11 May 2009

Creating Knowledge Cultures - Post 1

The DeltaKnowledge blog has been quiet for the last few months as I have started enjoying life without study on my back, but it’s time to start getting my thoughts back online again and to get things started I thought a good idea would be to do a series on organizational culture from the Knowledge Management point of view.

This series is from a paper I wrote a little while ago about the central ingredients for creating knowledge cultures and is a run-up to a discussion I am running at the Melbourne KMLF this month, so if you are coming along I hope you have a read and come prepared to participate.

In the paper I claim that in order to remain competitive in a turbulent business environment, organisations are beginning to understand the impact that culture has on every aspect of corporate life. Culture itself presents a paradox which anthropology, sociology and psychology have attempted to explain. I outline and critically review past definitions and solutions. Culture as cognitive process is then presented as an improvement. In this light, the central ingredients for the creation of knowledge cultures are presented, including distributed cognition, learning organisations, knowledge networks and the import of Trust. Finally I examine some real world applications and if and how culture can be managed is briefly discussed.

Rather than an in depth treatment, this is meant as a big picture view of the attempts to apply different cultural theories to the field of KM and touches of some of the key thinkers who have helped move this field forward to where it is today. For brevity, it ignores many other important contributors and associated theories, like Social Impact Theory, discussed recently on weknowmore.org’s theory of the week.

While “culture as an emergent property of complex environments” is not directly discussed, the discussion of distributed cognition will hopefully help dispel some of lingering ideas about the common definition of culture (especially corporate or organisational culture) as some sort of group attribute or single over-riding force.

Before I start I have to acknowledge the fantastic guidance of Professor Gabriele Lakomski of the University of Melbourne for whom I wrote this paper. I benefited greatly from her clear thinking and insistence that if the philosophical foundations were wrong, then the science could end up way off base when it comes to implementation. That said, I accept all errors and omissions as my own. The Theory of Culture is simply massive and it is with a strong sense of humility that I attempt to summarise and critique this small part of it. In fact I hope the feedback and discussion that comes from it will help me to continue learning about this important subject.

So here we go. I will post one part each day until it’s all up and if it gets done before my talk, maybe I will sum up some of the comments and answer some of the questions. Feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to answer (or to at least add to my list of discussion points for KMLF and you can come and discuss your point in person!)

1. The paradox of culture
To create knowledge cultures, one must first define what culture is. What, at first, seems like a simple task turns out to be quite a hotly debated topic, with a central paradox being enthusiastically courted by scholars of positivism, pragmatism, post-modernism and more recently naturalism and neuro-science.

This paradox is summed up thus:
“How can we explain both cultural reproduction, thematicity, and force … [centripetal forces] at work in social life – and cultural variation, inconsistency, and change … [centrifugal forces]? More plainly, how do we handle the fact this is not a homogenous world without creating separate entities … to explain the differences?”
(Strauss and Quinn, 1997)
Breaking down the paradox – the refinement of cultural definitions
As with nearly all subjective constructs, building a working model that approaches the observed nature can be a long and sometimes distributed process. This has certainly been the case with culture theory. Whether one has travelled the world, had dealings with multinational companies, or even just changed to another place of employment, the impact of different cultural norms are too obvious to reject out-of-hand. Yet individuals do seem to differ enough to make one hesitate before employing generalisations or abstracted assumptions based on the society, organisation or group they may belong to.

For this reason, researchers and practitioners in many fields have sought to define culture in ways that have enabled them to operate more efficiently where culture may impact the results of their research or change strategies. This has resulted in an omnium-gatherum of definitions with each field’s offerings slanted toward solving the problems that culture presents to them.
Coming from a sociology perspective, Swindler and Arditi (1994) remark that in previous cultural studies, “culture connotes symbolic systems that are deeply embedded, taken-for-granted, often enduring, and sometimes invisible." But go on to say, “The sociology of knowledge instead directs attention to cultural elements that are more conscious, more explicitly linked to specific institutional arenas, and more historically variable.”

Some view organisations through the metaphor of an anthropomorphic organism and speak of its culture as a collective consciousness with personality, needs and character (Meek, 1988, p.459).
In another example, Theron (2002) quotes Thurbin as follows:
“A definition of culture...is where a group of people who have worked together for some time is behaving in a consistent way. Thus, having a set of shared philosophies and common fundamental values.”
In his book, Schein, a professor of management at MIT and corporate consultant on organisational development, defines culture as follows:
"…a pattern of basic assumptions – invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration – that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems." (Schein, 1985, p.12)
Later in his guide to managerial readers, he offered a simplified version, stating, "Culture is the sum total of all the shared, taken-for-granted assumptions that a group has learned throughout its history. It is a residue of success." (Schein, 1999).

Coming from the field of traditional anthropology, but with even less regard to the cognitive side of culture, Geertz presents a highly positivist view of culture claiming that “Society’s forms are culture’s substance” (Geertz, 1973, p.28). He defines culture not as a power, but as a context within which behaviours, institutions and processes can be thickly described and interpreted (Ibid, p.14) in order to build empirical credibility upon a positivist legacy: “Only public forms are observable and we should study only what we can observe” (Strauss and Quinn, 1997, p.15).

Hofstede believes culture is “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another” (Hofstede, 1984, p.21). He equates the culture of a group to the personality of an individual and seeks to determine the culture of a nation or organisation using personality style tests of its individual members.

Finally the cultural anthropologists weigh in with a definition that includes the internal, cognitive aspects. From previous work on schemas in the 1970s and 1980s (Sperber, 1985, D’Andrade, 1995, Bourdieu, 1977) and leaning heavily on neurally inspired connectionism, Strauss and Quinn (1997, p.7) claim that:
“Culture...consists of regular occurrences in the humanly created world, in the schemas people share as a result of these, and in the interactions between these schemas and this world. When we speak of culture, then, we do so only to summarize such regularities.”

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