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Alternative Organizational Culture

Summary and Keywords

Alternative organizational culture is an evocative yet ambiguous term. In disciplines like communication, sociology, anthropology, management, economics, and political science, the term leads us not only to consider existing models and cases of organizing differently from the norm but also to imagine paths and possibilities yet to be realized. The ambiguity and referents of the term are important to probe. The term and its associations should be understood historically as well as culturally. Alternative organizational culture also implies certain dialectics, leading to questions about both principles and applications.

Keywords: alternative organizations, employee participation, feminist perspectives, indigenous perspectives, organizational culture, organizational diversity, organizational models, social movements, workplace democracy, communication and critical studies

Introduction: Key Terms

The term alternative organizational culture and a set of ideas related to it have gained more attention for several reasons. The reasons include re-evaluations of corporate-consumer capitalism, the appearance of more types of grassroots organizations and movements, the development of cross-national and multi-issue social-movement coalitions, and efforts to stimulate democratic participation, both within organizations and across them (Parker, Cheney, Fournier, & Land, 2014a). At the same time, at least in some quarters, the matter of alternative organizing took on greater urgency as patterns of centralized control, authoritarianism, racism, barriers to the flow of targeted groups, and surveillance became more evident at an international level in the 2010s.

In approaching the topic of alternative organizational culture from a communication-based standpoint, we should first probe the meanings of the three distinct components of the term—alternative, organizational, and culture—rather than taking any of them for granted. Specifically, how do we acknowledge, explore, and theorize the referential, yet ambiguous, fluid and transgressive aspects of each of the components?

The word alternative is an important but also in some ways elusive point of reference. It can be understood in opposition to concepts and practices considered familiar, conventional, traditional, mainstream, predominant, or even hegemonic. Alternatives can be conceptualized as ideas or acts of resistance to the exercise of political, social, or economic power. They can also suggest practices that are novel, creative, untried, or untested, and perhaps, radically different from those to which a group or part of society is accustomed (see Parker, Fournier, & Reedy, 2007). Finally, alternative can be applied to the process of organizing itself, especially with respect to critical thinking, dialogue, and playful or serious attempts to upend prevailing meanings on a regular basis—whether inside an organization or on a broader level. However, new practices are not necessarily alternative if they are deployed in the service of capitalist, profit-motivated corporations, or if they are coopted by mainstream consumer culture, or if they simply represent rebranding of already common ways of doing business. Most observers associate alternative organizational forms with the full embrace of diversity (Jonas, 2010), and, indeed, this linkage is a significant theme of this article.

The term organizational refers to the many layers of the ways in which social or economic units with specific goals are set up, structured, and governed. Instances of organizing range across a variety of contexts, from the formal to the informal, the hierarchical to the relatively egalitarian, the mechanical to the organic, and the bounded to the so-called boundaryless organization. Typically, alternative organizations are seen to be less hierarchical, less centralized, less bureaucratic, and more attuned to human and environmental needs than the well-known players in any of the three major sectors: private, public, and nonprofit (Cheney, 2014; Cheney & Munshi, 2016). Indeed, critical organizational studies (e.g., Alvesson, Bridgman, & Willmott, 2009; Alvesson & Willmott, 2012) and critical organizational communications (e.g., Clair, 1998; Deetz, 1992; Mumby, 2012) have posed alternatives to the organizational status quo (bureaucracy, capitalism, institutional isomorphism) by challenging power structures and taken-for-granted assumptions about organizing.

However, it is important to observe that “alternative” forms may well be located anywhere on the political, economic, and social spectrums, as is seen with some extremely conservative challenges to dominant institutions of governance. All that said, it should be emphasized, as is done by some commentators and political leaders, that the traditional binary of left versus right with respect to political organizations and movements has become more challenging to apply to many forms of organizing, especially when populism can manifest a mix of conservative and progressive tendencies.

Typically, “alternative” organizational models may also be constituted by, and embody, diversity of membership and multiplicity of meanings, and therefore they may consciously build in dimensions of openness and even dialectic. Nevertheless, at the same time, some of the flatter and more deliberately democratic organizational structures may reinforce power dynamics by subconsciously favoring the privileged and undermining diversity. This may occur if the persuasive resources of certain members prevail in practice even if they are not elevated on paper. As another example, certain radically democratic or even anarchist principles and practices may be adopted, or at least superficially echoed, by right-leaning groups. This means that both general (even if not universal) principles and case-by-case (sometimes ad hoc) sets of practices must be kept in mind and maintained in conversation with one another. Indeed, if new typologies of organizations were to be advanced today, the taxonomies would need to include in their underlying frameworks and proposed types the numerous hybrid and shifting forms we are now witnessing, particularly where values and goals intersect with organizational structures and processes.

