01 August 2008

Clearing up Culture

Anthropologists, particularly of the US persuasion, have been studying culture for many years.

Along with that study, a theory of culture has been evolving over the years. What is culture? How do we build a model of it so we can predict what part culture plays in our communities and societies? Good questions, but as it turns out, quite hard to answer.

The theory of culture has evolved. As recently as 15 years ago books were still being sold to business people declaring culture as an attribute or an indefinable object associated to a group of people, such as a company. Big names, like Geert Hofstede started to acknowledge the part the human mind plays in culture, particularly through learning, however his focus on very large groups (nations and massive multi-national corporations) caused issues when applied to communities with less than 5000 members. "Organizational Communication and Culture" by Morley1 is just one study that (mis)applies Hofstede's cultural themes in this way.

The combination of cognition with cultural theory has given culture theory predictive ability in smaller groups and researchers like Strauss & Quinn, "A cognitive theory of cultural meaning" have managed to bring knowledge from both anthropology and psychology to form a new model for the theory.

Two years ago I wrote an assignment on cultural theory and its history from a Knowledge Management point of view for my Masters degree if you would like to read more about it.

Today I came across a book called Cultural Complexity by Hannerz and I thought I would share a few quotes from it that I found useful in understanding both the conformity and variation aspects of culture:

I find the flow metaphor useful - for one thing, because it captures one of the paradoxes of culture. When you see a river from afar, it may look like a blue (or green or brown) line across a landscape; something of awesome permanence. But at the same time, "you cannot step into the same river twice," for it is always moving, and only in this way does it achieve its durability. The same way with culture - even as you perceive structure, it is entirely dependent on ongoing process. p.4

Of course my focus os on the intersection of culture and Information Technologies:

"The defining feature of the media is the use of technology to achieve as externalisation of meaning in such a way that people can communicate with one another without being in one another's immediate presence; media are machineries of meaning. Of such technologies there is little in the small scale societies of the world: drum languages, smoke signals. Otherwise, the cultures of small-scale societies are cultures of face-to-face, oral flows of meaning. The cultures of complex societies, on the other hand, now make use of writing, print, radio, telephones, telegraph, photography, film, disk and tape recording, television, video and computers. Yet only the implications of literacy have really, and only rather lately, claimed a more noticeable share of the awareness of anthropologists. pp. 26-27

...the increase in information, or knowledge, is in part a consequence of changes in modes of managing ideas, with a greater emphasis on more expansionist modes, thus involving the first of the dimensions of culture identified above, and in part this increase also results from a changing relationship between the first and the second dimensions, between "things of the mind" and externalisations. New technology allows more knowledge to be externally stored and on other ways managed.

But the third dimension, that of distribution, is also profoundly affected by the characteristics of the information society, and has a major part in the debates surrounding it. If there is "information overload" and "information anxiety," it is to a great extent because people cannot confidently enough manage the relationship between the entire cultural inventory and their reasonable personal share in it. pp. 31-32
I used to hate obscure, academic discussions about these topics. As I have come to see the sometimes scary results of management decisions based on the old, simple views of culture, I have found these insights helpful at both understanding and managing complex corporate environments. I encourage you to ask yourself how you would define "culture" and how your definition effects the way you lead others.

1. Organizational Communication and Culture: A Study of 10 Italian High-Technology Companies, by Donald Dean Morley, Pamela Shockley-Zalabak, Ruggero Cesaria; The Journal of Business Communication, Vol. 34, 1997.

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