A Question Of Scale

I took part in an interesting session today, talking about scale. It’s interesting to think about how things scale: we are used to talking about it in terms of technology, can you scale the number of users, can you expand the number of locations that something is deployed to, or in terms of scale of the business, can it cope with more clients, can it add more buildings, can it increase the number of locations that it serves.

A matter of scale

But there are other aspects of scale, what about the culture itself. Can the culture scale? I tend to fall into a space where I believe that culture can only scale so far: beyond which, it tends to fragment into highly coherent sub cultures, unified by one frame of organisational culture. Whilst you can share purpose and high-level values up to a certain point, as groups grow larger, it’s almost inevitable that localised team dynamics will kick in, and the people will find a primary alignment with some subset of the whole.

Certainly this is the case if we look at most of the evidence around us: within one society we see multiple political viewpoints, within one city we see multiple gangs, multiple zones, separated not just by wealth but by ethical and moral viewpoints very often. We can have a national culture, but it’s largely made up of a series of more localised sub cultures.

Aspiration and culture

So perhaps there are different types of scaling: on the one hand, more functional or technical types, where increased scale in technology comes from additional components, more processing power, more sheer muscle, and then cultural scaling, which is governed by different effects, somehow harder to hold together. No amount of muscle or processing power is going to give you a coherent culture.

So in an organisational context, when we talk about scale, perhaps we should be talking about aspects of scale, facets of scaling. How do we scale technology, but also how do we scale community, and ultimately, how do we scale the culture, all the while recognising that whilst some of these dimensions are under our control, many are not.

As ever, when we look at apparently simple social situations, we discover complex underlying subdivisions. Human and organisational systems are inherently tricky to predict, and almost impossible to control. And yet we often persist in trying, convincing ourselves that we can somehow control the very things which by their nature slip through our fingers.


About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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2 Responses to A Question Of Scale

  1. Don McPhee says:

    Very much appreciate your point of scaling culture. Creating the kind of organisational culture desired is hard in itself. Scaling it to other parts of the organisation is a challenge as there will already be an existing culture which needs to change – but not necessarily all of it. Keeping some aspects and changing others may meet resistance as people are not comfortable to take responsibility to change their culture based on suggestions that come from another part of the organisation. Another complication is when you want to partner with other organisations – how do you create a shared culture within the partnership

    • julianstodd says:

      Hey Don, both great points: how do we keep aspects of culture intact as we scale, which is challenging, and how do you align two separate cultures…

      Often we see artefacts of individual cultures persist, even decades after two cultures have formally ‘merged’, often geographically located (which emphasises the links between culture and physical place): i think the point you make is the other side of this, how do we intentionally keep parts of a culture in place as we scale? I guess the answer is that if the aspects of culture are relevant and bonded to the community itself, they will persist, and if they are not, they will blow away in the winds of change. To to get them to remain, we must ensure they are relevant to the new community.

      To the second point: perhaps is a case of thinking about pride: how do each of the two aligned cultures get the opportunity to represent their existing culture with pride, whils engaging in the other culture with respect. This is a challenge for any global entity, and perhaps especially so for an entity such as yours, operating in multiple socio-cultural contexts,

      Thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts, best wishes, Julian

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