
abused. Each organization that contribu ted to the study is
examined separately, the various issues examined, and a
summarizing analysis made. A comparison across the six
organizations will then be considered as a part of the
wider conclusions.
3.1 BigBank
At BigBank, a major U.K.-based bank with over 77,000
employees, there was evidence of improvisational activity
within a fragmented organizational culture, brought about
by challenges in managing the merging of disparate acqui-
sitions and merger partners. Nota bly , t he m anagem e nt core
of BigBank is formed from the senior managers of two
merged banks with a centralized structure dominating,
resulting in significant resistance from managers used to
managing their own organizational doma ins.
One senior manager considered that it could possibly
take a generation to remove the ingrained loyalties to on e
or other component bank, and suggested that “I could
find you an ‘Attilla the Hun’ culture… and at the other
end, a ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ culture. There is so much op-
portunity for individ uals to build a cu lture ho w they want
it to be in their area …”. The branch network has its own
cultural problems. Branches often appear to take their
cultural lead from the branch manager, and two of the
branches visited had tight-knit, customer-focused teams,
in each case led by a young manager who had built their
own supportive branch culture. In direct contradiction to
this approach, the I.T. and operations areas of the bank
are traditionally acknowledg ed to have a more confronta-
tional work environment, with greater personal account-
ability, a feeling that is noticeably less prevalent in other
divisions of the organization. This may be compounded
by the fact that, particularly within the systems areas of
the bank, there is a strong focus and emphasis on deliv-
ery against the project timetable. It was also suggested
that this delivery focus is present regardless of whether
the need for the change has been superseded.
Within the merged bank, the part of the merged or-
ganization where managers were originally employed is
referred to as “heritage”. This term refers to the con-
stituent part of the merged bank in which a person was
originally employed, and there is an inference that em-
ployees still have loyalty to managers from their own
heritage. It is however suggested that 70% of the junior
staff employed by the merged organization have joined
since 1995. These junior staff have little lo yalty to either
historic heritage within the enlarged bank. Another issue
that has affected employees, particularly in the lending
areas of BigBank, is the centralization of decision-mak-
ing, and the removal of lending discretion from line
managers within the branch network. This shift is famil-
iar to employees from one half of the merged entity, but
alien to employees from the other. Indeed, one Branch
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Manager in her 30’s, who has been with one of the newly
merged banks for her entire working life, suggested that
prior to the 1995 merger, she “used to have an awful lot
of discretion. It used to be a proper bank”. Amongst
more established middle managers, attitudes do appear to
be linked to the working arrangements within the com-
ponent bank where career progression was achieved.
The indicators are that although BigBank is moving
forward in its re-focusing of the organization from a prod-
uct to a customer focus, there is much work still to do. The
change program run by the University of BigBank is how-
ever only experienced by about 200 middle managers each
year, comprising less than 0.25% of the employee base,
and the clash of heritage, which closely equates to historic
culture within BigBank, is still causing concern.
There is significant support for improvisation within
BigBank, with many operational areas, all change man-
agement respondents, and all project managers confirm-
ing that much of their work is improvised. The virtual
university disseminates research from, amongst other
sources, the Cranfield School of Management on infor-
mal pockets of best practice, which is seen by BigBank as
closely linked to improvisation. There is evidence that
although the bank has formal structures and processes,
another set of activities achieves much of the real pro-
gress. These activities are based on informal networks
and relationships, and they appear to operate outside of
the procedures and guideli nes documente d by the ban k.
There is recognition within BigBank that this can assist
in managing change. One manager linked this to the or-
ganizational climate of the bank, arguing:
“I think the climate… is more one of, if you are work-
ing within the broad framework of… management and
you can find a better way of achieving the goal more
effectively, then I think you have got the freedom to [do
that]. Therefore, improvise or innovate”
This attitude indicates strong support for improvisa-
tional work routines. Also, evidence from within the or-
ganization underpins the fact that at many levels and
functional specializations, improvisation is suppo rted.
During the discussion s within BigBank many i ns tan ces
of these informal routines and improvisational activities
were identified. A senior manager in the Management
Development area of the bank suggested that:
“Actually most of the work that does happen in the
organization is done through informal structures, loose
collaborations of people who have similar views or ini-
tiatives… Actually you just get on the phone and make
something happen informally, which fits with the idea of
improvisation for me”.
Improvisation is therefore recognized as a valid, and in
some areas an essential, componen t in change. However,
there is evidence that the opportunity to improvise is be-
ing deliberately removed from branch systems and proc-
esses, which may run counter to BigBank’s intention to
focus on customers, many of whom use a branch as their
principal channel to access products offered by the bank.
Table 1 displays the cultural and improvisational attrib-
utes of BigBank.
3.2 MutualCo
MutualCo is one of the few surviving Mutually-owned
mortgage lending organizations in U.K., with a work-
force of approximately 1300. It devotes significant time
and energy to the development of its employees, and a
recent staff satisfaction survey showed that matters were
improving. Senior managers within the society are taking
more interest in the skills and develop ment of employees.
Managers suggest that the focus has moved from deliv-
ery of benefits, to a more behavioral focus, where trai-
ning and the effect of changes on a developing workforce
is appreciated.
Table 1. Cultural and improvisational attributes of BigBank
BigBank – Cultural and Improvisational Attributes
Culture – Positive Attributes Culture - Negative Attributes
Strong linkages between projects, H.R., and training
Dedicated area change managers monitoring impact of
change on staff
Dedicated department to communicate major change
Use of training maps for career development
Attempts to measure behavioral change
Excessive use of political influence by senior managers
Project procedures and methods have little coverage of peo-
ple/cultural issues
Many layers of authority /hierarchy
Lack of time for self-training
Cultural differences between merging banks and between
operational areas causing entrenched resistance
Improvisation - Positive Attributes Improvisation - Negative Attributes
Support for im provisation implicit within the organization
Training on aspects of improvisation
Informal networks to a ssist with improvisation
Improvisation accepted as contributing to project-managed
Rigidity in customer-facing procedures negates improvisation
Perception that senior managers are deeply entrenched in
traditional banking mentality
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services
Recently there has been a more focused approach to-
wards culture and employee behaviors. However, the
Group I.T. Manager attempted to put this into perspec-
tive, suggesting th at:
“the current man [new chief executive] is trying to
change the culture of MutualCo, and I think he is going
to have a hard job... the words that come out are, he
wants us to work, but he wants us to be happy, and he
wants us to have fun. They are light words, and every-
body wants to be happy and have fun, but it is no good
when you have an avalanche coming down on top of you
with work loads all the time, and you work the weekend,
and you work nights. If they want people to be happy in
their work, they have got to stop pu tting people under so
much pressure, and try to reward them in the best way
that they can.”
