posted 1 Nov 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 3
A new perspective on culture
The term ‘culture’ has become a catch-all label for almost every aspect of human interaction, to the extent that organisations often find themselves out of their depth and heading in the wrong direction when they try to resolve the problems that relate to the concept. As Dave Snowden says, efficiency in a human system does not always equate with effectiveness, and here he offers a new perspective on how to approach cultural issues in an organisational setting.
Culture is one of those words that have become extremely problematic within an organisational context. In knowledge management, the phrase ’20 per cent technology, 80 per cent culture’ is all too common; major re-engineering programmes fail to achieve the desired level of employee co-operation and culture is blamed; integration issues in a merger are perceived to be the fault of cultural misalignment; scandals in share-price manipulation are blamed on an institutionalised culture of deceit. The list goes on. Culture has become the new bucket class into which anything involving human factors is deposited.
We also see a dichotomy between approaches to solving the issue. On one side, we have the engineer-scientist who seeks to understand cause-and-effect relationships in human behaviour on the assumption that these are empirically verifiable and predictable in the same way as stress loads in a steel beam or the decision rules of a search algorithm are. This approach will also encompass engineering design approaches to cultural alignment based on top-down direction. On the other, we have those who emphasise emotion and unpredictability in human interaction and focus on coaching, motivational exercises and inspirational leadership. This latter approach ranges from cynical manipulation, which borders on abuse similar to that seen in cults, to new-age idealism based on a belief that if only people would be more (here substitute ‘open’, ‘trusting’, ‘storytelling’ or whatever is the current trend), then life would be wonderful.
We cannot engineer culture
Part of the problem is that culture is just too big a concept, encompassing too many different themes. Another issue is the goal-based focus of a great deal of management practice – a desire to achieve short-term predictable results before committing to a longer journey. Both are problems shared with knowledge management, which both encompasses culture and is encompassed by it. We see this in issues such as trust, for instance. Recognised as a key dependency for knowledge exchange and cultural change alike, organisations often embark on trust programmes. Groups of managers are taken away to remote mountain locations, thrown into freezing cold lakes, dragged up mountains beyond their physical capacity to endure and are made to fall backwards from the top of brick walls into the unseen arms of their colleagues (something I will only do in front of named witnesses and under controlled conditions). At the end of this they sit in a circle and are asked if they now trust each other, to which the answer is ‘yes (anything to get me the hell out of here)’.
How many readers have been asked in a workshop environment to confess to a mistake in order to help create a culture of openness? Most people tend to co-operate, but do you share your real mistakes, or one that actually shows how bright you really are? Deep issues such as trust, openness, collegiality and the like cannot be engineered or designed; rather, they emerge through multiple interactions between people, communities and the societies within which they operate. Culture is the patterning of our interactions with our environment and it is not susceptible to design principles appropriate to the creation of bridges and software programs, although it is susceptible to the design principles of a gardener or an architect.
The mistake being made here is not the identification of, for example, trust as being a key factor in knowledge exchange, but the belief that trust can manufactured. Trust is won over years and lost in seconds. The same applies to a ‘no-blame’ culture. Yes, it is true that open sharing of mistakes can lead to learning, but it does not follow that we can then design this type of culture into an organisation. In many years of work in this field, I have only seen one organisation that came close to achieving this, and that was a result of an accident and an evolving ritual practice involving the CEO that established itself over a twenty-year period. Many managers claim that they have succeeded in creating a no-blame culture, but a short period of work-place anthropology or a story circle or two soon reveals either hypocrisy (the open admission of mistakes is not intended to apply to the manager) or self-deceit.
These mistakes come from a misunderstanding about the nature of the systems we are dealing with. Engineering is appropriate to ordered systems in which cause-and-effect relationships can be discovered and verified, and where those relationships repeat themselves in a predictable manner. In such systems, efficiency rules – we want the most efficient system, one in which each component of the organisation is optimised in order that the system as a whole can be optimised. The problem is that human systems, in respect of their culture but not necessarily of their more stable aspects of interaction, are not ordered systems and, ironically, the path to their optimisation is to allow sub-optimal behaviour in their parts. Human systems need to be effective, whereas machines are efficient; the two are not necessarily the same thing.
