How does organizational culture change?

I was recently reading an old synthesis of the work of Edgar Schein, an author who always helps us to think about organizational culture. He says that the culture of a group is formed around a few basic assumptions:

  • The nature of reality and truth.
  • The nature of time.
  • The nature of space.
  • The nature of human nature.
  • The nature of human activity.
  • The nature of human relationships.

Culture is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems” (Schein, 1992).  That is why organizational culture is so difficult to change.

Recently I had a funny conversation with a senior executive about a network that was being created within the organization where he works.

For him it was difficult to understand that network moderation (or netweaving, as many might call) is a process, and it’s impossible to make a “schedule of posts” or try to define what the community may or may not do. The network form is emergent.

It´s not an easy thought for those worried about ROI or indicators…

Inspired by those thoughts, I would consider a reflection of two parts:

How do changes in working patterns or structure affect an organization?

Where would process management and network management, for example, lead us?

I think it is interesting to return to the theme of culture at this point because we often hear that the company “X” will implement process management or will implement a social network.

But any change of this sort takes place around an established culture, around given assumptions and currently accepted success criteria. A culture is modified according to the changes in corporate conversation networks, as professor Maturana would put it.

The word ‘implementation’ might be of little value in this context. For example, nobody implements a new concept of time. It is impossible to replace one way of living for another when we are dealing with human systems.

What happens to human groups then? How can they absorb (and modify) a certain change that is proposed as an implementation?

Some examples illustrate it.

Case 1: The other day I was at a chat in a social network that I help moderate. The guest was a senior executive of the company and the room was full. The guest, however, was not yet accustomed to this type of online interaction and it took him some time to answer each question posed in the chat, so an awkward virtual silence filled the room between his responses.

Now think about the basic assumption behind this behavior: people entered the chat to speak to the senior executive and await his responses. It took a while for people to realize that meanwhile they could talk to each other, but when it happened, the quality of the chat changed considerably and time felt short for so many discussions.

It was simply so different from what that group was used to, that, at first, the standard behavior of having an authority figure mediate the conversation prevailed. The installed culture persisted in the virtual environment.

How does this type of experience affect the organization? How does this affect daily routine? It is not yet possible to say. It might open a new “drift” (or deriva in portuguese), a new flow of conversation and that exercise might maybe lead to less centralized interaction experiences.

Case 2: I was talking about the implementation of process management with a group of executives when a question popped up: how do organizational processes relate to one another? Someone pointed to the slide with the “official process design” of the organization, but no one seemed satisfied.

They clearly perceived the processes entangled in a much more complex manner than that portrayed by the old box-arrows model. Life subverts charts and escapes pre-defined structures.

No diagram will simplify the life of an organization. Simplicity occurs only when we are able to talk about “how we do what we do”, and act recursively in search of what is simple.

No network is implemented. Everything is built based on what already exists. People in an organization do get entangled, so the same happen to processes. That is just how our conversation networks are dynamically built. It is possible to stimulate open spaces for conversation and legitimate networks that already exist, but the idea of “implementing”, seems somewhat misplaced. We must be humble to suggest, feed and observe, but no one knows in advance what will happen in an organization.

How can we propose a new work model if we live our lives with the eyes of control? How can we change the nature of time and space, as proposed by Schein, if not by experiencing?


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