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Corporate culture

Next month I’ll be discussing corporate culture at Sibos in Toronto. My view (not original) is that corporate culture is an emergent property. It is a result of the myriad properties of the organization and its environment. Culture happens, and like a child, once born, the parents are not really in control.

We used to think of organizations like machines, inspired by Newtonian physics 300 years ago. The scientific revolution followed the last communication revolution, the age of print.  Now we face a new revolution as we sit in the middle of the electric age, its disembodied words first spread by the telegraph and now the Internet. With increasing connections and speeds of transmission, our work environments have become much more complex.

In complex environments, emergent practices have to be developed by probing, sensing and responding. This is what I call perpetual Beta; constantly probing the environment, sensing what happens and then responding by creating Beta practices; but always ready to discard them should the situation change. Both culture and practice emerge from the organization and its environment. As John Seely Brown noted, in order to understand complex systems you have to marinate in them.

The one complex system that I know best is my body. I remember as a competitive athlete how in tune I was with my body, feeling the smallest changes. People would ask me what I thought about during races. Most of the time I was monitoring my systems, seeing if I could push a bit harder, change my stride or take advantage of some aspect of the environment. I was marinating in it.

For several decades the idea of the organization as organism has spread, popularized by the work of Peter Senge on the learning organization in 1990.  If you think of organizations like organisms and culture as emergent then it becomes obvious that understanding and monitoring systems is critical.  If you also understand the need to develop emergent practices in order to adapt and thrive, then you know you have to engage the entire organism. As a complex adaptive system, it cannot be directed and there is no obvious link between cause and and effect. You don’t push a button at head office and voilà you get a specific result at the field office. Instead, you keep the body healthy, engaged and constantly learning. The body, and all its constituant parts,  then adapts to its environment.

This is how you develop a healthy corporate culture. Nurture the body, which is composed of people and their relationships, using tools, within a framework of processes and procedures. But designing an effective work system is only part of the solution; it merely sets the stage. Marinating in the resulting complex adaptive system is essential. Monitoring all systems by engaging with them is how we can understand the organization as organism. It cannot be done by managers disconnected from the work being done. It cannot be done from behind a desk. To know the culture, be the culture.


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