At a less influential level, a junior Customer Services
Helpdesk Ope r at or rei n forced this view, saying:
“When I first started with the society, I thought they
were a very caring society and they were interested in
your thoughts. We seemed to drift a way from that about 2
years ago, although now we seem to be getting back into
it. Before, it was very much, you either do these targets,
or maybe the job tha t you are doing isn’ t suitab le for you
These comments point to a dual standard in the society,
with the rhetoric leaning towards a focus on employee
relations, with activity directed towards improving skills
and behaviors. However, the reality is that there is still an
emphasis on progress, delivery, and the achievement of
Communication is also recognized as a problem, espe-
cially in the branch network. One employee pointed out
“Once you start going outside of Head Office, then I
think that perha ps the communica tion is no t th at strong ”.
There is however evidence that the situation is improving ,
and the society intranet and E-mail is acknowledged to
be assisting in this area. Under the new senior manage-
ment team, managers particularly talk about leaving the
blame culture behind, moving away from the risk-averse
culture of the mid 1990s, and a “work hard-play hard”
One manager recognized that within the projects and
I.T. area, attempts were being made to address some of
these cultural issues, saying “they are trying to move
from a blame culture to one of, OK, you can make a mis-
take, and that is learnful… fault would be apportioned,
but not in a negative way…”. It is however apparent that
the culture of MutualCo is fragmented. This is resulting
in at least one department attempting to address its cul-
tural shortcomings independently. There is also a widely
held view that the move to a new, modern Head Office
building will remedy cultural shortcomings within the
organization, and assist with healing cultural fragmenta-
tion. This is however unlikely to happen without consid-
erable complementary activity.
The positive and negative cultural attributes of Mutu-
alCo are displayed in Table 2. It is apparent from these
attributes that much effort is being directed towards the
development of employees, and the creation of a sympa-
thetic environment to allow them to thrive and produce
results for the society. However, it appears that at the
Executive Director level, pressure is still applied to em-
ployees to produce improvements in effort, performance,
and output, without sufficient attention to the social and
behavioral issues that impinge upon such improvement
MutualCo has an approach to the creation and plan-
ning of change that is moderately rigid, using tools and
techniques drawn from methodologies such as PRINCE1.
There is however recognition at all levels within the
managerial hierarchy that forms of improvisation are
used, but the degree is disputed. The Head of I.T. de-
scribes this type of activity in terms of “work-arounds”
Table 2. Cultural and improvisational attributes of MutualCo
MutualCo –Cultural and Improvisational Attributes
Culture – Positive Attributes Culture - Negative Attributes
New senior management emphasis on people aspects of the
Starting to manage tacit knowledge
New emphasis on retraining and stimulating staff
Progress on building skill sets and socio-behavioral norms
Decision-making devolved to lower levels
Geographical scattering of departments hampering communication
Major growth has led to focus on product development projects
rather than Behavioral Projects
Head office relocation caused skills losses
Project management standards do not include people/cultural issues
Problems with communication, especially to branch network/staff
Improvisation - Positive Attributes Improvisation - Negative Attributes
Willingness to accept improvisation as an accelerator of
Program/project managers admit to the regular use of im-
Conflict with internal audit department
Risk aversion negatively influences ability to improvise
Pressure to deliver may encour age reckless improvisation
1‘PRINCE’ (Projects IN a Controlled Environme nt) and PRINCE2’ are project management methodologies widely used in the UK Public Sector.
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services243
and “management of the issues”. Middle managers ar-
ticulate improvisational processes more strongly, sug-
gesting that “I improvise to get things done”, “I will get
it done any way I can”, and “you couldn’t get a project
‘live’ without improvisation”. The group I.T. manager
reinforced this view, suggesting:
“If our chief exec wants something done, it is going to
happen, and if he wan ts it done in a month , we will say, I
doubt if we can do it. We will try for it, but one of the
first things that goes is following all the rules and regu-
lations, crossing the ‘t’s, dotting the ‘i’s, doing the
documentation, that go es out.”
It appears that this is accepted within the organization,
and there is clear evidence of high levels of improvisa-
tional activity within MutualCo. There is however a con-
flict between this attitude and the auditing of processes
and project plans, and project managers complain of
pressure to deliver projects quickly, and the lack of in-
volvement of internal auditors in project planning and
project progress meetings.
It appears that, notwithstanding a real sense of risk
aversion within the organization embedded by 150 years
of tradition, and a stab le market for the single loan prod-
uct offered for much of that time, areas of MutualCo are
changing. As a result of the relative lack of development
historically, the change that is now being achieved is
happening in spite o f the many prob lems that exist within
the organization. Managers using improvisational prac-
tices appear to be the catalyst for such change. The posi-
tive and negative attributes relating to culture and im-
provisation within MutualCo are di spl ay e d i n Tabl e 2.
3.3 ExSociety
ExSociety was a mutually-owned mortgage lending or-
ganization, but is now part of a very large banking and
finance Plc. As an organization, it appears to have a well
developed and well communicated vision and values,
widely adopted and championed across the organization.
The organizational culture of ExSociety is well developed,
coherent, and appears to be homogeneous and respected
across the organization. Cultural norms are reinforced by
the recognition and provision of single status facilities,
and are built around two key messages; “doing the right
thing”, and a continuing focus on customer excellence.
The adoption of customer satisfaction as a key perform-
ance indicator within ExSociety has had a significant
effect the evolving culture and on performance since its
adoption in the late 1 990s.
Initial impressions of ExSociety are favorable, with
harmonization initiatives and the inclusion of employee
issues having a positive effect on employee morale,
commitment, and enthusiasm. There is strong evidence
of adoption of the vision and values, which include em-
ployee development, at all lev els within the organizatio n.
