20 May 2009

Creating Knowledge Cultures - Post 9

In this final section I try to draw all these parts together and quickly discuss some ideas for how they can be applied in the real world. If you have been following along I hope you have enjoyed this series as much as I have putting it together.

Thankyou for your interest in this series. Culture is a fascinating phenomenon; so hard to nail down and yet so powerful a force in both our personal and working lives. You may have already been aware of all these factors and more. Regardless, my wish is that you go away from this with a greater sensitivity to both the dangers and the opportunities inherent within the cultures around us and a greater ability to avoid and seize them respectively.

6. Creating Knowledge Cultures: Putting it into Practice
The question that remains is: Can cultures be changed and managed?

Opinions differ. From those who give an enthusiastic yes, to others who warn you can simply minimise the risk associated with culture clash and yet others who say that culture is more than the external symbols and artefacts, so managing it is akin to nailing jelly to the wall.

In fact, if by “managed” one infers that culture can be manipulated from on high like moving furniture in a mouse-cage, then I fall on the side of the nay-sayers.

Diagram - Schein's levels of culture
Figure 3: Schein's levels of culture (Schein, 1985, p17)

Using models such as Schein's levels of culture (Figure 3) and the delineation of subcultures, some organisational leaders are encouraged to play an active part in shaping the cultural norms of the organisation. The motivation; to best serve the organisation's goals and vision. However, even if cultural manipulation techniques were 100% successful, there is a downside: yes, constant high situational strength would mean that trust is not relied upon so much, but people would also be less free to work creatively and act intuitively or their own accord. A veritable army of “Yes men”.

Conrad & Poole
Of course most anthropologists would deride the idea that leaders could create cultures anyway (Meek, 1988, p.459), however Conrad & Poole walk somewhat of a middle-line. They define culture as “a communicative creation, embedded in a history and a set of expectations about the future. They are usually heterogeneous, composed of multiple subcultures.” (1998, p.98). Meek agrees with this compromise:
“Culture as a whole cannot be manipulated, turned on and off, although it needs to be recognised that some are in a better position than others to attempt to intentionally influence aspects of it. (Meek, 1988, p.469)
Conrad and Poole (1998) see cultural strategies for organisational design and management as being superior to traditional individualistic and relational strategies. While recognizing that human beings are emotional and community-oriented, cultural strategies stop short of considering the resulting social construct as an entity unto itself.

Cultural management strategies, they argue, focus primarily on creating a sense of community within work groups as a way of "managing the tension between individual and organizational needs." This methodology considers the impressive impact that cultural regularities have on an individual's beliefs and frames of reference and thus attempts to use them in "unobtrusive" ways via the manoeuvring of cultural metaphors and artefacts. These might include:
  1. Identification, for example the recognition and lauding of beneficial behaviours,
  2. Instituting or modifying organisational symbols like metaphors, stories and or rituals and ceremonies, and finally
  3. Unobtrusive emotional regulation via position, interpretation and self-control via embodied organisational values.
Whatever the form, this type of control tends to follow a similar process: induce participation, which leads to identification of the individual with the organisations accepted norms and finally, emotional commitments are willingly entered into on the individual’s part.

Conrad and Poole note the short-comings with these methods, unless it is an organisation or one, offering water-tight solutions should raise alarm bells anyway.

They note the enthusiasm with which, especially North American, managers took up these methods, assuming that if culture could be controlled then they would be the ones to control it.

This of course reveals the first flaw: The authors speak of different sub-cultures in the organisation responding uniquely to management's attempts to mould beliefs, however if culture is a cognitive process and not "a thing" (D’Andrade, 1995) then every individual employee will respond in subtly different and complex ways.

Secondly, the very beliefs, values and metaphors they seek to change often do not have a first-order effect on employee behaviour. Therefore, changing them can have unexpected results and they offer Disney's problematic usage of the family metaphor as an example of how things can go wrong dramatically if the strategy fails.

The key here is that while culture is not a “thing” to be managed, it is certainly undergoing constant transformation. As mentioned earlier, the real power of a cognitive view of culture comes from a change of perspective. If we can learn to see that cultural issues are complex and highly contextual and that intra- and cross-cultural interactions are actually collaborative, mutual learning experiences (Holden, 2002, p.54), then managing both the opportunities and pitfalls simply becomes an issue of knowledge management, specifically networking, knowledge sharing and collaborative (or organisational) learning (Holden, 2002, p.52).

References for the Series:
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lukemcbain said...

Thanks for this post, I was looking for the title of Conrad, C. and Poole, M. S. 1998, Strategic organizational communication.
Is seems we have some interests in common: http://lukemcbain.wordpress.com

Stuart French said...

Thanks Luke, I agree. I will add your blog to my reading list. Where are you based?

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