Life in Organisations LO9948

Rol Fessenden (76234.3636@CompuServe.COM)
13 Sep 96 17:09:11 EDT

Replying to LO9916 --

Colin, in LO9916 asks a number of questions about the distinction between
culture and system.

I think the 'tool set' idea as a metaphor for culture has merit. For
example, if you think about early man, the creation of the wheel (not the
square ones, Scott) -- certainly a tool -- was a significant change in the
culture. On the other hand, Geof has pointed out that Senge draws a
similar distinction: "I always understood Peter Senge to suggest the
explicit systemic structures were the written policies and procedures, and
the implicit systemic structures were the beliefs, "cultural" norms,
values, mental models, etc." If 'implicit systemic structures' makes more
sense, then so be it.

== question 1 ==

Could you elaborate on how if the system is dependant on the culture, we
can differentiate enough to say "Faulty system, but healthy culture"? Am
I correct in my assumption that culture is multifaceted? Therefore, would
the faulty system reflect poorly on some aspect of the organisation's
culture but recognising the fault reflects well on other facets?

== end question ==

I am not sure I can elaborate on this distinction, but let us see. Let's
avoid the words 'system' and 'culture' for the moment and think instead of
'task' and 'tool'. Let's say the task is to drive a screw into a piece of
metal. If I use a hammer because that's the only tool I have, we would
say that the tool is inadequate for the task. It might work, but it
wouldn't be pretty. In Physics, if we were trying to develop Quantum
Theory in the 13th century, we would be able to say, looking down on the
process from above, that the mental models and scientific theories were
inadequate to the task. It is not surprising that the Quantum Theory was
not developed much before it actually was. There was no framework. We
might say that the 'culture' of physics was not up to the task. Culture is
the beliefs, arts, institutions, customs, and all other human work and
thought created by a people or group. This is an apt description of why
Quantum Theory did not get developed in the 13th century.

Going back to the hammer and screw analogy, if we had a hammer and a
screwdriver for the task, and we went to the systems diagram, followed it
through, and as a consequence, chose the hammer for the task, then we
would need more information to know whether the system or the culture was
the problem. If screwdrivers were invented solely for the purpose of
roasting marshmallows, and we had not noticed this other use -- driving
screws -- then we might say the culture was flawed. In Physics, I
hypothesize that Einstein developed the theory of relativity because he
allowed himself to change the culture. As soon as he did, the theory fell
out. In fact, Einstein said that a high school senior could understand
the mathematics of the theory.

In the organizational context, if command and control is the only solution
available in the arsenal of mental models, then we will, necessarily, be
driving a lot of screws with hammers. This is clearly a cultural -- tools
-- problem. Once we get into more complex situations, however, we need
more information to know where the problem is occurring. In the context
of recent discussions on this forum, 'blaming' is a cultural problem.

Culture is similar to If's memes, I think, but I am still unsure about
that. I would be very interested to hear the distinctions between culture
and memes. I suspect we might define 'culture' to be the shared memes of
a people or group. We might also define culture to be the implicit
systemic structures of a people or group. All of these definitions make
sense to me.

Cultuire _is_ multi-faceted, and yes, recognizing a systemic flaw reflects
well on the culture.

== question 2 ==

I am also feeling somewhat uncomfortable with what sounds at times like
people slipping between a positivistic conceptualisation of culture - that
the organisation itself has a "real" set of "beliefs, perceptions, mental
models" existing separately from people in interaction, as opposed to the
interpretivist's view that culture is a metaphor, the truth lying within
the human experience, without an observer having the ability to ever know
objectively what is in their minds.

== end question ==

I agree with you. I am using a short-hand when I refer to the culture of
the organization. In fact, I tok it from my dictionary. It says, "The
culture of western Europe owes much to Greece."


Rol Fessenden LL Bean, Inc.

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