Indeed, in discussing the values of the organization, one
manager from the compliance and internal audit area
who had been employed with ExSociety for about a year
“Something I have not come across before in a com-
pany is, it is almost taken to heart by all the staff, and
they recognize it, and they understand it, and they effec-
tively live by it. They try to ‘do the righ t thing’”.
There have been various descriptions of the culture of
ExSociety, including entrepreneurial, changing, innova-
tive, people oriented, welcoming, open, and honest,
friendly, and caring. These all appear to be positive at-
tributes, and the evidence collected within and around
ExSociety is generally supportive of and consistent with
these labels, notwithstanding the amount of change that
has allegedly taken place in the last decade. ExSociety
also shares knowledge. If “best practice” is identified by
a work team, forums are used to disseminate such infor-
mation through out the organization. Identification of and
exploitation of these pockets of best practice that develop
within ExSociety is seen as a key activity in the im-
provement of working p ractices.
Improvisation is accepted as a desirable skill across
the whole of ExSociety. One memb er of the branc h staff,
when asked whether she had the opportunity to impro-
vise, said “ExSociety encourage taking ownership of
everything. I think that is a good thing really, because it
gives people confid ence to think, ‘well, if there is a pro b-
lem, how do I solve it’, rather than passing it on, and
thinking, ‘well, this is not really to do with me’”. This
statement links neatly with the concept of “ownership”
that is enshrined in the corporate values of ExSociety.
Also, there is a very strong alignment between th ese val-
ues and the attitudes of employees, and improvisation is
encouraged if it contributes to the delivery of excellence
to the customer.
Discussions with the Strategic Change Manager also
revealed strong support for improvisational activity,
which he sees as the way in which most work is man-
aged and achieved. A Compliance Manager did how-
ever point out that, given the volume of regulation
within the sector, it was important to set boundaries,
and that those boundaries would have to be “embedded
in training”. This suggests a dualist view. Improvisa-
tion is used extensively to allow customer service em-
ployees to deliver customer excellence. The evidence
does however indicate that some areas of change would
benefit from a less rigorous approach, provided that a
framework was defined for such improvisation. Within
ExSociety managers have tended to identify and link
improvisation with other initiatives such as continuous
improvement, which provide the framework within
which employees can be encouraged to improvise in or-
der to enhance the delivery of job outputs. There is also
an acceptance that the desires of the current parent or-
ganization may inhibit improvisation.
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services
Table 3. Cultural and improvisational attributes of ExSociety
ExSociety – Cultural and Improvisational Attributes
Culture - Positive Attributes Culture - Negative Attributes
Vision and values that are inclusive of employees
Open communication at all levels
Lack of status badges
Investment in employees
Relative lack of blame apportionment within the mechanisms
of change
Some evidence of minor political activity linked
with the parent
A perceived need by some managers that more
emphasis is needed on knowledge and behaviors
Improvisation – Positive Attributes Improvisation - Negative Attributes
Improvisation recognized as contributing towards speed and
innovation within the organization
Senior management support for im provisational activity
Audit and Compliance support, within agreed boundar ies
Perceived rigidity of program management tools
and techniques
Possible difficulties with the volume of regula-
tion within the sector
Table 3 displays the key positive and negative attrib-
utes of ExSociety that impinge upon its culture, an d upon
the ability of the organization to improvise within its
change initiatives. However, the apparently open and
innovative culture of this organization should assist in
setting a framework within which improvisation can be
used to support such change, and there appears to be a
keen desire to achieve this within ExSociety.
3.4 FinanceCo
This company is a relatively autonomous Finance sub-
sidiary of a major U.K. bank. There is an admission from
FinanceCo employees at all levels that throughout the
1990s the overarching focus was on developing and nur-
turing an aggressive sales culture. This is changing with
integration with the parent, with the Governor of the
parent bank stating “we reinforce our ability to fulfill the
professional and personal aspirations of our staff with a
learning culture which permeates the whole of our busi-
ness. Everyone benefits from the infectious enthusiasm
this culture breeds…”. However, it is acknowledged that
much work is needed to meet the expectations of that
statement, particularly within FinanceCo, where a po-
litically oriented and sales driven culture has prevailed.
One manager confirmed that training in the behavioral
aspects of managing is lacking, saying “I don’t think
anything specific is being done on those kinds of soft
skills that are requ ired”, even th ou gh “they are probably
the key parts for the manager”. This contrasts with the
opinion of his manager, who suggested when talking
about the behavioral aspects of managing teams that
there will be “tasks that actually make inference to the
fact that you should be doing that [managing team be-
haviors]”. The importance of addressing such skills has
already been considered, and evidence reinforces and
supports those findings.
The learning culture espoused by the senior executives
of the parent bank is now beginning to diffuse throughout
FinanceCo, and a new director, part of whose role is to
manage this culture change, has been appointed to the
H.R. area of the newly integrated organization. Initiatives
are currently being considered to access the considerable
body of industry-specific knowledge that has built up
within FinanceCo over many years, and to make it
available on a wider basis. However, this work is in the
very early stages of develop ment, and may run coun ter to
the sales and performance related historic culture.
The integration of FinanceCo into the parent bank has
been rationalized on the basis of “sharing best work
practices, harmonizing” although one manager suggested
that “the way it was sold was… that it would be working
together, very collaborative, and I think initially that did
not happen. It was very much, ‘we are the parent, you
are the sibling’… and we are in charge.” It is certainly
apparent from responses across all parts of the organiza-
tion that the parent bank has taken control, and that it
was always their intention to limit what they p erceived as
cost and authority excesses within FinanceCo.