Sub-optimal behaviour is necessary for system effectiveness in humans
The assumption that efficiency necessarily leads to effectiveness is itself a consequence of ontological myopia in management science and consultancy practice. This arises from two common assumptions about the nature of organisations:
- First, that any organisation is a system in which cause-and-effect relationships exist and are knowable in such a way that we can create predictable and empirically verifiable models of the behaviour of the system. This is an ordered ontology;
- Second, that organisations are aggregations of distinct and autonomous individuals who assemble into collectives on the basis of a rational assessment of some anticipated return, and whose motivations can be managed through incentives and penalties. This position can be characterised as being based on an individual or atomist ontology in which “human agents are distinguishable and separable, hence really or ideally self-sufficient”. 
While both the above assumptions can be valid, their truthfulness is always bounded by context. Knowledge management is one of the disciplines that is driving a more sophisticated and ontologically diverse understanding of the systems that we attempt both to understand and to manage. As any philosopher will tell you, the nature of the ontology determines the epistemological possibilities; in other words, the nature of the system determines the nature of the way in which things can be known.
In human interactions within organisations and their environment we can see three different types of system, with different ontologies, each of which requires a different approach to diagnosis, design and the cultural aspects of an organisation, including knowledge management. The three are:
- Ordered ontologies, in which cause-and-effect relationships are known or knowable, which are empirically verifiable and which, once discovered, repeat in such a way that prescriptive models of behaviour are possible. This is the only legitimate domain of best practice, which is otherwise entrained past practice. Most management theory and practice assumes an ordered ontology, focusing on interviews, market research and so on, to create provable hypotheses that can then be used to create common practices and procedures that are held to be optimal;
- Complex ontologies comprising many constantly interacting agents, where the nature of agent and the number of interactions are such that cause-and-effect relationships, although they exist, can only be understood when they have stabilised: they are subject to retrospective coherence. Managing in a complex space is more like managing children. The volatility of the relationships and interactions is such that all that can be done is to manage patterns: patterns that we want, we stabilise; patterns that we don’t like, we destabilise; and, when we get very clever, we stimulate the interactions and agents in such a way that desirable patterns are more likely to form;
- Chaotic ontologies, in which there are no discernable relationships between cause and effect. All attempts at control using established procedures serve only to increase the level of incoherence, and when order forms it does so in surprising and unexpected ways. The seeds of order are always present, even in the most chaotic of systems, but the ability to perceive, or form, them is generally a rare skill, normally present in charismatic leaders and dictators.
If we start to look at culture (in addition, in fact, to a number of other problems) from these different perspectives, it becomes less problematic. If the system is ordered, then many of the traditional engineering approaches will work. Humans have the ability to create order for long periods of time through stable patterns of interaction that do permit engineering approaches, with their associated assumptions of cause-and-effect manipulation. However, this tends to apply to systems based on explicit rules, where we use the human ability to store knowledge in the external “scaffolding” of our environment to provide the required stability and predictability. Expense rules, compliance procedures, quality standards, the legal structures of states and so on are all applicable here.
In a complex system, none of this works. Here we are trying to manage a shift in the patterns of meaning that exist between people and communities. To work in this sort of area requires a radical new approach based on a different science, that of many connected systems or pattern management. If we see cultural interventions in an organisation as a pattern-revealing and a pattern-influencing activity then we have a greater change of success. In doing this, we can drawn on two traditions: that of childcare, which many of us have experience of, and the disciplines of anthropology, which are not used enough in this field.
In the field of chaos, we crave order. This is the domain of charisma and tyranny, in which a leader who can sense the seeds of order is followed and valued. We see this in organisations that step back from the brink of bankruptcy; everyone pulls together around common objectives and practices that they would previously have rejected. Once the crisis is over, things change, and we are left with a romantic notion of the past: how can we get back to the good old days? Chaos is an interesting field. It is one into which we can be precipitated or one that we can visit on a ritual basis to habituate communities to managing uncertainty.
We wouldn’t try it with our children
Imagine the following situation: a team of consultants is given the job of managing the play periods of a kindergarten. They plan the execution of this task in great detail, interviewing the head teacher and educational authorities to determine their strategic objectives for play. Psychometric tests are carried out to devise appropriate groupings; the children are measured, weighed and their physical types determined. Appropriate resources are then identified, teams assembled and the day arrives. The children are lined up against the wall of the school and are allocated to different types and areas of play according to the pre-determined schema set by the consultants.
