CARY, NC. January 2010, by Chris Jones
How would you define organizational culture? I’m finding it’s an increasingly important question.
To interact and function in the digital 2.0 World (Knowledge Economy, Flat World, 21st Century: choose your paradigm), it’s become critical that leaders understand the internal dynamics of the teams they are leading. How will an organization play in the new world? How will it connect? Drive value? Compete?
An org chart might show us structure and intent, but to truly grasp how decisions are being made, we need to understand the organization’s culture – a task that’s easier said than done. Ask enough people and you might get a sense of it, but its dimensions and reach can remain elusive.
Conceptually, org culture might be framed like this:
A complex, loosely-defined amalgamation of beliefs and behaviors of a group of people that yields significant influence on what actually gets done.
Peter Drucker called the topic “amorphous” (literally, without shape) because it defies the crisp definition that most in management prefer. Personally, I think it will likely fall more in the domain of leadership, aligned with Grace Hopper’s pithy: “You manage things, but you lead people.”
Regardless of how you try to frame it or categorize it, two key questions emerge. Can culture be overtly changed? Many, especially academics, say ‘no’. But can culture be influenced? That’s a topic of some very interesting debate and the subject of this series.
I’ll concede now, I’m not an expert but I’m a practitioner and a survivor. I’ve written vision statements in attempts to shape culture, and I’ve been stymied by mandates from above that were rendered impossible by the forces of culture. At one time or another, we’ve all worn cultural handcuffs.
Series Framing. In the weeks ahead, I’ll post on the many aspects of culture using this outline.
- Org Culture: Dimensions. (ref: Schein) 1/25/10
- Org Culture: 4 Structural Forces. (ref: Handy) 3/02/10
- Org Culture and Complexity: Useful Patterns. (ref: HSDI: Eoyang, Halladay, Nations) 3/20/10
- Culture Change in Government. (ref: Eggers/O’Leary and B.Noveck) 3/21/10
- Org Culture: Interventions. (ref: Kotter) 4/10/10
- It Takes a Village: Insights on Culture and Community in Local Government 9/10/10
- Collaborative Culture: Insights from Peter Senge 1/11/11
- in response to Tara Hunt post started 11/17/12
I’ve touched base with colleagues in OD, KM & GOV2.0. Several are planning to post insights via comments.
This will be collaboration from the outset.
Barriers to 2.0. Getting at culture has been on my mind since 1989. At the time, a few short years out of college, I recall rifling through Rosabeth Kanter’s classic Change Masters, hoping to unpack my first run-in with hierarchy, silos and cultures of control.
I asked, “Isn’t there a better way?”
Ah, the innocence of youth.
In the years since, I’ve tried to follow Kanter’s advice. Sometimes my interventions, at once brave and naive, have actually worked. But 20 years later, I’m still in chorus with my colleagues, still reciting that same old question.
The Trouble with Silos. As we’ll see in coming posts, silo thinking and cultures that favor stability work against the innovative forces of “2.0”. Innovation is being held hostage on an increasing number of fronts. Silo’s are designed for specialists, driving to standards and removing variance. That often means collaborative behaviors are counter-culture.
It’s a challenge of immense proportions. Let’s try to find some answers.