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?


What is PKM?

PKM means Personal Knowledge Management. It consists of practical methods to make sense of the increasing flows of information around us. As explains Harold Jarche on his blog.

How do you build your personal learning environment?

In other words we are speaking about the personal capacity to be crossed by numerous information flows without being torn apart by them, and at the same time keeping in mind a singular personal guidance, a life project and the desire to absorb and produce knowledge.

Here we have a very interesting point because PKM is not just about how a person absorbs knowledge but also about his or her ability to produce and share it.  In PKM we don’t think only about ourselves but about our network and how we can feed it. What is the knowledge that only I could produce and share with my network?

Thus, personal knowledge management would be the basis for social knowledge management, facilitated and structurally catalyzed by technological tools that enable our networks today.

This view of knowledge management is quite innovative in the context of organizations, because much of what has been produced to guide knowledge management in this context is based on the organization’s centralized view: knowledge must be standardized, circulate and reach the right place.

The discussion of PKM changes the subject. It places the individual, his choices and his multiple networks at the heart of the game and starts to connect KM with such topics as career management, which had not featured in KM discussions so far.

Harold Jarche uses a model named “Seek, Sense and Share” to explain how he manages his personal knowledge but he admits “PKM is a personal process”.

Pierre Levy points out the importance of storytelling, since we are story producers as we interact and talk in our networks. He’s dedicated his time to a very interesting and profound discussion on the semantics of the web.

Stephen Downes and Internet Time Alliance group talk about Personal Learning Environments and bring to the discussion the many ways individuals organize their formal learning (performed in the school context driven, classroom or online courses) and informal learning (based on conversation skills and in the networks each one is involved).

With the individual at the center, the issue of diversity comes back. There are many ways of learning (Howard Gardner has defined 8 of them).Each person has a distinct way to absorb, to process and manage the learning process. How do we stimulate personal knowledge management taking this diversity into account?

I kept this question with me for few days. One of the possible answers that I heard in my network was the importance of defining interests and filtering information into categories. That’s interesting, but maybe quite a structured process for my personal learning style, so I went on with the question.

As we are exposed to numerous flows, perhaps our personal learning environment and PKM are emergent features of our lives, defined as our surrounding chaos takes form. Maybe these environments and the different ways to manage knowledge change as dynamically as the knowledge networks we develop around us.

It was then that I came across an article posted by Thierry de Baillon on his blog about complex organizations and the learning process. The author introduces the concept of micro-foundations of dynamic capabilities that give rise to emerging practices in organizations. This inspired me to think about the importance of PKM.

Maybe the individual and therefore his personal network could be the genesis of these micro-foundations. This view brings us a much more dynamic perspective on how practices in organizations could evolve. Concepts such as ‘best practices’ would be made obsolete if organizations could visualize and trust these micro-foundations. Why do we need one best practice if we can have a diversity of options as rich as the extended network that surrounds an organization?

Maybe this approach is fearful. It is barely impossible to control a complex system and it takes courage and trust to let practices emerge, but a lot of relevant knowledge, totally applied to work, could arise from the professional management’s capacity to be exposed and filter a diversity of flows. Why do we rather trust people to execute that to make choices?

This possibility can inspire us to rethink the meaning of promoting learning practices in the organizations. It is not a matter of mass customization only, but a fundamental change of the vision organizations have about the individual as a “resource” to be “used” in the most economical way as possible.

For the individual to be the genesis of emerging practices, he must have freedom to relate, to connect and to produce. Conversations must flow, as Humberto Maturana is teaching us, because they are at the heart of a dynamic culture. As it happens to a jellyfish taken from the sea to be observed, the individual dries when removed from his networks (for example through corporative firewalls). His PLE gets restricted and it loses much of the wealth he would have to offer.

The individual is also an emergent. The richness that he had when he was hired is not kept if his personal knowledge management environment is restricted or, in other words, if his network territory is encrypted by the organization. Perhaps it’s not necessary to control anything if each professional is really engaged in what he or she does.

Maybe we are the generation of difficult questions. We face a complex world but we don’t yet have the tools or the capacity to visualize solutions. There is a lot of conversation and exchanging ideas to be done.