The result would of course be chaos. An experienced teacher would allow the children to play for a period before stabilising the patterns that are desirable, destabilising those that are undesirable. If they are clever, they are able to seed the space in order that the patterns they want to encourage are more likely to emerge. However, most organisational change programmes are closer to the constancy parody above than they are to the practice of the experienced teacher. That is not to say that the experienced teacher does not have rules and control, but the rules are those of boundaries, the metaphorical equivalent of drawing a line in the sand and saying ‘cross that and you will pay’. Over-constrain the boundary and it will be crossed all the time and your authority subsequently destroyed; too slack a boundary has the same effect. The secret, as with so many things, is one of balance.
There are new techniques that work on these principles, namely social network stimulation and the Grendle Game, both of which rely on self-organisation within boundaries set by management. Another source of inspiration in this field is anthropology. To cite an example that acts as a good introduction to this subject, while reading some material on the persistence of ritual in the absence of belief in some tribes in northern India, my colleagues and I suddenly realised that this was the old mission-and-values problem. It is not possible to get everyone to believe the same things, although we frequently try, but it is possible to create rituals that will align people with those beliefs. This gives rise to a completely new approach to behavioural alignment.
Rituals and values
Keesing and Strathem identify two perspectives that can be taken to understand approaches to cultural anthropology. These are:
- “The socio-cultural system or the pattern of residence and resource exploitation that can be observed directly, documented and measured in a fairly straightforward manner”;
- Culture as an “ideational system. Cultures in this sense comprise systems of shared ideas, systems of concepts and rules and meanings that underlie and are expressed in the ways that humans live. Culture, so defined, refers to what humans learn, not what they do and make.”
In support of the second of these, they quote Goodenough, who saw ideation as the way in which humans provide “standards for deciding what is... for deciding what can be... for deciding how one feels about it... for deciding what to do about it… and for deciding how to go about doing it”.
While there is not a direct translation between cultural anthropology and organisational dynamics, we can use the above distinction in respect of both diagnosis and intervention. The socio-cultural system is that of rules, procedures, training, induction programmes, promotion boards and the like, which form part of the explicit and visible structure of an organisation. These can be managed, albeit within boundaries; a rule system that is too constrictive may be abused to the point where it is no longer taken seriously. Equally, the formal and informal aspects of the system may not be aligned, but lip service will at least be paid to the formal system, and changes in those rules and processes will modify the behaviours of individuals and communities within the organisation. We are dealing here with the explicit aspects of an organisation’s culture.
Beneath this we have the underlying value and belief systems of an organisation. This is a far more problematic field in an organisational context than it is in society at large. The patterns of belief that form when we are children and that permeate family groupings in society build through our formative years and are reinforced in subtle and varied ways. Organisations acquire their members in adulthood and, with increasing rates of both voluntary and involuntary turnover, have less time to influence or direct the ideation system, not that this stops them trying. It is also true that in an organisation the explicit rule systems and processes have a greater impact than in society, insofar as they generally involve a greater degree of micro control and, critically, are not subject to any form of democratic checks. However, there are still strong implicit value and belief systems within organisations. This becomes obvious, for example, when two organisations merge and differences and unique aspects of culture come to the fore.
Rule and value systems cannot be rigidly separated – neither exists independently of the other – but this distinction does give us two valuable perspectives on cultural issues within organisations that allow us to make greater sense of proposed interventions. We also need to think of the purpose behind any study of, or interventions in, the culture of an organisation. There is at least an argument that leaders who do the right thing and recruit the right people can allow the natural evolution of culture without the need for formal intervention or control.
All organisations have various obligations to their employees, their shareholders and to the wider society within which they operate. They also have various goals: to make products, provide services, secure market share and so on. However, underlying all of this is the need to make effective decisions and to ensure appropriate alignment of actions with those decisions. Here we come to a key issue in approaches to culture: we do not have to believe the same things to align our actions. In choosing to join an organisation, I accept a degree of constraint as to my future actions; I know both the value and the price of dissent. I understand that there are boundaries, but it does not follow that I will accept the control of all aspects of my day-to-day tasks. It is similar to the trust issue, a mistaken set of assumptions about the ability to manage cause and effect. Yes, if the belief systems of all of our employees were aligned then life would be better, in a ‘happy-clappy’ sort of way, but this is neither possible nor necessary, and attempts to institute common belief systems may actually trigger a counter reaction. After all, no-one likes to be preached to.