Interestingly, in terms of communication, one “traditional” conception of organizational or managerial culture in fact offers the seeds for alternative considerations: Redding’s (1972) ideal managerial climate features trust, openness, supportiveness, and participative decision-making, along with commitment to high-performance goals. This straightforward model, derived from three decades of empirical research, in fact aligns well with many of the announced goals of alternative organizational climate/culture, in both theoretical and practical senses. Especially evident is the relational theme running across several of the characteristics in this empirically supported model. Further, the model is partially supported by some of the largest surveys of workers, showing that employee autonomy and voice are among the most treasured values and practices across types of occupations and organizations (compare Cloud, 2012; Freeman & Rogers, 2006).

Culture, too, is a broad term, embracing many different things. In organizational studies, this term supplanted climate as a broad descriptor around 1980 because of the sheer breadth and suggestiveness of the former term (see the evolution of the Handbook of Organizational Communication: Jablin, Putnam, Roberts, & Porter, 1987; Jablin & Putnam, 2001; Putnam & Mumby, 2014). The metaphor of culture was advanced as a key organizing term for interpretive-leaning research on organizations, as well as a great deal of empirical and critical research, because of the way it reminds the reader of the integration of organizations with society as a whole and the various avenues of influence between society at large and work experience and vice versa. Culture is an important way of describing and interpreting the human experience on multiple levels, from group to global contexts. In fact, the “cultural move” in organizational studies allows for a far broader appreciation of the multiple functions, activities, and issues in organizing than had been seen before. Yet, at the same time, it is still an anthropocentric term in most usages, generally ignoring aspects of the larger environment that surrounds organizations and upon which, ultimately, they draw sustenance. Only in the 2010s did researchers begin to extend notions of culture and environment for organizations to include a truly planetary perspective (see, e.g., Azkarraga & Cheney, 2018).

The explanatory power of culture emanates from its applicability to many different levels of society and its inclusion of hidden and implicit, as well as conscious and explicit, aspects of the ordering of human relations. Today, for example, there are studies that position organizations (such as multilateral institutions), professions (e.g., airline pilots), and industries (such as clothing) in terms of much broader social, economic, and political trends. For instance, inequalities in pay between women and men in the same positions not only are grounded in organizational or industry-level practices but also are tied to both subtle and overt themes of discrimination in the larger society that become visible in various ways (Crow & Lodha, 2011; Milanovic, 2016).

A Brief Interpretive History of Organizations

Any history is of course relative in certain regards, representing a point of view and selecting and labeling certain periods and breakpoints for special attention. Organizational history itself is enormously complex along both diachronic and synchronic axes, as recognized by Weber (1978) a century ago. Moreover, although organizational history cannot be cleanly abstracted or extracted from economic, social, and political milieus, it is possible to identify certain key moments and well as sources and mixes of ideas (see Conrad & Cheney, 2018). The moments and influences, in turn, have given rise to, and are reflective of, cultural trends.

What, then, have been dominant streams of organizational culture, especially since Weber’s (1978) time—that is, over the past 100 years or so? While it is beyond the scope of this article to cover in depth what might be called “organizational social history,” a few models, moments, and patterns of influence should be highlighted. Interestingly, in terms of the development of what is usually considered to be oppositional or at least distinct forms, both the modern corporation and the modern labor union can be traced to medieval European guilds as emerging centers of power. In this respect, early corporate power was oppositional and solidarity-based: that is, in reaction to the church and state as the primary centers of power. As is well known, the seeds of modern bureaucracy can be found in personnel records from China that are roughly 5,000 years old. What we think of as modern bureaucracy came into full view in the 19th and 20th centuries. What, then, is the modern corporation? And what are the key elements of bureaucracy? How do both these institutions impact all sectors of industrialized society?

The first multinational corporations were in effect state corporations of colonial powers, notably the Dutch and British East and West “Indies” Companies. In the case of India, for example, it has been argued by some historians that the East India Company, a state corporation, not only was an instrument of empire but also in certain ways had preceded other dimensions of British conquest: namely, military and administrative (Dalrymple, 2015). In this way, the development of corporate power was in tandem with the development of state and imperial power, although the former is usually thought to be a much more recent development.