Rather naturally, the culture within the newly organ-
ized set of businesses is fragmented, and appears to be
moving from a power culture towards a composite of role
culture and task culture (Handy, 1993: 183-192). Cultur-
ally, FinanceCo is seen as being more sales and cus-
tomer-oriented than the parent bank, and part of the ra-
tionale for the integration of FinanceCo into the parent
bank is to exercise more control over these management
shortcomings. The company is evolving from a tradi-
tional hierarchical structure, and has attempted to move
from this model to a more reactive and flexible way of
working. In order to achieve this, the organization is at-
tempting to embrace less structured processes and mech-
anisms within those areas of the business where such
practices are appropriate. In reality, this desire seems to
be stimulating more improvisational working within the
sales-oriented areas, and also in those areas where crea-
tivity and free thinking can contribute to perceived im-
It is however apparent that there are areas that are ac-
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services245
tively resisting a move towards more improvisational
practices. Many areas of FinanceCo are becoming more
rigid in their working practices as a result of the increas-
ing influence of the parent bank, which is recognized as
having a long history of cautious growth, and an aversion
to risk taking. This caution is manifesting itself in the
imposition of controls on areas of FinanceCo. Specifi-
cally, the I.T. area and the collections and litigation areas
operate under service level agreements with th eir internal
client departments, and these agreements specify proc-
esses and mechanisms that are mandatory. This restrains
the ability and inclination of employees in those areas to
improvise, notwithstanding the desire of the parent bank
to learn from the allegedly more entrepreneural and im-
provisational practices of FinanceCo.
There is however a feeling within FinanceCo that im-
provisational practices will assist in the future develop-
ment of the organization. Within the lending areas of
FinanceCo, the management interest is on improvisation
in order to win business and to meet customer expecta-
tions. The management of risk is equally important, but
the organizational fo cus within FinanceCo is on ensuring
that loans are profitable, and that flexibility exists to sat-
isfy customer demands. One manager within Group T rai n-
ing and Development suggested that some people felt
more secure within a comfort zone that acted as a frame-
work for their actions, whereas others were happy with
improvisational techniques. He was also of the opinion
that it was up to a manager to manage these preferences
within his team. However, the data suggests that Fi-
nanceCo respondents have mixed views about improvi-
sational work practices, and evidence ind icates that there
is doubt about their use. Specifically, th e PRINCE-based
routines imposed on the I. T. area of the organization
impart a rigour that negates improvisation. It is however
apparent that some managers still improvise to achieve
tasks, and that there is greater use of improvisation
within customer service areas.
The key positive and negative attributes relating to
cultural aspects, and also to the use of improvisation
within FinanceCo are detailed in Table 4. It is however
apparent that improvisation is used extensively across the
various functional specializations within the organization,
albeit that more rigidity and structure appears to exist
within the I.T. development and support areas of the
3.5 NewCo
NewCo is a small lending organization, with a staff of
around 150, delivering loan products via a call ce ntre, an
internet accessed applications systems, and a small bro-
ker network. The overarching philosophy within NewCo
is the importance of the culture of the organization, and
the emphasis that is placed upon staff development, train-
ing, and the social and behavioral aspects of working.
The atmosphere within the offices is one of quiet profes-
sionalism, but with no overbearing sense of authority or
discipline. Workers are smart, and senior employees are
mainly dressed in suits, whilst more junior staff tend to
be dressed more casually. NewCo has a well-defined and
well-publicized vision and values, which is prominently
displayed in most open areas and manager’s offices.
Employees work in teams, and team members are
paired up with a “buddy”-new staff with an experienced
one in order to share expertise and learning. This system
is used across most areas of the organization. The senior
management is very visible, and informal contact with
management is a normal occurrence. Directors and man-
agers are addressed and referred to on a first name basis,
and NewCo organizes regular social events, which senior
managers attend.
HR development issues are well defined, with incen-
tives, and mechanisms for assessing performance against
agreed targets and core skills. This focus on staff devel-
opment is a major influence in shaping the culture of
NewCo, and it links closely with the aforementioned vi-
sion and values. In addition, the organization work s hard
to build an atmosphere of cooperation and caring amongst
staff at all levels, using a combination of suggestion
schemes, staff incentives, targets and rewards, and social
Table 4. Cultural and improvisational attributes of FinanceCo
FinanceCo – Cultural and Improvisational Attributes
Culture - Positive Attributes Culture - Negative Attributes
Willingness to recognize pockets of internal expertise
Curbing of cost excesses
Appointment of new senior H. R. executive
Parent-imposed move to a learning culture
Limited training activity in behavioral aspects of
Evidence of weaknesses in socio-behavioral skills
Improvisation - Positive Attributes Improvisation - Negative Att r ib utes
Allows quick responses to external changes within projects
Allows flexibility in structuring lending products
Allows employees to meet customer expectations
Support from Gr o up Internal Audit
Loss of control over processes by senior manage-
Not a substitute for poor planning and execution
Less accepted within the I.T. area
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services
Table 5. Cultural and improvisational attributes of NewCo
NewCo – Cultural and Improvisational Attributes
Culture - Positive Attributes Culture - Negative Attributes
Strong focus on quality of staff
Strong focus on development of staff
BQF model used to manage and measure socio-behavioral attributes
The scale of the organization allows a homogeneous culture to prevail
Good communication across the organization
Speed of growth may advers ely affect current culture
Effect of new parent company not yet known, lead-
ing to uncertainty
Improvisation - Positive Attributes Improvisation - Negative Attributes
Recognition of improvisation as a positive force for change
Strong management support for improvisation
Mechanisms for formalizing successful improvised work processes
Most respondents admit to the use of improvisation
Anticipation that new parent company will require a
more structured approach
events. Visual evidence of this abounds within NewCo.
Staff at all levels appreciate this activity, and numerous
interview respondents suggested that NewCo was not
only the best organization they had worked for, but also
that they were well p aid, and that good work was encou -
raged, recognized, and rewarded. Introducers and suppli-
ers have also benefited from this approach, with a New-
Co “open day” and golf tournament called “One Great
Day”, indicating the confidence of the organization.
Currently, NewCo is of a size where employees are
aware of each other and their different skill sets, alth oug h
as the organization grows, this will cease to be the case.
Idea generators have differing levels and mixes of skills,
and utilize varyin g ways of planning and executin g these
process changes. Communication is also seen as vital
across NewCo, and there are effective formal and infor-
mal networks of communication in operation within the
business. The Marketing Director of NewCo stated “com-
munications is something we work very, very hard at…”
and junior staff admit that the communication at NewCo
is “much better” than previous employers. This focus on
communication is assisting in the relatively effective
management within the organization.
