Life in Organizations LO9875

Rol Fessenden (76234.3636@CompuServe.COM)
10 Sep 96 13:41:34 EDT

Replying to LO9837 --

I made the following point about cultures and systems, and roxanne asked for
more clarification:

On a closely related note, I have been promoting a distinction between
'system' and 'culture' which my dictionary describe respectively as the
organized way to accomplish a task, and the beliefs, perceptions, mental
models, and so forth of an organization. In short-hand we can very
accurately refer to these as 'task' and 'tool set'.

System Culture

an organized, repeatable way to Beliefs, perceptions, mental models, etc
accomplish a task of an organization

Task Tool set

In particular, Roxanne is trouled by the word "tool". She says,

I'm still having trouble with the
culture definition. The word tools brings to mind a carpenter's tool box.
The word culture brings to mind the arts. I think your differentiation is
useful, but I doubt that I've fully grasped it. Keep talking.

== end quote ==

I agree that 'tool' seems a bit out of context, but the more I think about
it, the more I think it is a good perspective. The dictionary definition
of 'culture' is 'the concepts, habits, skills, arts, instruments, and
institutions of a people.'

My uncle, who is a wise old farmer in Idaho, says that when the only tool
you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. So in light
of the above definition, such concepts as mental models, systems thinking,
and personal mastery are components of a culture. So is command and
control organization, assertive HR organization, batch-oriented IS
organization, process improvement methods, TQM, and so forth. These are
the 'things' we bring to our organizational lives, these are what we use
to live our organizational lives, and these are the only tools we have to
solve problems inour organizations. Developing and fully implementing a
new tool is necessarily a change in culture.

Thus if the culture of an organization is to operate exclusively through
command and control, then problems are dealt with only by establishing c &
c mechanisms. The culture itself precludes different kinds of solutions.
It precludes, for example, looking at a problem as process-related.
Someone may be able to say in such a culture that the system is broken,
but if C&C solutions do not repair the system, then the organization has
no way to fix the problem because it is blind to alternative concepts.

In a separate posting, David Scott asked for information:

I am currently doing research on principle-centred organization and am
wondering if anyone has any thoughts on how to facilitate movement within
an organization away from a bureaucratic, procedure-oriented, rule-based
model to one where decisions are made and day-to-day functioning is
carried out based on principles.

The phrases 'principle-centered', 'bureaucratic', 'procedure-oriented',
'rule-based' are different kinds of cultures. As a consequence, David is
asking for information on how to change the culture of an organization.

Geoff challenged me with a situation in which people were wrongly punished
for performance on the job. As a consequence of Geoff's actions, the
punishments were rescinded. He asked me if that was a systems problem or
a cultural problem. I think I would need to know more about the
situation, but my guess is that the system was flawed and resulted in
mistaken punishment. However, the culture was such that the system's
behavior could be examined and changed. Faulty system, but healthy
culture. The culture used systems tools to solve the problem. But the
tools, since they are concepts, are still part of the culture.

I know another mail order company that has an almost identical customer
service policy to LL Bean's policy. However, the company is financially
driven, and highly rule-based. As a consequence, customer service calls
are handled totally differently than at LL Bean. If you drew a system
diagram for how to handle a customer complaint, you might possibly have
identical systems diagrams. However, the customer would still experience
something very different between the two companies. The difference is
caused not by the system, but by the culture.

Does this help clarify?


Rol Fessenden LL Bean, Inc.

Learning-org -- An Internet Dialog on Learning Organizations For info: <> -or- <>