The richness of culture

Examining orgnisation culture is fascinating because despite theories, perspectives, definitions, labels, and inventories that claim to measure it culture is largely an unknown quantity. Donald Rumsfeld could have been talking about organisational culture, instead of Iraq, when he commented:

"As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know".
-Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

Grappling with the issues put down to the culture of his organisation one executive commented: "There's the question of what it (culture) is. I suppose every company has a corporate culture of a sort, and certainly every executive I've met claims to be promoting one ("we have a culture of accountability" etc). But such widespread usage makes the word culture feel flabby to me. It would be wonderful if it could be described more crisply or provocatively so I could know what it is and then do something about it."

That manager's frustration in trying to understand organisation culture is not helped by the fact that there is little agreement at a practical level of what culture 'is': in the same way that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder', so it could be said that 'culture is in the mind of the experiencer'. (Additionally there is a philosophical difference between academic researchers who take the view that organisations 'have' a culture and researchers who take the view that culture is what the organisation 'is').

Where there is agreement about the constituents of culture they are stated as 'patterns' of values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, behaviours and suchlike that can be shared. This may be useful as a generalization but is less useful when it comes to taking actions at a local or individual level. Take an analogy, if the various ingredients of an apple pie (which stands for the culture) are a proxy for value, norms, beliefs, etc, when the pie is assembled, cooked, cut and shared out each person will experience it differently and have their own response to it. Similarly with culture – the 'ingredients' of culture are meaningless before combination, and when combined are experienced differently by each individual.

Beyond this there is confusion as to whether culture is static – and therefore easily teachable, say to newcomers to the organisation, – or dynamic and inherently less predictable and teachable.

And then, it is not clear whether culture is influenced by people or whether culture influences people. Is it 'done to' people or 'done by' people? Or, more likely, is it a continuous interplay of people and circumstance?

Finally when people talk about their organization culture they are, for the most part, inwardly focused. They do not allow for the external framework in which the organization is situated which, simply put, is evident at three levels:

• The organizational regulatory and tax compliance requirements
• External relationships with governments and communities
• The legal frameworks and mutual expectations surrounding the rights and responsibilities of workers and employers e.g. whether employees are barred from joining a union

Thinking about culture it is evident that it is 'about' patterns of the organisation – things like what type of person gets promoted, how offices are allocated, what gets noticed, who talks to whom, and so on. Where these patterns can be discerned across the whole organisation they are usually reinforced in policies, performance management systems, common visual symbols or décor and so on. But at the local department or team level the patterns can be very different depending on the nature of the work, the personalities of the managers, even though they are within the parameters of the organisation.

When you think about your own organization's culture see if you can work out what is evident across the whole (e.g. same value set) and what is local but still within the overall parameters (e.g. managerial style). Does anything fall so far outside the parameters that you would consider it 'counter-cultural'?

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