Taking a Look at Culture

Is knowledge management and organisational culture a match made in heaven? It is a mainstay of KM theory that the two are firmly entwined. As an example: ‘We believe knowledge management takes us into the realm of corporate culture, reputation, value systems and those other evidences of the social nature of man’ (Spender, 2000).

This blog is about organisational culture, something that has meaning for most of us, but what the meaning is can be somewhat hazy! This was brought home to me when I was researching knowledge management. One woman commented with scathing humour in her voice that one of her job objectives was ‘to change the culture’, but no one could tell her what that meant in practice!

Later blogs will consider some routes that might have helped her set about this task. But first, I would like to consider the term ‘culture’. It is often used to characterise nations or tribal groups, and implies, in the words of the eminent author, Hofstede: ‘the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another. (Hofstede, 2001)

Hofstede produced five culture differentiators, to assess different cultures against each other. To strip these to their bare essentials, these are: Power versus Equality, Risk averse versus Risk seeking, Individualism versus Collectivism, Tough versus Tender, Long versus Short-Term orientation.

While this has been critiqued and expanded since the original ranges were introduced, a framework for considering culture had been established. But Hofstede himself made clear that national culture and the ‘culture’ identified as a part of organisational life, are two different things.

In the same book, he stated ‘In my terminology, organisational cultures are entirely distinct from national cultures; the two concepts are complementary’. One key difference is level of immersion. National cultures, or similar locational variations, are absorbed from birth. In contrast organisational culture is only met when someone joins an organisation. Given child labour laws in the UK, this is in your teens at the earliest. So if we accept the nostrum of the Jesuits, who are alleged to have said: “Give me a child for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man”, the attachment to organisational culture will be of a totally different order to the intense bond you have to the culture you learned along with your mother’s milk.

As the practice of children following their parents into a labour market is far less common that in the days when industries were focused in particular locations, as with the old coal or steel industries in the UK, only in exceptional circumstances will we absorb an organisational culture from our early years. We move in a career path with the idea of lifelong loyalties broken by the flexibility required by modern global capitalism. So culture has to be absorbed in a relatively short time and then discarded with the next job move. This is a much less stable form of culture!

So what characterises organisational culture? A text dedicated to this subject suggests it is: ‘sets of commonly held cognitions that are held with some emotional investment and integrated into a logical system or cognitive map that contains cognitions about descriptions, operations, prescriptions, and causes. They are habitually used and influence perception, thinking, feeling and acting’ (Sackmann, 1991).

This lengthy definition reflects the many factors that can be considered part of culture – and what makes it difficult to capture alive is that culture must be the sum of these parts. Although elements can be isolated to identify them, culture itself does not exist when fragmented down to what is included within it. It is the whole, and so grasping it moves us into the tacit understandings of many individuals, rather than an entity that can be explained in explicit statements.

Is that true? If so, how do we get a handle on organisational culture in practice? In this blog, I have tried to look at the key difference of organisational culture from our regular use of the word culture. In the next blog I will focus on some practical aspects of this.

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