In his latest blog post, Stephen Billing asks if there is such a thing as organizational culture. This is another of Billing’s interesting provocations, arising from his complex responsive process view of organizations (as advocated by Ralph Stacey and his colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, UK). In this case, his declared aim is to prove that organizational culture doesn’t exist.
Like Billing, I also view this question from a vantage point on what might be thought of as ‘the road less travelled’. Unusually, though, I beg to differ on this aspect of organizational dynamics. So this post summarizes my argument in support of the concept, as a contribution to the interesting discussion that he has initiated.
To begin with, I agree with Billing’s central proposition that ‘global’ organizational outcomes emerge from the self-organizing interplay of myriad ‘local’ (ie one-to-one and small-group) interactions. At the same time, I don’t believe that it follows from this that there is no such thing as organizational culture. In fact, I would argue the opposite.
Culture as articulated
As Billing points out, some of these ‘global’ outcomes enter the formal arenas of the organization as structures and strategies; processes, systems and procedures; formally stated goals, visions and values; physical artefacts; and so on. I suggest that it is this idealized set of characteristics (that he has described elsewhere as “social objects”, after Mead) which would be drawn upon to describe the ‘organization’s culture’ in official publications, presentations and the like.
This represents what I would call the “culture as articulated”. It is here also, amongst the idealized designs, plans and programmes, that conventional cultural change practice is situated.
Culture as experienced
If we focus next on people's perceptions of what it’s like to work inside the organization, we would find a mixture of the openly acknowledged ways of seeing, thinking and acting and, at the same time, consciously held but informal/covert ways of seeing, thinking and acting. This interweaving of formal and shadow-side dynamics might usefully be thought of as the “culture as experienced”.
Elements of the idealized ‘culture as articulated’ will both enable and constrain what goes on at this local level. But it is the specific interactions that will determine what actually happens, not the idealized statements. Only to the extent that the local sense-making conversations reflect these formal, global themes are they likely to be realized in practice. Otherwise outcomes will be determined primarily by the dominant shadow themes that emerge.
It is here, in the give and take of everyday conversational interaction, that I would argue that a third dimension of culture emerges.
The more that people make sense of things in particular ways the more likely it is that they will continue to make similar sense going forward. In other words, the ongoing sense-making process creates expectancy - or a generalized tendency to think and act in certain ways. And it is here that we find the essence of what we think of as organizational culture (or the “deep culture” of the organization).
These taken-for-granted ‘cultural patterns’ act back imperceptibly on this ongoing process of shared sense making. Importantly, it is this tendency to make sense of events in particular ways that enables the organization to function. Without it, people would have to think afresh every time that they encountered a particular situation. At the same time, though, they can become ‘locked into’ these socially constructed patterns of assumptions and the characteristic patterns of thinking and behaviour that flow from them.
On the one hand, these help to reduce internal complexity and uncertainty by ‘codifying’ norms of behaviour, expectations and so on. However, the patterning that helps people to create a sense of meaning, and that allows them to negotiate their way through the organizational world in an ‘orderly’ way, can also constrain their ability to act in other ways. Established ways of thinking and acting tend to trap individuals - alone and collectively - within their own, socially constructed worlds and prevent them from noticing and engaging with other emerging possibilities.
There are a number of implications of this view of organizational culture.
- First, culture is not a ‘thing’, which can be designed and built by management. It is embedded within (and emerges from) the ongoing, local processes of sense making that exists ‘within and between’ the heads of people in interaction.
- Secondly, although some broad assumptions are likely to be commonly held within a well-established organization, these need to be overlaid by the recognition that much more fragmented and dynamic patterns will co-exist and interact with them locally.
- Thirdly, although the ongoing patterning processes create expectancy, the dynamics of local interaction retain the possibility that something novel (or seemingly “counter-cultural”) will emerge.
- Fourthly, the pattern and content of local conversational interactions should provide the primary focus for understanding the dynamics of culture in a particular situation.
- Fifthly, managers are part of the process, not external observers of other people’s actions. The everyday role-modelling interactions of these local leaders will therefore have significantly more impact on local sense making and the patterns of assumptions that emerge (“deep culture”) than will the idealized statements that are disseminated through the formal, structured communication channels. This is why, in Informal Coalitions, I talk about managers “thinking culturally”, rather than thinking about culture.
As always, I look forward to reading the next strand of Stephen Billing’s argument. And I'm keen to know what thoughts you might have on this?
Organizational culture – In at the deep end