Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Edgar Schein’s future of culture

Does an organisation’s culture influence individuals’ behaviour? Or does it work the other way round: does the sum of how individuals behave help to define the organisation’s culture?

This question came to mind when, to my surprise, Edgar Schein proposed that we drop words such as ‘culture’, as they have become overworked, overused and misunderstood (he may have a point there) and instead start to focus on behaviours that we seek as the focus of outcomes (report on An Audience with Edgar Schein (IDeA Conference, 19 November).

One small point: I question the “focus of outcomes”, suspecting that it might mean “driver of outcomes” (otherwise it confuses means and ends). But there is something more worrying about Schein’s alternative focus. First, let’s get this post’s opening question out of the way. An organisation’s culture is rather like a fishtank is to fish; it is part of what surrounds people at work, largely taken for granted and unseen. It may contain sustenance and/or toxins, be clear and navigable or opaque. Schein may be correct that we’re confused about it, but I don’t think we should stop talking about it.

The big question is what is the engine that drives the system’s success? Schein appears to take the view that it is individuals and their behaviour. That conventional stance emphasises the role of competency frameworks, personal objectives, individual performance appraisal, and skills training. More radical souls include the likes of OD specialist W Warner Burke, systems thinker Margaret Wheatley, and complexity scientist Ralph Stacey (a school of thought to which I belong). We believe that what matters more is attending to all the gaps, spaces and glue in what surrounds people, what binds them together and what keeps them apart, in their relationships with each other, with the system in which they function, with the organisation’s aims, and with their environment. Individuals are defined by their relationships; they have little organisational power when considered in isolation.

If these radicals are right, then there is a stronger future for OD’s work on the system.