I’m interested in culture: how it’s formed, who owns it, who creates it, how it reacts to change, how it works in global social learning spaces. Culture is the foundations and the wallpaper: it influences us, grounds us, gives us bias and creates unity. It can be a force for good or evil. To understand learning, we really need to understand culture, because so much of learning is about change and change takes places wrapped up in culture. It’s a tangled web we try to unweave.
I first explored this subject in a short book: ‘Amsterdam Diary – an exploration of learning culture‘, but today i want to start thinking at a practical level. How is culture created in your organisation? Who inhabits it and who is visiting? What technologies and facilities enable the culture to function and how does it respond to change?
How is your culture created?
Culture is not static, it’s recreated in the moment. It exists as a set of expectations, predicted behaviours and ‘norms‘, but it’s only when it’s expressed in communication, in action, in behaviour that it becomes real. It’s only when we live it that we can quantify it. For example, we may believe we have a culture that supports innovation, but it’s only in gauging your response to my innovative actions that we can truly know it. Many organisations believe the lie, failing to recognise that actions speak louder than words. You can say you have a culture that allows people to make mistakes as much as you like, but it’s how the organisation responds to mistakes that is the true measure.
Because culture is defined by response and action, it’s more fluid than you might expect. Culture may define a space, but it’s the actions within the space that are significant day to day.
My original question that i asked in the book was ‘where is culture created?‘ I was curious as to whether it’s created by the organisation and inhabited by people, or whether it’s created by people and overseen by the organisation. I realise now that both those views are valid: the parameters of culture may be set by the organisation or consensus within it’s members, but it’s the actions of individuals (acting as agents of the organisation) who create cultural values in the moment, so ultimately and inevitably, culture is defined by our experience with other people within the business.
Understanding how our cultures are created is significant for so many reasons. Firstly, to lead or manage a team, or to contribute to the success of a business, we have to understand our role as either purveyors and perpetuators of an existing culture, or cultural pioneers defining a new one. I see this often with start up businesses, who are much more likely to talk about ‘defining‘ their culture (and often try to do this with paint and furniture), whilst more established businesses go through change projects and try to reposition their culture, through reward mechanisms and sanctions.
We can influence how culture is created by exploring the relationship between individual actions and outcomes, understanding how actions define culture to a greater extent than we may imagine, in turn leading to an understanding of how culture can be changed, either intentionally or inadvertently. For example, through it’s somewhat cavalier approach to privacy, Facebook changed it’s culture. It was changed through actions, not intention. That’s the reality of culture in the Social Age.
Who inhabits it, who is visiting?
Not everyone in the office shares or owns the culture. Today’s workplace is characterised by employees, associates and competitors, not to forget customers. Not everyone has an equal stake in creating or maintaining the culture. Some people are inhabiting it, others just visiting.
Whenever i work in a client organisation, i am a visitor to their culture: i try to fit within it, but i don’t think i shape it. In my own organisation, i inhabit and shape the culture. Both are fine, but both need different types of engagement, especially in times of change. For example, visitors may become owners if we engage with them in the right way. We just can’t assume they are residents.
Customers also influence culture: whilst they may not be inhabitants, they are certainly influencers. It’s one of the traits we see in the Social Age, that organisations no longer own their brand and, quite likely by inference, their culture. Brand is owned by the community. Sure, organisations employ brand managers and engage with fancy marketing companies, but the value of the brand is created by the conversation in social spaces, in the moment, every day. My perception of the xBox is only marginally influenced by Microsoft’s press releases and official statements: it’s most strongly influenced by my own experiences and the conversations within our communities. This may always have been true to some extent, but the speed and reach of these conversations is now exponentially greater, and the ability of organisations to influence it seems greatly reduced.
It’s important to understand who inhabits your learning culture and who is just visiting to enable us to engage with them in the right way, with the right tone of voice, and to understand where the power to effect change lies.
What technologies and facilities enable the culture?
Whilst culture doesn’t depend on infrastructure, social cultures are greatly benefited by clear channels of communication and infrastructure that supports emergent communities. The Social Age is characterised by core cultures that have great longevity, alongside emergent groupings the form around specific projects, challenges or even people. Each of these sub cultures may have a limited lifespan (or may go on to supersede the ‘formal‘ culture in time).
For example, project teams are often fluid, made up of a mixture of permanent and contract staff, but they each form a project culture (which may be based upon or influenced heavily by the existing culture, but may also develop it’s own traits and character). When projects end and teams disperse, the echoes of their cultures may live on, because the bonds formed may be permanent. These shadows of former cultures can impact on everything from recruitment to attitudes to future change. We see much the same thing when organisations merge: simply changing a name is one thing, changing a culture is much harder, takes much longer.
Technology may underpin and enable culture: social collaboration tools are more likely to be successful at this if they allow community management. Instead of the organisation defining and owning the space, the community itself should be allowed to do that. Organisations that really embrace the Social Age ethos are happy to see groups emerge around gardening and amateur dramatics, as well as about customer service and marketing. The technology can support the development of social capital, which can then be utilised for ‘formal‘ projects later.
Technology is an enabler, not an end in it’s own right. Organisations that get this wrong try to put in place systems and overly manage the conversations. This approach will never work.
How does it respond to change?
The crunch point of all of this is how the culture responds to change. Culture is the beating heart of the organisation: it’s open to change, but only if we understand how it’s created, how it’s enabled, who inhabits it and who is just visiting. The point of understanding all of this is to enable us to run meaningful conversations around learning, around change.
By it’s very nature, culture is defined by the group, so it can tend to resist change. We need to take a bottom up approach to engagement: no people in suits telling us what to do, but rather identifying the key collaborators, the nodes in the network, the amplifiers, who can help influence ground level change. because of the way in which our individual actions impact on culture, changing culture is ultimately the responsibility of everyone in an organisation. Management can give an intention, but the impetus will come from the floor.
Magnetic approaches will likely be most effective: transparent and honest dialogue more valuable than internal marketing and vague statements of intention. In my experience, individuals are often willing to support change, they simply lack clarity about what is expected, where the new boundaries lie and what support they will have in enabling it.
Giving clarity is easier said than done: if you are trying to enable change within your own organisational culture, consider these steps:
1. Map the groups that own and define the culture. These may not match up to organisational hierarchy
2. Understand who is inhabiting the culture, who is visiting
3. Understand what formal and informal communities exist and engage with them
4. Understand where the power of your brand is held: in customer facing organisations, this is at the front line, on the end of a phone or on Facebook. Engage in meaningful conversations here
5. Communication is everything. Agility is king.