Within NewCo innovative thinking, rapid decision-
making, and a speedy transition from idea generation to
implementation are encouraged, and there was an attempt
to reflect this in the way in which the organization de-
veloped in its first years of operation. As the organization
has grown, a degree of formality has been introduced, but
the senior management encourages innovation by staff,
together with creativity, which is one of the important
components of improvisation. This encouragement com-
es from a willingness to allow staff the freedom to try
new ways of achieving work tasks, and informal net-
works within the organization act as conduits for the dis-
semination of new working practices. There is also an
informal forum to discuss these issues, and a mechanism,
albeit also informal, to feed emerging best practice back
into new written procedures.
Improvisational work practices are encouraged by de-
liberately not surrounding employees with documented
routines and formalized sets of expectations about how
work is to be carried out. Team members and their man-
agers are allowed to decide on work flows, responsibili-
ties, and job design, and the sharing of pockets of best
practice that emerge from this loose structure is encour-
aged. A set of limits to the framework within which work
can be improvised is encapsulated into induction training,
and is also passed on to new employees via the “buddy-
ing” system, which also provides an element of informal
There are many examples of improvisation within the
data. Most notably, the whole area of user-led change to
internal processes could be said to involve improvisation,
as the majority of these initiatives appear to arise as a
result of team members undertaking tasks or meeting
customer expectations outside of formal organizational
procedures. If these initiatives are proven to work, they
are informally adopted, and disseminated across the or-
ganization using formal and informal employee networks.
Ultimately, they are formally adopted into organizational
routines. There is evidence that this improvisational ac-
tivity is seen by NewCo as “a way of staying ahead of
the competition” by compressing the time needed to re-
act to market signals.
It can be seen that improvisation is encouraged across
the organization. However, NewCo is growing quickly,
and there is evidence that although controls have evolved,
they are relaxed in favor of a more improvisational style
of working when problems arise or when systems, proc-
esses, or routines need to be altered qu ickly. The positive
and negative attributes relating to culture and to im-
provisational activity within NewCo are noted in Table 5.
There is however considerable evidence to suggest that
improvisation has been accepted as an important com-
ponent of work carried out within NewCo, and that senior
managers within the organization see strong links be-
tween improvisation, innovation, and the ability to meet
customer requirements.
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services247
3.6 DivestCo
This organization is a long-established consumer finance
and loan company, with an extensive branch network,
which has gone through much change, and now needs to
stabilize. One analyst from the strategy team talked of
“building a robust operational platform from which to
pursue stra tegies”, and the Senior Manag er-Organizati on al
Development, who is responsible for people and excel-
lence issues, talked of the need for “a period of stability
and consolidation”. However, currently DivestCo, hav-
ing divested of its core business, is attempting to survey
the opportunities that exist within its chosen sector, in
order to make choices as to its future direction. Concur-
rently with this activity, work is pro gressing to develop a
set of organizational values that will assist in enabling
the company to achieve its aims within such a future
strategy. This activity appears somewhat premature, as
the required values are likely to differ according to the
chosen direction. There is also evidence of acceptance
within DivestCo that, regardless of the chosen strategy,
important issues to address in the future will revolve
around employee behaviors and the culture of the or-
Notwithstanding this need to address cultural issues,
DivestCo has already moved some way towards a more
open and blame free culture. It is also apparent that dif-
ferent cultures prevail in different parts of the organiza-
tion, with a macho, performance and volume-driven cul-
ture within the sales and branch departments, and evi-
dence of a more intimate, almost paternal, yet politicized
culture within most parts of the head office. The Senior
Manager-Organizational Development also said “we pride
ourselves on having a can-do culture”, although there
are perceived frictions between such a statement and
freedom from blame within the culture of the organiza-
tion. It appears that there are a number of contradictions
within the data as it relates to the culture of DivestCo.
There is no doubt that the culture is not homogeneous,
and this is demonstrated by the sales-based, perform-
ance-driven culture of the branch employees, contrast
with cursory attempts to generate a more sympathetic
and people-centered culture within parts of head office.
Additionally, this divergence is complicated by an out-
wardly distant team of senior managers, who do not visi-
bly interact wit h other employees.
There is a natural tension between the rigidity and ro-
bustness of some processes imposed upon DivestCo by
its parent, and the desire to improvise in order to shorten
delivery times for change initiatives. This has resu lted in
a desire to improvise, which is tempered by adopted
standards and procedures. At various levels within the
organization, the recognition of improvisation as a posi-
tive factor is accepted, with the Head of H.R. saying “it
probably doesn’t happen enough…”, and the Strategic
Change Manager saying “I do it all the time.” It is how-
ever evident that some functional areas are less inclined
to improvise, as evidenced by the Finance Manager, who
stated “impro visation sounds a bit scary to me, I have to
say, from an accountants point of view”.
Evidence supports the use of improvisation within Di-
vestCo, but it is apparent that there are considerable dif-
ferences of opinion as to use. The rhetoric surrounding
improvisation relates to flexibility, serving the customer,
and being innovative in the way lending can be struc-
tured. However, the reality seems to be closer to achiev-
ing the “can do” philosophy by doing whatever is neces-
sary to deliver agreed outputs, regardless of the current
need for them. Against this background, there is an ap-
preciation within the company of the positive effects of
improvisation. Notwithstanding this appreciation, with
the current exercise to develop a new vision and values
for the organization, together with the cultural changes
that may be required in their adoption, there is a view
that improvisational tendencies may need to be sup-
pressed in the short term. It is however recognized that
controlled improvisation is good for the organization, as
it contributes to the generation of ideas, to the creation of
new and innovative products, and to initiatives that will
ultimately lead to the development and success of Di-
There is strong evidence of the use of improvisational
processes within DivestCo, and there is a perception that
a key element surrounding improvisational processes is
the control of risk. DivestCo addresses this link between
risk and control formally, running workshops on balanc-
ing risk with control. One manager suggested that about
fifty percent of his work was improvised, and a number
of respondents saw improvisation as an extension of the
continuous improvement process that is used to manage
more informal change. Table 6 summarizes the positive
and negative attributes relating to culture and to impro-
vised routines within DivestCo.
