Entries in culture (2)


A look at culture and paradigm as a prelude to change

In an earlier post we said that as people interact over time, they generate patterns of behavior and relationship, and that the culture of a group is made up of these patterns.

Remember that in human systems dynamics, patterns are defined as similarities, differences, and relationships that have meaning across space and time.

Within any given human system, all sorts of interactions among people are taking place. The culture becomes apparent over time. You can see patterns that emerge – in the way things are done, decisions get made, people typically behave, meaning is made, people are included, etc. Culture in a system is the result of all of the human interaction. The culture that is formed in turn influences further pattern development among the individuals in the system, forming an ongoing feedback loop between the parts of the system and the whole.

Culture is emergent – it can be neither predicted nor controlled. Culture can get reinforced and influenced – policies, expectations, informal and formal reward systems are used for setting and amplifying desired patterns, and also for dampening undesired patterns. Culture is only as stable as the ongoing interactions of the people forming the patterns. Richard Seel speaks of this emergent quality in his definition:

Organisation culture is the emergent result of the continuing negotiations about values, meanings and proprieties between the members of that organisation and with its environment.

And he adds an important element – the environment. We reference this as the greater whole. The individuals in a system are parts, the system itself is the whole, and the environment it operates in is the greater whole. All influence the culture of a system – the parts interact and fit into the whole (or not – if not, they may not remain in that system). The system likewise interacts with its environment, and adapts accordingly.

Seel also references Thomas Kuhn and Fritjo Capra as he explores the concept of “paradigm at the heart of a culture”. A paradigm, according to Seel, is

A self-consistent set of ideas and beliefs which acts as a filter, influencing how we perceive and how we make sense.

This ties in nicely with how we are describing culture formation. Not only do the interactions among people form the culture, but our perceptions also come into play in what patterns are seen and amplified or dampened. The paradigm-in-use will influence what gets reinforced.

When we talk about culture change we must take patterns/culture and paradigms into account. Seel’s article goes in more depth regarding the use of this complexity perspective in looking at organizational culture and change – we’ll consider this in future posts.


Our actions affect others affect our actions

How does the culture of a group emerge?

Culture is created when behaviors of those within a group establish patterns over time and, in turn, the behaviors of the individuals are reinforced by those patterns. Ed Schein says “culture is the sum total of all the shared, taken-for-granted assumptions that a group has learned throughout its history.” Those assumptions, both implicit and explicit, shape the behavior of the individuals, and the individual behaviors collectively shape the ongoing assumptions.

No matter the size of a social group (team, department, organization, industry, society), culture is formed whenever the collection has enough common experience to form patterns. These patterns are not unchanging, set in stone, but instead are more like the flow of water, constantly adapting to the obstacles and paths of least resistance.  As the external environment changes, as the individuals within the group change their responses, the patterns shift. When individuals move in or out of the group, the culture changes – it is now made up of different components, influenced by different behaviors, and presents new patterns.

There are countless components to what makes up the culture of a given group of people. It may include patterns of individual behavior such as honesty, anger, service, intimidation, or conviviality. There may be components of organizational behavior - development cycles, pay schedules, responses to emerging opportunities, workflow, etc. Changes inside a system and changes in the environment affect the look and feel of culture at any given point in time. Again from Schein, “…cultural assumptions involve not only the internal workings of the organization, but, more important, how the organizations views itself in relation to its various environments.”

Let's take this to the individual level. How do you view yourself in relation to your various networks?  Do you behave differently depending on the situation and the people you are with? Think of the common experiences and backgrounds that shape your behavior in these different settings. Consider groups where you feel at home – and those where you feel like an outsider. How does this impact your behavior? When you consider your behavior across several groups, what patterns do you see?