If you accept the idea that culture IS the organization, then the participants ‘co-construct’ the culture through their shared experiences. This introduces a real challenge for change management professionals, management types, and others who like to use transmission model techniques to get people and groups to act in prescribed ways. The lack of formality and predictability introduces difficulty and makes it feel very soft.
But, the fact that it is unpredictable, hard to measure, and hard to control doesn’t make it nonexistent, and it doesn’t mean that those techniques will eventually work if we just keep trying, and by trying I mean getting more and more discrete with the tasks and controls. I suggest that we need to try letting go of those techniques a bit if we really want to get to who defines the culture.
Accepting culture as a group phenomena that does not exist outside of its context is tough for management types who take comfort in clear lines and rules. But, doing so also allows us to see the opportunity to apply new and different techniques that might have a shot at impacting culture in positive ways.
Culture has many different definitions in academic and business literature. But there is a fundamental choice you have to make when deciding how you define culture. You either see it as something an organization HAS or something an organization IS.
If you choose to define culture as something an organization HAS, you are looking at it as an asset, a thing, a definable something that can be managed, controlled, and that has predictable dimensions to it. If an organization has a culture, then the organization itself stands apart and can objectively perceive and rationalize its ‘culture’ just like it can rationalize a building it owns, an organization chart, a piece of software, etc.
If you choose to define culture as something an organization IS, you are accepting that culture is the combination of shared experiences between the participants, distinct and different from any of their individual experiences. It can be shared through stories, rituals, traditions, interpretations, and both subtle and overt indications of power, control, and decision making.
Theorists like Schein and Kotter have worked through nuanced definitions of culture that can help you to think through what position you take on culture. Personally, I’m a social constructionist, and I subscribe to the idea that an organization IS its culture and the culture is the organization. Further, I believe that culture is defined as people communicate with each other, and that it continuously emerges and is shaped by then communication that flows through the organization, through common experiences, unpredictable incidences, and the highly managed communication of which change management people are so fond.
Edgar Schein ( and John Kotter (from Business Insider) respectively:
How often has your company tried to implement a new technology, process, organizational structure, only to find that the culture rejects the proposed change? Or gone through a merger, only to find that the cultures just don’t work together? These kinds of challenges are all over in business.
In business we like to say this is a ‘culture’ problem, but we don’t often interrogate what that means. We say the ‘culture’ doesn’t like change, but we treat the problem like a collection of individual problems. In other words, we use tactics that have been developed to help individuals through change in an effort to get groups/collectives/ cultures to change. This is a recipe for failure, and it is one of the biggest reasons why culture really does matter. We need to understand it differently, and treat it differently, than we do individuals.
When a merger happens, we see the most clear implications of culture, both internally and externally. The cultures of the two organizations that are coming together start to collide, and if they are big enough, within the industry or the larger economy there are cultural reactions to the event. These are moments when it is especially clear…. why culture matters.
freakingnews.com had a great picture of the Sears/Kmart merger and the Wal Mart reaction…. it is a cultural statement in and of itself:
Corporate culture is heavy on people’s minds these days. It has been waved like a red blanket as the thing that makes companies innovative, collaborative, and exciting, as well as slow, grumpy, and a hard place to get things done.
Change management has glommed onto culture by attacking it as a ‘thing’ – something that can be molded, changed, created, or otherwise managed like a good communication plan. In two weeks we will have a town hall and announce our new culture!! But culture isn’t the same as a new or changed technology or process, or even a new org chart. Managerial theory flounders when confronted with culture.
I often get asked about culture. Some of the question include:
Why does culture matter?
What is culture anyway?
Who defines the culture?
How can we change our culture?
Why does our culture suck?
The last question might be the most common one I get, and it is usually followed by something like “everyone is really pretty (nice…. smart…. willing…. helpful….)” – in other words, individuals are just fine, but the collective somehow fails.
I’ll take a look at each question over the next few days.
Interesting the emphasis on timing and commitment – you have to keep at it to make it work. We discussed this in our recent seminar on small business use of social media – it is not a quick fix to marketing or customer development.
I didn’t do particularly well in astronomy in college – it was one of those early morning classes that was always a struggle – but I really did enjoy it. Somehow pictures from beyond the atmosphere always make me stop and think about how much more there is to know.
Here’s one of the slideshow pictures showing a supernova blast:
After the seminar yesterday a few things occurred to me that make sense to append to my list from yesterday.
1) Be patient. Social media is not a quick fix to a marketing problem. It also won’t help you to start getting into social spaces when you are on the verge of or in the middle of a crisis. Those relationships need to already be in place to help you through tough times, and to celebrate good times. If you are a useful, helpful, and well known brand in the community over time, your supporters will show it by loving your new product launch, or defending you against a scathing news report. They say the best time to look for a job is when you already have one – likewise the best time to get involved is when you don’t need to.
2) Be realistic. Especially for small businesses without a dedicated marketing staff, there may not be time to really leverage social media. It takes consistency, desire, and interest in the right communities to make an impression, and you might not even want to spend your time there.
3) Distinguish your tactics. Just because something is online doesn’t make it social media. Search engine optimization, websites, banner ads, even advertising in social spaces like Facebook, are not social media marketing. Blogs, wikis, forums, community environments and so forth make up the ‘social media’ space for marketing.
5) Be consistent. Brand consistency across marketing tactics is just as important online as it is in more traditional marketing – don’t’ confuse your target markets. Also, realize that social media marketing is no substitute or fix for not having a marketing plan or a brand. Jumping into communities without a coherent and consistent brand won’t get you far.
Today I’m giving a presentation to the Denver Small Business Administration on the use of social media marketing tools. Three of my amazing colleagues are joining me to take about 35 people through a three hour discussion of what it means to market in the social spheres of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. Preparing the materials really got me thinking about how important it is to remember a few simple things about using communities to present yourself and your brand. My top five:
1) Be authentic – join communities of which you really want to be a part because you have a genuine reason to be there. That reason might be because it is a place to showcase your talents, your products, or your services, which means there is some broader connections as well.
2) Make a contribution – provide valuable, useful, or at least relevant expertise, collateral, or information to the community on a regular basis. If you aren’t willing to contribute, why should anyone listen to you?
3) Don’t be a lurker – listening is good, but if all you do is take and then try to push your wares, the community will reject you, and…. it just isn’t very nice.
4) Provide alternatives to action – give people options to move to your site for more interaction. Relationships, even online, are like a dance, both partners move towards each other at different times. When they are ready, they will come.
5) Remember that online communities are absolutely real – online or in “real life”. If you jump in and shout your message at them, you will fail. How would you feel if some new guy joined your poker game and spend his whole first tournament trying to get you to buy a car from him? He wouldn’t be invited back, that’s for sure. Don’t underestimate that it works the same way in social media. Communities are tight, and they will reject a spammer, or someone who doesn’t really want to be a part of the conversation.