The corporation, originally depending on community or state charters (as documented, for instance, in the state of Pennsylvania in the early 1800s), became a legal person in the United States and in many other industrialized countries beginning in 1886 with a U.S. Supreme Court decision. This was an enormous step in terms of extending the legal and practical reach of the corporation: something that had existed largely outside national constitutions was moved to a central place in terms of the ascription of rights, to a great degree, and responsibilities, to a lesser extent (Ritz, 2001). Over time, literal, legal corporations acquired rights to due process and the protections of free speech—the latter still being expanded in the United States and in many other industrialized nations.

Bureaucratic development and the desire to systematize management went hand in hand to establish efficiency as an overarching concern and a cultural value from the 1880s to the 1920s through the rise and spread of scientific management (Taylor, 1912). Importantly, the combination of the two systems meant in practice that individual experience, preference, intuition, and, of course, whim would be less important than clearly defined, accessible standards of performance and attendant evaluation. This move was double-edged in that, while it aimed to ensure standard practice and to avoid personal whim and interest (such as hiring by personal relationships: the practice of palanca, in Spanish), it also de-emphasized the role of the individual and in many instances could be seen to undermine both innovation and the capacity to envision alternatives through self-reflection. Individual creativity, intuition, and preferences were subordinated to the established procedures of the system. As Weber (1978) himself understood very well, this result was not inevitable for bureaucracy, although the tendencies were present and quite seductive. For Taylor and his many followers, however, there was less interest in critical self-reflection about organizational goals than interest in sustaining movement toward greater efficiency. The philosophy of Taylor’s system presumed larger goals of productivity and happiness, rather than calling the goals of any organization, industry, or work process into question. Through the efforts of a network of scholars and managers, efficiency became entrenched in the modern organization and in the popular mind, although in most cases it was interpreted in very specific, even mechanistic, terms.

Organizational structure is important to understanding organizational culture, whether in “mainstream” or “alternative” conceptions. Three key features of organizations and organizing are hierarchy, horizontal specialization, and formalization (see, e.g., Cheney, Christensen, Zorn, & Ganesh, 2011). These three descriptors refer to vertical, horizontal, and global aspects of an organization that in turn affect the development—and potential transformation—of its culture. They become inescapable reference points as both mainstream and alternative organizations are examined. For example, Morgan’s (1989) models of organization show how, as one moves from a “rigid bureaucracy” to a “loosely coupled organic network,” hierarchy, specialization, and formalization all become challenged and transformed. These primary descriptors of organization should be augmented by such terms as identity, diversity, voice, and dialogue, as is discussed in the next section through contemporary examples of mobilizing and organizing.

It is difficult to identify a starting point, in time or in principle, for alternative organization, any more than we can identify one for organization itself. However, in what is typically called the industrial era, alternatives to dominant forms appeared at the same time as the introduction of the steam engine—in the form of what are now called cooperatives (Kaswan, 2015). Cooperatives, as we know them, first appeared in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries; they offered viable employment and community alternatives to growing factories and company towns. Above all, cooperatives sought to maintain control in the hands of the employees and community members. However, some of the cooperatives developed by Scottish industrialist Robert Owen in the mid-1800s found themselves losing control as they sought out distant investors to broaden their capital bases. This was not the only problem with cooperatives and the so-called Utopian communities of the 19th century, of course, but the lessons of these social experiments live on in the cooperative movement today (as represented by the International Cooperative Alliance, ICA).

Another source of alternative organizational thinking was opposition to monopolies, especially in the oil, railroad, and telecommunications industries in the United States and elsewhere. This movement appeared in 1880s, a period of economic turbulence, and ushered in both the development of public relations as a field of practice and opposition to monopolistic policies, such as predatory pricing and company towns. Public relations thus emerged principally as a defensive set of organizational communication strategies and later became more proactive image-shaping efforts. Recently, public relations has included more enlightened consideration of dialogues with diverse stakeholders (Heath, 2010).

World War I represented a retreat from open borders, notably in Europe, and widespread efforts at collaboration in many industries also suffered. However, the same conflict that gave rise to the systematic study of propaganda also saw the development of creative ideas about “circular communication” in the organization. The nonlinear conception of internal organizational communication involved a recasting of authority in more interactive terms (Follett, 1995), and, of course, advances by organized labor occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, although not without great struggle (Foner, 1975, 1979).

