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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Notes on the Value of Culture

Following my previous post Meeting of Minds, about the cost of meetings and of the "meeting culture", @j4ngis asked "Would you also consider value of meeting culture?"

There is a more general discussion of culture to be had here. Culture is often blamed when things don't go according to a rational managerial ethos. As Oscar Berg blogged yesterday, Did you ever hear anyone shout "culture failure!"?

But an organization without culture - well, it just wouldn't be an organization at all. Culture is what gives an organization its identity - it is a kind of deeper structure that protects the organization from incoherence, instability and inconsequentiality. Culture tells us how an abstract business model is embodied in a particular organization.

Arjo Klamer identifies several ways of talking about the value of culture. In an anthropological sense,

"‘culture’ ... refers to the shared values, stories and aspirations that distinguish one group of people from another (think of a community, an organization, an ethnic group, a nation or a continent). The economic value of culture would be the economic contribution that those shared values make. As the sociologist Max Weber famously argued, the culture of Calvinism may have contributed to the rise of capitalism and the economic growth that came with it. A particular culture may improve economic performance or hinder it. A culture of distrust can seriously hamper the market process. A culture of consensus, such as exists in Japan and the Netherlands, can stifle entrepreneurship but may also be responsible for stability in the event of crisis." [Value of Culture (pdf)]

Edgar Schein identifies three levels of organizational culture - behaviour and artefacts, values, and assumptions and beliefs. [See Wikipedia. See also notes by Ted Nellen.] We can use the VPEC-T lens to unpack and identify these different elements.

An organization has various mechanisms to prevent random changes to the way-we-do-things. Much of the time, these mechanisms are accepted uncritically as part of normal management control - like an immune system that prevents the organization being taken over by destructive memes. @AndreaMeyer calls these mechanisms corporate antibodies. However, when managers themselves want to change things, these mechanisms turn out to be inconvenient obstaces, whose aggregate effect is to suppress innovation.

Vincent Kenny and Philip Boxer describe culture as follows.
"Anyone who works in businesses will have encountered the notion of culture, and the incredible extent to which a culture lives on in a way which defies anyone's attempts to bring about change. It is not only a question of dealing with the issue of anxiety as an individual issue - the whole fabric of the organisation seems to be caught up in the conservation of identity however much change individuals may make." [Economy of Discourses, 1990]
Kenny and Boxer go on to talk about "the levels of extreme inflexibility and 'stuckness' which we witness in large companies" and ask "how can we explain the increasing degrees of rigidity and loss of power for self-transformation evident in the invariant identities and cultures of organisations?"

The reason why leaders struggle with culture is because there is a creative tension or asymmetry between culture and identity on the one hand, and viability (or effectiveness or survival) on the other hand. This is a critical element of the Asymmetric Design lens, which Philip Boxer describes in When is a stratification not a universal hierarchy? (See also the sociological distinction between structure and agency.) This provides a rigorous framework for reasoning about complex structural change.

Coming back to @j4ngis's question - what is the value of the meeting culture - I guess the key question here is what other cultures (more flexible, less bureaucratic, or whatever) we'd be comparing it with, in what context. What function does this culture serve in the context of this particular organization, and how does it affect the strategic outcomes and energy profile of the organization?

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