In which I make hesitant steps to grapple with the concept of organisational culture. I want to conclude that there is no such thing as organisational culture. Can I succeed?
Although I started out back in the 90s believing in the construct of company culture as a way of explaining common themes of behaviour in organisations, now I am not so sure.
It seems to me that many people in an organisation interact with one another and these myriad interactions make up the organisation. Tools, buildings, assets and property are utilised in the service of these interactions. These interactions are characterised by themes that are familiar, perhaps repetitive and perhaps even stuck, such as great new ideas coming from brainstorming meetings, or consistent bagging of management – these are both examples of themes emerging from multiple interactions.
The patterns emerging from the myriad interactions that take place in organisations have the quality of there being large numbers of small perturbations in the organisation and small numbers of large perturbations. What I mean by this is that over the many interactions that occur, there are lots that have small implications for the company and for the relationships between the people – these are the normal kind of interactions that might result in comradeship, antagonism, or in enabling normal work to be done. From time to time, there will be (relatively rare) occasions when certain interactions stir up a widespread response, such as New Zealand’s current anti-smacking law, by which the theme of the desirability of smacking children as part of discipline has been questioned in a national referendum. Such widespread take up of themes is relatively rare, however.
This phenomenon of large numbers of small perturbations and small numbers of large perturbations ilustrates a defining quality of complexity. (Note that elsewhere I have argued that organisations are not systems, not even complex systems). You could look at it this way – imagine a landscape with lots of small hills and a few large mountains. That is the kind of pattern you see in the disturbances and ripples of the impact of many interactions between people in an organisation over time.
Even the most powerful people such as CEOs are interacting with a relatively small number of other people. Some of those interactions have major impacts, perhaps through greater symbolic meaning such as on a road show or in an important meeting with the Board, management team or a crucial customer, while a much greater number of them have "ordinary" impact. Not every interaction results in revolutionary insight, most result in a pattern of sensemaking amongst those involved.
These population-wide patterns that emerge from many interactions, are, I think, what have typically been referred to as company culture. The company is made up of the members interacting in "local" ways, by which I mean that they interact with a relatively small number of others, and there is no overall blueprint or plan for those myriad interactions. At the same time as the members make up the organisation, so the organisation as a group collective influences the make up of the group.
Company culture is a term that refers to the impact that the company has on the individuals concerned. I have increasingly come to doubt whether there is such a thing as company culture. You may not be convinced yet and I will return to this theme in future posts. Perhaps I am just concerned about the idea that corporate culture is something (i.e. is a physical "thing" or something with properties similar to a physical thing) that can be managed in the service of the most powerful managers.
If culture is a phenomenon that emerges from myriad interactions amongst organisational members, then it cannot be managed from outside as a whole. Instead, the top managers can only influence culture from within their own participation in interactions with others. Senior managers cannot design the culture that they want, nor can they engage other specialists to design the desired culture. They can only influence culture through their interactions with others.
No wonder leaders say that communication is so important.