4. Comparative Findings and Discussions
The desire to manage organizational culture is at the
forefront of many managers’ aspirations (Ogbonna &
Harris, 1998: 273). Organizational culture is also an im-
portant component in the management of strategic
change. Pant and Lachman (1998: 196) suggest that
strategies contain implicit values that need to align with
the values of the organization. ExSociety and NewCo are
comfortable with the values implicit in their organiza-
tional culture, and attempt to ensure that change initia-
tives are coordinated with those values. Organizational
culture does however embrace a wider set of components.
Schein (1985) identified three levels of culture “surface
manifestations”, which are behavior patterns that can be
seen and heard; the aforementioned “values”, which are
located below surface manifestations, and underpin them,
and “basic assumptions”, those things that individuals
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
hold about the organization and how it functions. These
assumptions can be difficult to access and identify. He
suggests that culture consists of basic assumptions, and
that surface manifestations and values are generated by
and support such assumptions. Each is however valid in
considering culture within organizations, and will be
applied to the cases in turn.
The surface manifestations of the case study organiza-
tions differ greatly. BigBank has many divisions, and over
2500 branches and other locations, with limited cultural
homogeneity across them, notwithstanding an attempt to
create this. MutualCo attempts to offer a consistent mes-
sage across branch premises, and is hopeful that its new
Head Office building will allow it to create a homoge-
neous culture. ExSociety also has a positive Head Office
image, and there is evidence that it also labors to make
the culture inclusive of the branch network. FinanceCo
and DivestCo project a fragmented set of surface mani-
festations, with significant structural problems, and NewCo
has by far the most consistent set of surface manifesta-
tions, being a small organization located in a single
Each organization has a documented organizational vi-
sion, and a set of values that underpin the vision. In Ex-
Society and NewCo, employees have adopted the values
of the organization very positively. DivestCo was devel-
oping a new vision and a new set of organizational val-
ues during the period that data for this study was being
collected. There was however an assumption within the
organization that it would “end up with more old Di-
vestCo values”. In BigBank, there is a contradiction be-
tween the vision and values, which articulate matters
relating to customer relationships and products, and the
over-riding organizational focus of the bank, which is
“enhancing shareholder value”. In Mut ualCo and FinanceCo,
there appears to be little co nnection between the attitu des
of the employees and the organizational vision and val-
ues, other than a commitment to mutuality within Mutu-
alCo. This however appears to be driven by a desire to
survive as an independent organization, rather than an
articulation of organizational values to be adop- ted by
The basic assumptions within Schein’s (1985) three
level schema of organizational culture are more difficult
to assess, notwithstanding the fact that Schein sees them
as the essence of organizational culture. Two important
aspects of such assumptions are an organization’s rela-
tionship with its environment, and the way in which the
organization perceives itself. These aspects can be con-
sidered in the co ntext of th e persona that th e organization
projects to its stakeholders. This can be drawn from a
synthesis of data contained in organizational mission
statements and similar artefacts, albeit that this persona
can fragment across different parts of an organization. A
summary of the three levels of culture for each case
study organization is displayed in Table 7.
Table 6. Cultural and improvisational attributes of DivestCo
DivestCo – Cultural and Improvisational Attributes
Culture - Positive Attributes Culture - Negative Attributes
Activity to change cultural norms
Attempts to move away from a “blame” culture
Non-visibility of senior managers
Lack of effective communication within specific areas
of the business
Improvisation - Positive Attributes Improvisation - Negative Attr i butes
Recognition that improvisation is effective in certain
areas within the organization
An admission that many people use improvisation
A desire to improve improvisation skills
Formalization of some areas relating to improvisation.
Workshops to address the link between risk and control
Risk aversion within the organization
Tensions between improvisation and the need to ad-
dress regulatory constraints
Table 7. Assessment of cultural levels
Assessment of Cultural Levels
Organization Surface Manifestations Values Basic Assumptions
BigBank Fragmented Contradictory Enhancing Shareholder Value
MutualCo Fragmented but Improving Weak but FocusedCustomer Value through Mutuality
ExSociety Homogeneous and Positive Strong Customer Excellence
FinanceCo Fragmented and Troubled Weak Proactive Product Innovation
NewCo Homogeneous and Very Positive Strong Employee and Customer Focus
DivestCo Fragmented and Uncertain Developing Growing Profitable Businesses
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services249
Many of the practices and mechanisms used to manage
change in the case study organizations conform to the
“informally formal” description in Bacon et al. (1996:
95). A degree of formality is provided by documented
standards and procedures, and informality is evidenced
by the relative freedom of managers to interpret the exe-
cution phase of change projects as they wish, including
the use of improvisation. This seems to point again to the
need for hybrid managers. Perhaps patterns of practice
which exhibit an informal formality may provid e a key to
resolving the tension between the need for systematic
practices and consistency on one hand, and intuitive or-
ganic practices that nurture innovation and flexibility on
the other.
It would therefore assist organizations to ensure that
employees have the skills to work in an informally for-
mal way, and so contribute positively. In order to recruit
and develop such skills, the case study organizations are
attempting to develop or acquire employees with suitab le
skill-based and socio-behavioral profiles, and support
those people to grow with the organization, and to
change as it changes. ExSociety and NewCo are achiev-
ing the most success in this area, and BigBank and Di-
vestCo are improving. FinanceCo is poor, but could im-
prove as a circumstance of integration into its parent, and
MutualCo appears to be saddled with a number of
long-serving middle managers who are holding this
process back.
Evidence within this study indicates that ExSociety and
NewCo, who devote much time and effort to the recruit-
ment and development of employees with flexible skill-
sets and attitudes, achieve change better. Additionally,
respondents opinions and secondary data from project
plans and post implementation reviews strongly suggests
that these two organizations have enthusiastically adop-
ted team-based project structures to implement change,
and devote considerable time and resources to the effec-
tive use of team-based processes and mechanisms. This
is important, as ideally with in change activities, disparate
groups of third-party and permanent employees are mel-
ded into effectively function ing project teams, capable of
delivering the required change. There is a strong trend in
the data towards a link between socio-behavioral and
cultural factors, and the satisfactory performance of cha-
nge initiatives. The superior performance of ExSociety
and NewCo in this area has already been discussed. The
relatively poor performance of FinanceCo, and the poor
but improving performance of MutualCo, tend to rein-
force this linkage, given that FinanceCo is weak in
socio-behavioral areas, and MutualCo is improving under
its new, more people-centered developing culture.
