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What if everything you understood about (organizational) culture was wrong?

Posted on November 11, 2013 by: David White

Culture: the most overused and least understood term in business, if not in modern society. What does it mean? Values? Norms? Behavior? Environment? Practices? How things get done? How people treat one another? Symbols? Artifacts? All of the above? Some of the above?

OK. Forget that question. Let’s assume culture is at least some of these things. How, then, do you measure it? Do you use surveys to ask people what they think about their work environment, or their coworkers, or management practices? Do you conduct detailed ethnographies to observe and record every interaction and artifact? Do you study the norms and habits of top executives or company founders and extrapolate their collective values?

What about cultural boundaries? Whose culture are you shaping or changing when you profess to do so? Do you account for the possible permeable effects of say, regional culture (e.g. Silicon Valley vs. Route 128 in software, or Emiglia-Romana vs. Baden Wurttemberg in manufacturing)? How about professional/occupational effects, or national or ethnic influences? Or do you punt on measurement altogether, citing it’s epistemic slipperiness?

OK, forget measurement. What about change: is culture a dependent or independent variable? Is culture something you can change, or more like air or water, a fact of social milieus, therefore largely unchangeable? And if you can change culture, how do you do it? Is there a culture change “play book”, a “silver bullet”, or at least some “best practices”?

If these questions introduce doubt or skepticism into your conception of culture, consider yourself enlightened. These items are all contested in the academic culture literature.

In academic circles the so-called “Culture Wars” rage (Martin and Frost, 2012). On one side are the positivists – mostly management scholars and organizational psychologists – who treat culture as a single variable (e.g. values) and then “prove”, usually through statistical methods, that said culture has “changed” from one state to another. On the other side are the postmodernists and hermeneutists who consider culture to be a social construction, largely unobservable except through “texts” and artifacts, and, regardless, inherently local, fragmented, and always subject to the subverting hegemonic influence of those in power.

The net effect of this ‘war’ is a radical Balkanization of the culture field.  Theory and research is highly fragmented and mostly concerned with defending terrain or advancing claims within narrowly defined and largely unassailable worldviews.

This is a bad deal for managers and practitioners, for two reasons.

First, culture theory is largely divorced from culture practice. The majority of managers, leaders, and entrepreneurs we work with are not troubled in the least by the questions posed above.

Second, this divorce leads to a kind of Wild West of practice: culture, it turns out, is whatever you think it is, which means nearly anything counts as culture that is measurable and subject to intervention. What anthropologists call the “self enhancement bias” – the belief that as a leader you have an inexorable and long lasting impact on your organization’s culture – is alive and well in corporate America (for a terrific example of this writ large, see Adam Bryant’s “Corner Office” column in the New York Times).

You might ask, what is wrong with that? As long as managers believe they are positively impacting their organizations, who cares?

There are a several reasons to care. For one, if as a leader you believe you can causally shape culture in any system more complex than a 50 person start-up, you would be on the wrong side of the anthropological research.

But more importantly, as managers and practitioners interpret and attempt to adapt theory from a fragmented body of research they greatly oversimplify what culture is. And simplification tends to lead to failure: the concept fails to impact domains such as corporate productivity, performance or mergers and acquisitions (The Economist, 2013; Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2008; Hesketh 2004; Bruner, 2000).

Naïve, narcissistic, pragmatically irrelevant or overly reductionist views of culture waste energy and confuse people (even if they entice founders and executives). We need more sophisticated as well as more pragmatic concepts, frameworks and tools. Culture is a far too complex and pervasive social phenomenon to be “measured” by one or two variables in a survey. At the same time, to assume culture is inherently subjective and only visible in texts denies the possibility that culture is real and a potentially powerful normative force.

What if culture was reconceptualized? What if popular conceptions adopted the prevailing view from modern cognitive anthropology and considered culture as shared mental models (aka cultural models)?

Briefly (space precludes more than a taste: see Strauss and Quinn, 1997), a cultural model is a set of shared, often tacit assumptions about how the world works. These assumptions underwrite much of what we collectively believe to be true, how we make sense of things, how we act, what we value, and how we speak (think: framing). They underpin much of what happens “culturally” inside an organization – how problems are conceptualized, how assumptions are made, what gets privileged as knowledge, how organizations are structured, what gets represented to the world (e.g. branding), what defines success, and even how power is conferred – in short, in most of the ways humans think and behave in collective enterprise.

Shared models are a kind of operating system for culture. Because they permeate nearly all facets of corporate behavior they are inherently powerful ways to rethink cultural practice (for a great example of this, albeit not by this name, see Hunter Scott’s compelling visual piece on engineering cultures).

Culture thought of in this way might revolutionize culture practice by casting culture as an inherently systemic phenomenon, like an operating system, without reducing culture to just one or two things, or worse, forcing us to give up on the question altogether. Which means we might stop focusing on values or normative “shoulds” or symbols (etc.) and intervene systemically, focused on the assumptions that underlie how we (for example) define success, make sense of data, grant privilege, formulate strategy or decide what is or is not important.

Further Reading:

  1. Alvesson, M., and Sveningsson, S. (2008). Changing organizational culture: Cultural change work in progress. Abingdon: Routledge.
  2. Bruner, R. (2001). Does M&A pay? A survey of evidence for the decision-maker: http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=M%26A&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C5&as_sdtp=
  3. Schumpeter (2013, October 5). The Economist, 71.
  4. Hesketh, J. (2004). Should we brace ourselves for another era of M&A value destruction? Harvard Business School Working Knowledge: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/4037.html
  5. Martin, J., Frost, P. (2012). The organizational culture war games: a struggle for intellectual dominance. In M. Godwin and J. Hoffer Gittell (Eds.), Sociology of organizations: Structures and relationships (pp. 559-621). Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  6. Strauss, C. and Quinn, N. (1997). A Cognitive theory of cultural meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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