The immediate post-World War II era also saw exchanges of ideas about more “circular” or cyclical forms of organization—for example, between Japan and the United States, as well as in a number of other parts of the world (Orsini & Deming Cahill, 2012). Decision-making innovations, such as quality circles, popular in the 1970s and 1980s, grew out of this organizational-cultural exchange in an attempt to make larger bureaucracies more nimble and responsive through the thoroughgoing incorporation of participative and feedback loops. On a more structural level, co-determination governance systems, whereby management, labor, and government all have seats at the bargaining and policy-development table, developed in Germany and other Western European countries.

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed growing interest in “postbureaucratic” as well as countercultural forms of organization, often framed in the interests of democracy, openness, and simplicity (Heckscher & Donnellon, 1994). Such movements also contributed to growing interest in flatter and even ad hoc hierarchies in all sectors in the 1980s and 1990s and continuing today. Celebrated examples of team-based structures in the high-tech sector (Kidder, 1981) were emulated in other industries and professions, and self-directed or semi-autonomous work teams became a common vehicle of reorganization (Barker, 1999). Often, such team-based transformations of organizations were heralded as a kind of grassroots democratic revolution with the potential to reinvigorate participation in all sectors of the economy and society (McLagan & Nel, 1995).

An important line—or set of lines—of critical reflection, investigation, and practice for what work organizations could be is Marxist and Marxist-oriented work. While this article does not have the space even for a summary of the major lines or distinctions of such research, we can note that Marx-inspired work has engaged with material working conditions, ownership of production, control over work decisions and processes, class levels, forms of alienation, and therefore also with possibilities for more egalitarian and democratic work cultures (see Artz, Macek, & Cloud, 2006). In communication, specifically with reference to rhetorical studies of labor and organizational communication, Cloud (2001) questioned celebratory discourses about “flatter” hierarchies in the “information age” and called for more direct engagement by communication scholars of working conditions and workers’ experiences of material, as well as symbolic, aspects of labor. This research persists as a cautionary tale about either complacent acceptance of rebranding of work relations as having achieved fairness and about the need for communication-based analyses of work cultures—both mainstream and alternative—to address materiality in more direct ways (compare Cheney & Cloud, 2006; Cloud, 1994).

Since the 1970s, feminist organizing, as a major dimension of critical organizational (communication) studies, has been a major thread in academic and popular work on organizations that are at once more consensus-based and more responsive to human needs (see, e.g., Bhavnani, Foran, Kurian, & Munshi, 2016; Buzzanell, 2000). Feminism has been influential in recasting organizations from local levels, such as nonprofit service agencies, municipal government, and corporate boardrooms, to national legislatures and global social movements. Although there are several waves of feminism and differences by class, nationality, and ethnicity, the initiatives share a challenge to traditional hierarchies as being in certain ways, if not always, inherently patriarchal (Ferguson, 1985). The question of how inherent patriarchy is in traditional models of organization, such as bureaucracy, remains an important point of theoretical and practical debate (Ashcraft, 2001).

What do we see as we look across patterns of organizing in so-called post-industrial society? Economics remains at the forefront of considerations; still, politics and culture enter the conversation in important ways, despite the fact they have often been sidelined in prevailing discussions of globalization (Jameson & Miyashi, 1998; Pieterse, 2003). In some ways, it may be observed that economics is used an umbrella for other dimensions of organizing, just as, especially on the national level, social issues may be used to obscure economic forces and differences. In terms of culture, efforts to include local and indigenous forms of group process and organizational structure gained attention, especially in the first two decades of the 21st century (Islam, 2015), as is discussed extensively in the next section.

Dialectics of Alternative Organizational Culture: Interplay of Cultural Traditions, Shifting Values, and Radical Innovations

The interplay between the economic and the sociocultural is most evident in the changing global landscape, with the profit-driven goals of neoliberalism driving rising inequality and impoverishment. Different layers of inequality in turn are laying the groundwork for complex discourses of nationalism and racism, each of which has sparked alternative forms of organizing, often in opposition to each other. The neoliberal doctrines of individual rights, reduced regulation, low taxation, and free markets, theorized by the Austrian political philosopher Friedrich Hayek (1944) and the American economist Milton Friedman (1951), among others, and put into practice by political heavyweights like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, among many others, have paved the way for overexploitation of resources and environmental degradation. They have also caused the disintegration of unions and collective bargaining, annihilation of welfare states and poverty protection programs, and movement of manufacturing bases to low-wage locations. All this has inevitably led to, on the one hand, a relentless push by the rich to get richer and the burgeoning middle classes to rise up the economic ladder by acquiring wealth at any cost, and, on the other hand, large-scale loss of jobs, reduced wages, and growing vulnerability for the poorer classes. Alternative movements in such a landscape have taken very different contours, each grappling with the dialectical tensions of various forms of nationalism and internationalism.