There is however overwhelming evidence of extensive
use and acceptance of improvisation in the management
of change within the respondent organizations. Some of
this activity is conscious, and some emerges because of
circumstances. Chelariu et al. (2002: 141) suggest that
this organizational activity is “…a reflection of the pres-
sures of an environment characterized by unprecedented
fast change.” Stacey (1996) maintains that these envi-
ronmental conditions are uncertainty, complexity (de-
scribed in terms of interdependent environments), and
dynamism (described in terms of short-lived opportuni-
ties and threats to survival). U.K. retail financial service
is such an environment. Improvisation assists in dealing
with this volume of change, and BigBank senior manag-
ers and project managers are keen exponents. MutualCo
managers suggest that they could not operate without
improvising. ExSociety have the most rigidly applied
project standards and procedures, but at senior levels
there is a belief that there is insufficient improvisation,
and that this is stifling innovation. Interestingly, there is
less improvisation by project managers within ExSociety
than in any other case study organization, with the ex-
ception of FinanceCo, which produced the least evidence
of improvisation. NewCo uses such tech niques acro ss the
organization, and is also developing effective mecha-
nisms to capture the emerging best practice that accrues.
Evidence from DivestCo indicates that there is a willing-
ness to improvise, but this is bounded by the memory of
major failures in the mid 1990s, where an element of
blame was attached to insufficiently rigid pro cesses. It is
apparent from the data that there are significant differ-
ences across the organizations, and across levels of sen-
iority within those organizations. Some improvisation is
also surreptitious, avoiding accountability and the scru-
tiny of senior managers.
Given such environments, it is understandable that the
case study organizations may wish to use improvisational
practices. There are however doubts as to its effective-
ness, and none of the organizations are able to support
empirically an assertion demonstrating that improvisation
aids the management of strategic change. BigBank is
attempting this through benchmarking initiatives. Mutu-
alCo has problems, particularly with the increase in risk
that has to be managed. ExSociety senior managers cite
an assumed link between improvisation and innovation,
and are intentionally allowing employees the organiza-
tional and temporal space to learn from experimentation
and improvisation. FinanceCo and DivestCo display little
evidence of effective improvisational activity, and NewCo
is at the opposite end of the continuum, encouraging im-
provisational activ ity at all le ve ls within th e o rganizatio n.
This is an area where the other organizations, with the
exception of ExSociety, which has a set of forums that
could assist in this area, tend to be weak. Table 8 maps
the acceptance, application, and effectiveness of im-
provisation practices across the six organizations.
Findings from this study indicate that project and
change managers embrace improvisation almost univer-
ally as a means of achieving change. Many managers, s
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services
Table 8. Use of improvisation within the case study organizations
Use of Improvisation
Acceptance Application Effectiveness
BigBank Strong Widespread Poor
MutualCo Strong Widespread Poor
ExSociety Growing Growing Improving
FinanceCo Weak Limited Poor
NewCo Strong Widespread Improving/Good
DivestCo Growing Limited Poor
across all six organizations, have strongly articulated
opinions about the need to move away from agreed plans
in order to execute that change. Indeed, managements
may “…make a conscious decision to improvise as a
means of creating more flexibility of behavior and more
spontaneous decision making” (Chelariu et al., 2002: 1 41 ).
Crossan and Sorrenti (1997: 155) see this as “…intuition
guiding action in a spontaneous way.” This is especially
true within BigBank and FinanceCo, where improvisa-
tion is also seen as a means of circumventing intra and
inter-organizational political resistance. It is also appar-
ent that improvisation often takes place without senior
management knowledge, especially within BigBank and
Managers are however better able to support improvi-
sation if it is bounded by some kind of limiting frame-
work. This is supported by the literature; Brown & Eis-
enhardt’s (1997: 16) “limited structure”, e Cunha et al’s
(1999: 318) “minimal structure”, and Weick’s (1998:
545) “guidelines”. As the Financial Services sector is
highly regulated, and tends to be risk averse (Brooks &
Dawes, 1999: 197), such a framework is usually based
around the management of risk. It is also recognized that
improvisation is more effective if mechanisms exist to
Improvisation within the Six Case Study Organisations
Surreptiti ous
Surreptitiou s
Experi menters
Aspirational Improvers
Aspirational Improvers
Confident Achievers
ExSociet y
Confident Achievers
Low High
Cultural Suppo rt for Impr ov is ation
Improvisational Effectiveness
Figure 1. Matrix of the six case study organizations
share successful improvisational activity (Moorman &
Miner, 1998b: 713; Chelariu et al., 2002: 142), and to
communicate lessons learned from it to relevant parts of
the organization that can benefit from such activity
(Moorman & Miner, 1998b: 713). This requires the de-
velopment of organizational memory (Moorman &
Miner, 1998b : 713-714). Resp ondents within all the case
study organizations voiced concerns about the ability of
their organization to capture good improvisational prac-
tice and encapsulate it within such a memory for future
use. Both ExSociety and NewCo have mechanisms to
assist with this. In ExSociety improvisational activity is
an enabler, and the management identifies and imple-
ments new improvisational processes as part of the
streamlining of work processes. There is however evi-
dence that the I.T.-based change initiatives do not in-
clude as much improvisational activity as initiatives to
change operational processes. This is because more rig-
orous and defined procedures surround the implementa-
tion and testing of new IT-based systems, which provide
the core account processing for most financial services
organi zati ons. NewCo, a significantly smaller and younger
organization, uses improvisation at all levels, and has
informal forums to identify and disseminate improvisa-
tional practices that have the potential to become “best
practice” within the organization. There appears to be
little evidence of such initiatives in the other four or-
ganizations, notwithstanding the rhetoric surrounding
this activity in BigBank and MutualCo.
Within this study, the six case study organizations
achieved different degrees of competence with their im-
provisational effectiveness, and their cultural support for
improvisational activity. Figure 1 plots the case study
organizations on a matrix that uses these two factors as
the axes, using the evid ence within the data as a basis for
positioning. This distributes the organizations into three
groups of two. The organizations where the data demon-
strates a lower level of support for improvisation within
the organizational culture and a low improvisational ef-
fectiveness quotient have been labeled “aspirational im-
provers”, for their desire to improvise, albeit that this
desire is moderated by lack of tangible support. Fi-
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services251
nanceCo and DivestCo fall into this category.
