South-Western - Management  
Small Groups, Big Ideas
Topic Internal Environment and Culture
InfoTrac Reference A142730306
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Key Words Culture, creativity, teams, flat lattice organizational structure
Introduction The unconventional workplace culture at W.L. Gore has become as well known as the company's innovative weather-resistant fabric. Will continued growth and global expansion present a challenge to the practices that have fueled its creativity, like workers collaborating in small teams and a flat organization?
News Story

Manufacturing company W.L. Gore & Associates has become as well known for its unconventional workplace culture as it is for its weather-resistant fabric. The company, founded in 1958 by Bill Gore was built upon four core principles-fairness; freedom to encourage others to grow in knowledge, skill, and responsibility; ability to honor one's commitments; and consultation with others before taking action that could affect the company. Instead of a typical corporate hierarchy, Gore created a "flat lattice" organization with no titles, chains of command or predetermined channels of communication.

All workers in Gore's company are called "associates." Instead of bosses, they have "sponsors" who help them find their place in the organization. They communicate with one another, and work together in small teams. Leaders naturally emerge. If someone has a new idea for a product, they don't need to go through levels of approvals, instead they need to get peer support and gather people to work with them to make it happen.

However, as the company has grown from 3,000 workers in the early 80s to 7,300 workers in 45 facilities today in a more multinational environment, the company has been compelled to formalize some aspects of the culture while still remaining true to their ideals and focused on not stifling innovation. Some of the changes include slightly larger plants, where leaders hold regularly scheduled communication meetings to share news about company performance, discuss safety, and introduce new workers. Teammates who are on several continents find it challenging to work together with just e-mail and phone conversation, and the company invests significant dollars to bring teams together physically

Finding the right type of person to fit into Gore's unique cultural environment can be a challenge. Gore's recruiters might spend months or even years to fill open positions. The right person for the environment must be passionate about sharing information, open to handling ambiguity, and open-minded enough to see what the needs of the business are.

Although the environment at Gore is focused on freedom, it is not chaotic. Associates must fulfill their "core commitments" before they can pursue their own ideas or persuade others to work for them on pet projects.

Although the company has grown, and employees frequently use the intranet to search for internal job opportunities, relationships between associates and their sponsors are still critical to the company's development process. The process has gotten even more structured with teams of sponsors meeting to discuss whether associates under their guidance are best utilizing their skills and discussing opportunities that might be available for them in the company. Ultimately, the decisions are up to the associates, who are encouraged to go with their passions.

Individual contributions at Gore are measured not just on a project basis but on an overall basis, with the understanding that in an entrepreneurial environment, not all projects will be successful. The company values people who take smart risks.

Other companies have tried to emulate the success of Gores' small, empowered teams model, but no company has been able to execute it as consistently and successfully as Gore.


What are the fundamental elements of Gore's culture that make it unique?


The article tells us that Gore has a flat lattice organizational structure. Define this structure. What is a more typical organizational structure that you will see in most companies?


What are the advantages Gore employees have from working in this type of workplace environment?


Are there any potential disadvantages to this type of structure or culture? What are they? Be prepared to discuss the pros and cons of Gore's unusual corporate culture in class.

Source “Another Outsider Falls Casualty to Nike’s Insider Culture,” The New York Times, January 24, 2006, page C4(L).
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