Mobilizations against existing governance structures have seen the rise of nationalist and nativist sentiments manifested in the election of right-wing governments in the United States, India, and multiple European countries in the 2010s, for example, and the victory of the campaign to lead Britain out of the European Union (2016). Although such mobilizations are “alternative” in so much as they were apparently in opposition to entrenched organizational structures controlled by career politicians and long-serving bureaucrats, they have been culturally divisive.

Although neoliberalism has often been equated with internationalism, trends in the early 21st century show how neoliberal ideologies have in certain ways teamed up with nationalism. Harmes (2012), for instance, makes an important point about the tendency of neoliberal forces to use internationalist discourses to promote economic globalization but nationalist discourses to prevent political globalization. India is a case in point, where the government’s attempts to attract foreign capital go hand in hand with attempts to quell dissent by labeling protest movements as “anti-national.”

What makes the notion of alternative organizational culture both fluid and transgressive are the dialectical tensions inherent in how it is expressed. Apart from the dialectics of nationalism and internationalism, there are several other dialectics in play as well: the dialectics, for example, of the core and the periphery, internal and external, efficiency and well-being, complicity and resistance, and empowerment and disempowerment. It is particularly important to be mindful of these dialectical tensions to make sure that a discussion of “alternatives” remains anchored to the notion of justice. Ironically, extremist political movements that espouse overtly racist and anti-immigration ideologies are also acquiring the “alternative” tag, as in the case of “alt-right” groups in the United States and elsewhere.

As in the political sphere, alternative organizing cultures thrown up in opposition to some of the dominant discourses in the world of business and commerce are themselves becoming dominant in other contexts, leading to movements of counter-resistance. By way of an illustration, take the case of the U.S.-based multinational, Apple, Inc. This technology giant is admired by its followers for its alternative organizational culture based on creativity, innovativeness, and a zeal to break with traditional manufacturing processes and hierarchies (Beer & Rogers, 1997). Yet, the hugely profitable company can hardly be classified as alternative. Viewed from the perspective of Wallerstein’s (2004) world-system theory, Apple is situated in a systemic core, rather than in the periphery. As Wallerstein said, technology-driven organizational structures of the core developed nations sustain their economic dominance by exploiting the developing nations of the periphery through an “unequal exchange” of capital. The business model of multinational corporations headquartered in affluent Western nations is based on garnering huge profits by exploiting the cheap labor and industrial resources of the Third World. No wonder, then, that Apple chooses to highlight that its products are “designed in California” but underplays the poor working conditions in its manufacturing bases in the Third World.

Apple, of course, is by no means alone—several multinational corporations walk the tightrope of technological creativity and commercial dominance. The dialectics of the core and periphery morph into the dialectics of the internal and the external in conceptualizing an alternative organizational culture. The Silicon Valley of the U.S. West Coast has thrived for years in building an internal organizational culture of creativity, flat structures, flextime, hotwired offices, and fun and games. Google, for example, set a trend for alternative workplaces not only by providing laundries, massage parlors, volleyball courts, and customized programs to suit the individual needs of every employee at its Googleplex but also by fostering an inclusive internal community devoid of top-down hierarchies (Reck, 2014). Yet, such a workplace often cocoons the workforce, drawn as it is from an elite core of intelligent, tech-savvy, upwardly mobile young people from different parts of the world. The internal flatness of the organization nevertheless maintains a hierarchical relationship with the external world outside. Although successful, upwardly mobile immigrants make up the bulk of the workforce of many of the modern technology giants, the plight of immigrants in general remains precarious outside the oases of alternative but exclusive high-tech environments. Thus, at a broader societal level, the alternative internal organizational cultures are largely incapable of protecting the human rights of everyday immigrants, especially undocumented ones, from the periodic outbreaks of xenophobic campaigns.

