“Culture” can be a very confusing term. People use the term in so many ways. At its most empty and rhetorical, “culture” can be used as a catch-all term to express positivity, and aspiration. At its most specific, “culture” can mean the everyday details of our lives, down to the clothes we wear and the food we eat. In the spaces in between, the meaning of “culture” tends to rely heavily on the perspective of the person speaking, and on the richness of their imagination or the restrictions of their personal or political agenda.

For me, “culture” refers very simply to what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. This is deliberately broad – it is important to not automatically exclude anything from our understanding of culture as a general concept. This then provides a comparative baseline, against which it is possible to make sense of the diverse meanings and rhetorics of the term. To what extent does someone’s meaning of “culture” diverge from this broad sense of it? Is a particular understanding of “culture” only limited to what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in particular classes, groups, places, or artistic forms? Thinking about it all in this way can highlight prejudices, biases, exclusions, politics of distinction, elitism, and sectarianism.

To speak of “an organisational culture”, though, is to be very specific. For me, it is to speak of “what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in a particular organisation (specified by location(s) over a designated time)“. This first and foremost invites:

Inclusivity: everyone in an organisation contributes to and is affected by the culture of an organisation, from the CEO to the janitors;

Transparency: this understanding of organisational culture leaves nowhere to hide – that’s the point;

Discernment: to be this inclusive calls for a deeper discernment of what is actually going on within an organisation (see the earlier post on the 8 first principles of culture change);

Legacy: “culture” here involves an awareness of what has happened before (our past legacies), as well as what is still to happen (our future legacies), connecting the past to the future;

Anticipation:  this is a future-oriented notion of culture, an invitation to awareness of our own participation in the cultural future of the organisation.

Once we ally the notion of “culture” to the discernment and evaluation of the specifics of power, effect, and circumstance it becomes helpful to speak in terms of “cultural climate”, and, by extension, “culture change”.



2 thoughts on ““Culture”

  1. Hi Anthony – another thread to consider is organisations as living systems, so organisation’s culture vs organisation’s nature; analysing & conceptualising orgs as living systems rather than machines. Lots of writing around this, & whole systems theory is starting to make its way into cross-sectoral settings. Btw are you in Art of Hosting network? Much good work being done there, may be of interest to you. 🙂 ps Hope you’ll share Dinosaur Song when it’s finished.

    1. Thanks, cricket7642. I wouldn’t make a distinction between culture and nature myself (hence the emphasis on what happens rather than on primarily symbolic realities). Systemic qualities of what happens are crucial when it comes to understanding how things work, I think, but there are also things to be cautious about when using systems theory (which I would distinguish slightly from the analysis of systemic qualities). Some systems theory seems to bypass psychological, social-psychological, or affective qualities of relationship in ways that tend to suck people out of the picture. Some doesn’t, but it’s not a perspective that I would wholeheartedly embrace, rather a field that I carefully look to, preferring some thinkers over others. I’ll be writing about it in a few months, most likely. The Art of Hosting network builds on Margaret Wheatley’s work, doesn’t it? Yes, it’s an approach that I’m aware of. I have a few of Meg Wheatley’s books on the shelf in my to-read pile! 🙂 On child-related stuff, there are a few dinosaur songs in the works – I’ll post them on twitter when they’re done 🙂

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