Merging Cultures

Today i am #WorkingOutLoud on ideas around culture: specifically questions around the merging of cultures (if such a thing is even possible). When Organisations acquire or connect with other entities, they bring not only ‘stuff’, like offices, telephones, contracts, systems, and process, but also culture and associated social systems (neither of which are ‘owned’ and hence neither of which are ‘sold’ or traded, but which can be ‘moved’ as the formal system shifts around them.

This simple illustration considers what happens when two cultures come together: what forms the past, what do we desire in the future, and where to the gaps, cracks, and deficits sit?

Culture is held as the relationship (thoughts, actions, intent) between people, and hence we typically look to find it in the ‘people’ part of the equation (although culture can also have a relationship to ‘spaces’, which themselves hold a relationship with formal power.

Culture is partly held in relationships forged on forces like pride, fear, intent, trust and so on: the social currencies that bond us. Through, and within, these currencies we may find belonging. And indeed purpose. Culture is typically wrapped up in rituals (people described the importance of these in the ‘Landscape of Community’ research work), as well as artefacts. So in this sense, culture is socially constructed (at the individual level of perception), and socially co-created (at the level of behaviour, consequence, and the implicit construction of social and accepted ‘norms’).

So when cultures ‘come together’ we have to consider what will persist, what will be destroyed, and what will simply change. And how: who has a say, how do we memorialise the past, and yet (in the context of the Organisation), how do we find something purposeful for the future.

That in itself may be the wrong language: a culture is not purposeful, per se, but rather has the potential to hold purpose. But the point is that Organisations are not neutral space: they are purposeful, and hence when they talk about culture, they are talking about purpose and effect, or effectiveness.

Change (formal change) is typically framed with a painted picture of a future culture, an aspirational one. This is what we plan for. And sometimes we may get it (or we may get a subscription only appearance of it), but we also get the ‘emergent’ too.

Emergence is more than persistence: this is about new traits, habits, behaviours, beliefs, and norms, that emerge, but are neither pure legacy, nor entirely planned.

There may be tension if we imagine a battle between the ‘emergent’ and ‘planned’. Perhaps we always have, or need, both. Emergence, and indeed persistence of the old, may be untidy, or unwanted, but we have to ask what power we hold, and whether ‘tidiness’ is ever a true feature of culture (which is more a space and convention than a ‘thing’.

There is also a question of whether we seek to solve for yesterday, or tomorrow?

Cultures tend to leave long shadows: in my own research, up to 11 years after the merging of formal organisations, more than half of a team retained a primary cultural identity with the identity of the legacy organisation. Because our ‘belonging’ is a tribal force, and a personal feeling. I cannot ‘make’ you belong, nor can i force you to defect from, or change allegiance to, a tribe, which are structures governed by trust.

However: you can interconnect and create space for new engagement, partly through the creation of new spaces, and new narrative and storytelling channels and opportunities.

In a very real sense, people write themselves both into, and out of, culture.

And in a very real sense, a ‘new’ culture will most likely hold shadows, and a tension of the planned and emergent.

Some things you can own and control. Some you can own, but not control. Other you may influence and yet not own. And of course some things just seem to happen.

Culture has a relationship to all of these: you can create space for a culture to emerge, by making formal changes. You can share your hopes and intent, and you will experience the ‘lived’ experience. And sometimes it will feel fractured and confused.

Solving for yesterday is relatively easy, because that time has passed. Solving for the future is harder, because there is no structure of understanding, or power, to nest within. Which is why it’s so hard.

It’s unlikely that a mechanical-technical view of culture will be of much use. Nor that a broadcast- certainty view will help. Rather a space and story approach may be best: shared spaces, interconnecting, and layers of narrative, with variable ownership. Essentially what i feel, what you feel, what we feel, what we are told, what we observe, and what we believe, all leading towards how we act, and how we respond.

Culture is both nothing, and everything we have. We cannot ignore it, but neither will it come when called. At best, we can earn the right to participate.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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