The notion of the “alternative” has sometimes been coopted by the neoliberal elite for commercial gain, so much so that it is now seen as a marker of efficiency in organizations even if comes at the cost of the well-being of those who are a part of it. For example, mega-cities around the world have experienced the exponential growth of on-demand, GPS-equipped, cheap transportation companies, such as Uber, as alternatives to traditional taxi services. The low fares and the app-based instant booking facilities have inspired millions to use the service. However, unlike traditional taxi drivers who are unionized, those who are part of the alternative services run independent franchises with few safety nets and financial securities and remain shackled to the pricing mechanisms of the corporations that govern their networks.

Similarly, the alternative characteristics of the not-for-profit sector are subject to powerful neoliberal influences. In many ways, not-for-profit organizations have been the model of alternative structures founded in opposition to the goals of capitalism (Parker et al., 2014b). Yet, the neoliberal machinery is increasingly making inroads into the not-for-profit sector through constant restructuring of governance mechanisms that have eroded the advocacy roles of not-for-profit organizations and constrained their ability to do public good (Fursova, 2018). The idea of alternative organizational structures could be meaningfully enhanced if, as Fursova (2018) indicated, there is a move toward “advancing the commons as a counter-hegemonic community development practice.”

There are already many alternative organizing structures evident in resistance movements around the world. For example, Chua (2016) highlighted, among other cases, the mobilization of indigenous Ogoni against the destructive economic, political, and social policies of oil giants, such as Shell and Chevron, as well as the Nigerian military along the Niger Delta; the fight back by peasant women of Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador against the assault on rural livelihoods by free-trade agreements and the privatization of water; the campaign by the Serikat Perempuan Indonesia (Indonesian Women’s Organization) against the corporate-government attempts to grab rural farming land; and the alternative local government initiatives undertaken by the chapters of the Makabayan Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan (Patriotic Movement of the New Women) in the Philippines. Along with these local initiatives, there are also global movements to rally against dominant, neoliberal policies of corporatized governments. Examples of such movements include those led by People’s Global Action, Via Campesina, and the Friends of the Earth. The coordinated women’s march in major international cities in January 2017 and the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the United States, also in 2017, are also powerful examples of the organizing abilities of groups disadvantaged by political elites.

Yet, alternative organizing cultures are not solely about resistance. At a practical level, an alternative organizational culture can also be an affirmation and realization of possibility, rather than simply standing in opposition to the mainstream or the dominant. Such a possibility is already evident in pockets around the world. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India is an example of how low-income women in the informal sector have organized to seek a fairer life for themselves (Dutta, 2003). Maori communities in New Zealand have taken the lead to adopt Kaupapa Maori processes of research and practice to design for themselves development agendas and training programs that align with their own priorities and political aspirations (Smith, 2012).

Feminist, postcolonial, and indigenous perspectives have pointed to alternative paths and in many cases have helped to realize alternative visions. These trends are important on theoretical levels and in terms of their specific manifestations (which often appear under different terminological umbrellas, titles, and slogans). Within this complex and changing landscape, examples include feminist ecological networks, ATOs, coops/mutuals, time banks, other barter systems, and, of course, multicephalous or “leaderless” as well as ad hoc social movement organizing (greatly facilitated by technology). One of the strongest forms of feminist organizing, for example, has been the conscious building of networks across national boundaries. The Oxford Handbook of Transnational Feminist Movements (Baksh & Harcourt, 2015) provides a rich repository of research on how transnational feminist movements have been actively leading change processes on sexual and reproductive health and economic parity as well against religious fundamentalism and gender-based violence.

As is evident in transnational feminist organizing, alternative cultures may be propelled by larger social forces, including technological development. For example, as Youngs (2015) pointed out, the boundary-crossing characteristics of information communication technologies (ICTs) have disrupted masculinist politics by allowing the space for horizontal communication and engagement among women activists and scholars across the globe. Even within national boundaries, online organizing has transformed the social sphere considerably. For example, the remarkable volume of social media postings and online protests against the gang rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus in 2012 helped focus India’s national attention on violence against women as never before (Kurian, Munshi, & Mundkur, 2015). Yet, ICTs have both potential and limitations. As Kurian et al. (2015) showed, access to online platforms has a major bearing on which issues get attention. While the Delhi rape case united urban women and men to call for action, many other rape cases in smaller towns and rural areas of India were ignored because they were not taken up on social media platforms. Also, in many instances, male-centric groups also tended to misuse ICTs by hijacking online discussion forums, with negative consequences. This is where the dialectics of empowerment and disempowerment come into play. As feminist scholars have shown, alternative organizing environments online can simultaneously be contradictory spaces of power and powerlessness (Kurian et al., 2015) or empowerment and vulnerability (Fotopoulou, 2016). While once-marginalized groups have successfully used online technologies to network and to get a presence in the discourses of popular culture, they have also been exposed to cyberbullying, trolling, and hate speech (Fotopoulou, 2016).

