Creating Knowledge Cultures - Post 3

In the next two posts of creating knowledge cultures I start to critique some of the big thinkers in culture theory. It is a brave move. Many of these amazing people have contributed wonderfully in both theory development and practical methods for dealing with groups based on their described cultures and sub-cultures.

Underneath these theories though is what I believe is a serious shortcoming in the foundations upon which these theories are developed. Read on to see if you agree with the argument.

3. The problem with the solution (part 1)
Top down view of culture
While much of the work on culture has value, there are several criticisms of the traditional view of culture that need to be dealt with. Abraham Maslow said, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." Armed with the predominantly externalist definition of culture, corporate leaders around the world have implemented cultural analysis and change management programs and while each author warns of potential dangers, the seemingly endless benefits to efficiency and productivity are hard to overlook.

However, the top-down view of culture tends towards generalisations and while these can hold enough weight at the national level, when applied at a group or organisational level, discrimination can often be the result for two reasons.
  • Firstly, using top-down averages on a heterogenous group will almost certainly overlook or alienate nonconformists.
  • Secondly, human beings are complex organisms. They are motivated by unique value structures that re-interpret (or miss-interpret depending on your viewpoint) management’s attempts to mould beliefs and instill corporate values (Conrad and Poole, 1998, p.100, 104-105).
It shouldn’t surprise us that people are different. Even the most altruistic want to be noticed and respected by peers and elders. Yet mankind’s need to build patterns and algorithms of understanding (or schemas to use the cognitive psychologists term) is so strong that leaders quickly accept and apply these assumed patterns in their leadership strategies simply hoping for good results.

Seely-Brown and Duguid noted the chilling affect that top-down thinking can have on organisational processes, for example creativity (2001, p.46).

Culture as Essence or Difference
Schein makes the surprising statement that leaders are distinguished from managers because the former create and change cultures while the latter simply live within them (Schein, 1985, p.5). He states that culture “is the result of a complex group learning process”, however the assumption that the culture is either the essence of the group or the difference between groups remains basically unchallenged.

As Strauss and Quinn (1997, p.12) note, each view of culture adds value to our understanding and most are not mutually exclusive, however, each theory’s individual focus usually leads to a quite different methodologies and practices. It is these methodologies that may or may not be applicable in the field of organisational design and management.

Most visible of late has been the predominance of gloom and doom statements in the culture-as-essence and culture-as-difference camps. Even the language “culture war”, “conflict of cultures”, “culture clash” reveals the underlying assumption…the personality of this group of people is fundamentally different to the personality of this other group of people so the only strategy left is damage minimisation.

I agree with Holden (2002) who argues that “the concept behind culture-as-essence and culture-as-difference has limited explanatory power”.

Flawed logic
Of course here lies the root of the problem. It may well be beneficial when dealing with a nation as a whole to base business decisions on national averages or societal means. For example if the average Bahamian wears casual attire 360 days of the year, then setting up a men’s suit store in Nassau may not be a very profitable business decision.

However, averages across a large group cannot be applied to the individuals within the group (or even sub-groups or subcultures within the group) without more information about the individual. This is a widely recognised error called an ecological fallacy (, 2005, 'ecological fallacy'), and Hofstede warns against it repeatedly in his presentations (Hofstede, 2005). For example, if Class A averages 92% on their maths scores and Class B averages only 67%, it does not follow that an individual from Class A is better at maths than an individual from Class B. The student from Class A could have failed math while being surrounded by geniuses and the student from Class B might have found themselves in the opposite situation.

This error leads to discriminatory stereotypes as explained above and can destroy perceptions of benevolence and trust in the individuals concerned.

The reverse ecological fallacy, or ‘exception fallacy’ (, 2005, 'exception fallacy'), raises its head frequently in top down cultural models. This occurs when a group is judged based on observations of a few individuals or exceptional cases.

This fallacy is at the root of a lot of racist assumptions and both trust and knowledge sharing will suffer if it is in evidence.

Image courtesy of "The Far Side" & Gary Larson.

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