The real nature of decision making
Goodenough’s emphasis on decision making is important. It is through the decisions that we make, and do not make, that culture is formed. Most thinking about human decision making assumes a rational model. We can see this in the use of targets and other reward/punishment systems designed to change or influence behaviour in organisations. In knowledge management, a lot of thinking in the area of social capital assumes that individuals act socially in anticipation of material return, and that they make decisions on the basis of explicit or implicit criteria that, if discovered, could be used to predict and manage behaviour. A lot of classical economics is based on similar principles. While these models are useful, and are true to a degree, they do not fully represent the totality, or reality, of human decision making. Work by Klein and others in the field of naturalistic decision theory has identified that pattern entrainment is a common aspect of human decision making, in that we tend to respond to a first-fit pattern that matches with prior experience instead of making a rational evaluation between carefully considered alternatives. Indeed, we frequently go beyond that and “imagine contradictory evidence away”.
Other thinkers reinforce this view of decision making as a form of human patterning. Douglas deserves an extended quote: “It seems that whatever we perceive is organised into patterns for which we the perceivers are largely responsible... As perceivers we select from all the stimuli falling on our senses only those which interest us, and our interests are governed by a pattern-making tendency, sometimes called a schema. In a chaos of shifting impressions each of us constructs a stable world in which objects have recognisable shapes, are located in depth and have permanence... As time goes on and experience builds up, we make greater investment in our systems of labels. So a conservative bias is built in. It gives us confidence.”
Most people, when they join an organisation, are anxious to conform, to fit in. They observe the practices of their new colleagues; they listen to the stories of success and failure that are commonly told around the water coolers. They adopt many of these stories and imitate them, making them their own. The rules and other formal systems of the organisation reinforce this through practice.
Towards a new perspective on culture
The intention of this article has not been to provide a neat-and-tidy answer or a recipe for success in cultural management in organisations. There are already too many recipes in this field and few really work. Instead, my aim has been to introduce some new ideas and ways of thinking into how we go about understanding interventions, and to place boundaries around some types of approach to prevent their inappropriate application. It represents the start of a new journey that will be a major focus for the Cynefin Centre next year. In a open programme that starts in San Diego this January and concludes in Florence in September, participating organisations will come together with anthropologists and moral theologians from the major religious traditions of the world to look at three aspects of culture: leadership, ethics and alignment. During the nine-month period we expect to reframe the subject and produce a range of pragmatic methods and tools to achieve change. This is also emergent research – it’s not about consultants or academics studying what currently happens and formulating a hypothesis, but rather about problems and concepts coming together and, through high levels of participation and experimentation, allowing new meaning and new solutions to emerge.
Dave Snowden is director of IBM’s Cynefin Centre for Organisational Complexity. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Details of the culture programme and other aspects of the centre’s work can be obtained from www.ibm.com/services/cynefin or directly from the author.
1. The engineer-scientist is a phenomenon created by the revolution that information technology triggered in management science, in particular the growth and dominance of business process re-engineering over the last 30 years, which sought to treat the organisation and its environment as a machine whose performance could be engineered through a focus on efficiency
2. Weissman, D., A Social Ontology (Yale University Press, 2000)
3. Clark, A., Being There: Putting Brain, Body and the World Together Again (MIT, 1997)
4. Snowden, D., ‘Complex acts of knowing: Paradox and descriptive self-awareness’ in the Journal of Knowledge Management (MCB, May 2002)
5. Snowden, D., ‘The new simplicity: Context, narrative and content’ in Knowledge Management (Ark Group, July/August 2002)
6. Keesing, R. & Strathern, A., Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective (Thomson Learning, 1998)
7. Goodenough, W. H., ‘Comment on cultural evolution’ as quoted in Keesing, R. & Strathern, A., op cit
8. Klein, G., Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (MIT, 1944)
9. Douglas, M., Purity and Danger (Routledge, 1976)