There is also the issue of visibility: How movements are seen to “emerge,” how they are covered and framed in the mainstream news media, and how movements operate in the realm of the Internet, especially social media and open-source technologies (see Scott, 2013). A major practical issue, then, in the consideration of alternatives is their visibility: many, such as Wikileaks, are secretive but quite public; others are deliberately under the radar or are simply not recognized by the mainstream media. Sometimes, the matter of visibility relates to the culture and communication of alternatives just as it does to their substantive interests and issue domains. Indeed, as Fotopoulou’s (2016) research on alternative organizations in the United Kingdom shows, there is a cultural bias toward “visible-on-the-screen networks,” which, in turn, creates new forms of exclusion affecting especially those who are unable to update their activities frequently or continuously add new content to their online platforms. The rise of technology-equipped social media indeed poses a dilemma for alternative organizations seeking to bring about social and political change. As Dean (2009) asked, do the massive outpourings of solidarity and the calls for action generated by networked alternative bodies really lead to sociopolitical change or do they merely contribute to a deep well of endlessly circulating messages in an era of “communicative capitalism”?

Key Features of a Truly Alternative Organizational Culture

A summary of characteristics that have been posited and demonstrated for alternative organizational culture is offered here that is based on a combination of academic research, historical instances, and current events. Considering the spirit and range of a great deal of alternative organizations and organizing, the common key values and principles are:

  • Value- and goal-directedness, with reflexivity for self-correction, adaptation, and redirection. In a certain sense, this orientation traces its roots to Weber’s theorizing and to the discussions of Weber’s “lost” or fourth type of authority and organizational logic (Rothschild-Whitt, 1979; Satow, 1975).

  • Autonomy, of individual members as well as of the organization, to certain extents. This is one of the values that most consistently surface in employee and labor surveys: the capacity to influence in some way the conditions of one’s work and then to be able to achieve a degree of efficacy.

  • Openness and inclusivity of ideas as well as people. In this respect, recent discussions have moved beyond, for example, ideas and programs of diversity management to consider deeply what minority and indigenous local knowledge has to offer organizational theory.

  • Participation and voice for members and other associates. The long tradition of participatory democracy at work has become intertwined with discussions of democratic movements in politics and society.

  • Solidarity of groups/teams, the organization, the community, and beyond. This has been a theme of the writing about cooperatives, social entries, and the solidarity economy.

  • Responsibility to all major stakeholding groups. This value and associated principle echo the triple bottom line.

  • Ecological integration, as opposed to alienation and instrumentality, especially with respect to a holistic vision for organizations, society, and the planet.

In summary, the term alternative organizational culture is polysemous, fluid, and provocative. For informal organizing and even formal organizations, the term can be an important and indeed motivating touchstone. This article considers not only multiple senses of alternative organizational culture but also multiple pathways to its consideration, emergence, and sometimes mainstreaming. The dialectics briefly described here have historical roots, and yet they appear in different forms in an age of advanced technology and new avenues of interconnectedness and mobilization. Whether some of the movements described can be sustained and expanded to usher in a new period of global cooperation remains to be observed and then chronicled.

Perhaps the key point from a communication perspective is that the relationship within pairs of terms or labels, as well as the relationship between different work or organizational arrangements, must be kept in the forefront of our scholarly and practical thinking as concrete instances of alternative organizational culture are discovered, inspected, and promoted.

Further Reading

Verbos, A. K., Henry, E., & Peredo, A. M. (Eds.). (2017). Indigenous aspirations and rights: The case for responsible business and management. London, UK: Routledge.Find this resource:


    Alvesson, M., Bridgman, T., & Willmott, H. (Eds.). (2009). The Oxford handbook of critical management studies. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

      Alvesson, M., & Willmott, H. (Eds.). (2012). Making sense of management: A critical introduction. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

        Artz, L., Macek, S., & Cloud, D. (Eds.). (2006). Marxism and communication studies: The point is to change it. New York, NY: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

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