Those organizations where the data indicates a lower
level of support within the organizational culture for im-
provisational activity and a high improvisational effec-
tiveness quotient appear to have token management sup-
port for experimentation and improvisation, but are not
fully supportive of employees who fail to improvise ef-
fectively. Blame is often attached to failure, and this
makes employees cautious in exposing their improvisa-
tion to management scrutiny. An element of surrepti-
tiousness therefore also appears within this group of or-
ganizations, which comprises BigBank and MutualCo.
These companies have been labeled “surreptitious ex-
perimenters”. It is inevitable that an element of surrepti-
tiousness prevails here, as improvisation requires par-
ticipants to step away from the shared responsibility em-
bedded in the “plan, then execute” paradigm, and to em-
brace individual unplanned activity, where failure to im-
provise effectively is very visible.
The third pair of organizations produced data indicat-
ing that they possess a high level of support for improvi-
sation within their organizational culture and a high im-
provisational effectiveness quotient. Employees are sup-
ported and effective in their improvisational activ ity, and
the culture allows learning from mistakes, and the cap-
ture of effective improvisational activity, both formally
and informally. This group, which comprises ExSociety
and NewCo, has been labeled “confident achievers”.
They manage change effectively using innovative proc-
esses, many of which are generated by the use of im-
provisation, and they have mechanisms to capture and
disseminate such successful innovation to other areas of
the organization.
5. Conclusions
There is very little literature pertaining to the use of im-
provisation within the implementation of project-man-
aged change. There is compelling evid ence that improvi-
sation is used in th is area, and project managers in all six
organizations provide overwhelming support for im-
provisational activities as a means of executing change.
Given the significant shift away from “command and
control” based hierarchies, and towards trusted and em-
powered employees seeking opportunities to maximize
profit, it is inevitab le that partial reliance on intuition and
creativity will encourage improvised solutions and inter-
ventions to assist with organizational transformation and
There is however a negative implication to improvis-
ing, particularly when applied to recent growth and fail-
ure within the financial services sector. Albrecht (1979)
sees five significant areas of change in lifestyle notably:
a move from rural living to urban living; a move from a
stationary to a mobile society; a move from self-suffi-
ciency to consumption; a move from isolation to inter-
connectivity; and a move from physically active to sed-
entary. This research centered around factors which cause
stress in managers, informs the way people live, work,
and manage their lives, and the way in which producers
and service industries have to evolve in order to meet the
needs of consumers. Specifically, sectors have had to
evolve and change to service altering consumption pat-
The social context of the U.K. retail financial services
sector has been affected by Albrecht’s factors, and thro-
ugh the 1990s and since the turn of the millennium this
change has been accelerating, particularly in technologi-
cal terms. It is however the move towards consumption
driven by increased affluence in the advanced economies
which has driven much social and cultural change and
seen the emergence of consumerism, concern for equal
opportunities, environmentalism, and other social move-
ments which impinge upon the sector. This social change
has also been instrumental in the development of new
cultural norms.
The culture of an industry or sector is more difficult to
define, but Gordon (1991: 398) suggests that “…it is
possible for differences in values, or even assumptions,
to exist within a company, as long as they do not under-
mine the basic assumptions on which the industry de-
pends.” This suggests that a sector or industry culture
does exist, and it is considered that industry and sector
are effectively interchangeable descriptors in this context.
The basic assumptions upon which an industry or sector
depends are the embedded core values and implicit rules
to which component organizations within a given sector
adhere. An example of a basic assumption that relates to
U.K. retail financial services is fiscal responsibility. In
the life insurance sub-sector this could be represented by
an ability to pay claims when they fall due, and in the
banking sub-sector it could be represented by an expecta-
tion that deposits could be repaid on demand. Whipp et
al. (1989: 565) refer to these basic assumptions as logics
of action. This view of logics of action at the sector level
can be seen as an extension of the work of Bacharach and
Lawler (1980), which has been developed and refined in
Bacharach et al. (1996: 478). They argue that:
“…in essence, a logic of action may be seen as the im-
plicit relationship between means and ends underlying
the specific actions, policies and activities of organiza-
tional members. While the logic of action is for the
most part taken for granted, it becomes manifest when
parties try to explain themselves or justify to others the
selection of specific means, ends, and the linkage be-
tween the two.”
There is some common ground here with macrocul-
tures (Abrahamson & Fombrun, 1994), which link the
cultural ambitions and expectations of managers within a
sector, the existence of which has already been recog-
Copyright © 2009 SciRes JSSM
Culture and Organizational Improvisation in UK Financial Services
nized. From the discussion of culture, there is a logical
step to the consideration of culture change.
There are of course reasons why a change in culture
within a sector may be desirable. Competitive issues have
been at the forefront of change within many sectors, in-
cluding U.K. retail financial services. Ezzamel et al.
(1994: 22) document the move by U.K. financial services
organizations from:
“…the established, highly bureaucratic administrative
control that has long characterised the industry, engen-
dering new forms of control based upon the twin ideals
of empowerment and heightened accountability. Manag-
ers and staff alike are expected to become ‘multiskilled’
to facilitate organizational flexibility in the pursuit of
They suggest that much of this activity, which for pub-
lic consumption is being carried out to improve customer
service, is actually being carried out in the name of effi-
ciency and cost saving to drive down the cost base.
However, in the Banking and Finance sector, these
changes have resulted in evidence that the developing
culture of personal gain over financial prudence has
caused the sector to over-reach itself, ignoring the need
to manage risk, and driving a desire for growth and
short-term profit. This has been to the detriment of the
aforementioned fiscal responsibility and financial pru-
dence, and it is reasonable to suggest that the relaxation
of controls and the reliance on, often misplaced, trust in
traders and managers within the sector is largely to blame.
During 2008 and 2009 there has been a degree of attri-
tion, with stronger members of the sector absorbing
weaker ones, and in U.K., this has been driven by vigor-
ous government intervention. Unfortunately, many of the
principles that underpin improvisational activity are
likely to have con tributed to the current situation.
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