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We all live and work across cultural spaces which have a large impact on our thoughts and behaviours. In this story we’ll identify cultural spaces and outline why they’re useful. We’ll look at communication and meaning to understand how cultural spaces are formed and how their communications balance structure and fluidity. Finally we’ll start to explore the benefits of varying types of cultural space and think about the questions we can ask to use them in our organisations.

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What are cultural spaces & why are they useful

Cultural spaces can be thought of as an environment within which people interact. Culture is used in these spaces to generate influence that affects the interactions. Cultural spaces are a useful tool because the interaction can be influenced to generate positive outcomes for its participants.

To understand this better we need to take a step out into cultural systems. If cultural systems are the web of various cultures that exist between people, then cultural spaces are the areas where specific patterns of culture become more concentrated.

Cultural systems have a lot in common with organisational systems but separate out the cultural aspects from the functional focus of the organisation. Cultural spaces then add detail to the system by differentiating areas based on the level of cultural influence.

Organisational Systems & SpacesCultural Systems & Spaces
Flexible & dynamic in nature
Made up of subsystems & surrounded by environmental systems
Feel the effects of change as ripples
Form as a network of tasks & activityForm as a network of meaning
Develop through technical & social processesDevelop through a learning process
Tend to seek productivity & efficiencySeek longer term connection
Example similarities & differences

Organisations and businesses are unique cultural spaces, but like culture itself, cultural spaces are formed through communication. This means cultural spaces transcend traditional boundaries i.e. an organisation's cultural space exists across physical and digital environments and includes both the employees and their stakeholders etc.

Cultural spaces are a mechanism for bringing people together within formal systems, but also as groups across formal systems. This helps navigate cultural differences and similarity.

The term space is useful as it helps keep the concept of culture connected to the real world. Cultural spaces offer a grounded view to a cloudy concept in an already complex environment.

How do we build cultural spaces

Cultural spaces are formed through communication of meaning. They are differentiated by the level of structure that facilitates agreement around a shared sense of meaning. This brings two questions:

  1. How do we define the communication we aim to structure?
  2. How do we create a structure around meaning?

1. Communication covers three very broad areas:

  • Talking to others directly;
  • Acting in a certain way in front of others;
  • Sharing physical or digital objects (images, text, shapes, sounds etc.)

These are the processes through which we communicate meaning. The basic foundation of meaning is our assessment of positive or negative. Does some aspect of the world bring positivity or negativity in our view; or does it offer neither and is in fact meaningless to us. 

This can often be rooted in our assessment of risk and opportunity. When something avoids risk and/or offers opportunity it is positive; if it brings risk and/or removes opportunity it is negative. If we see no connection to either then it’s inconsequential. 

This is where we start from when defining values. Values form the foundation of the structures that help share a sense of meaning across a group, but we expand out from there.

“How do we create and inspire the right space in the right place with the right people, to let appropriate communication, meaning and culture develop.”
Pete Emms

2. Structures of meaning can be built around cultural elements (Source):

  • Values - define what it means to be seen as positive or negative;
  • Roles - assign frameworks of meaning to people (i.e. Hero, Storyteller);
  • Symbolism - represents and communicates meaning;
  • Interactions - processes through which communication of meaning occurs;
  • Context - is the situational impact on meaning.

Cultural spaces vary based on the level of agreed structure or fluid variety within the above elements. But how can we understand the options available to decide what to build?

How do cultural spaces balance structure and fluidity

To better understand the different levels of structure we can use a simple model based on the academic concepts of culture as stories, frames & categories [source]. Here we’ll reframe these into three spaces focused on Flow, Filtered & Container. This means as space creators we can:

  1. Flow Space - allow full fluidity of communication and avoid agreement;
  2. Filtered Space - allow all communication but filter around preferred agreements;
  3. Container Space - allow only agreed communication and keep everything else out.

Organisations consist of cultural spaces that exist somewhere on this continuum. So we can ask:

How do we create and inspire the right space in the right place with the right people, to let appropriate communication, meaning and culture develop.

What are the features and benefits of these cultural spaces

When balancing the level of structure or fluidity within our cultural spaces we need to bear in mind the features and benefits of each. Features help us identify what a specific cultural space looks or acts like, while benefits are what we gain from each.

Flow SpaceFiltered SpaceContainer Space
Example features
CommunicationAll communications accepted.All communications accepted.
Some preferred and amplified.
Some communications kept away. Some preferred and allowed.
CultureAllows a varied and diverse culture.Allows a varied and diverse culture to ebb around a core culture.Purely a core culture with no variation or diversity of culture.
StabilityDoesn’t retain any sense of consistency or form.Retains a sense of consistency amongst the diversity.Retains only a sense of consistency, isolated from any diversity.
Example benefits
ApplicationsThe right space for:
-Creative exploration
-Acceptance of all
-High levels of novelty
The right space for:
-Natural evolution
-Community building
-Relationship development
-Flexible delivery
The right space for:
-High risk environments
-Efficiency focused routine operations
-High conflict situations
ManagementSimple to manage as we allow everything, so even diversity is straight forward.Complex as there can be a lot of diversity but it needs to be filtered.Simple as there are clear rules and separation.
Direction & GoalsUnable to direct outcomes as no control over communications.
Direction can be understood mainly in retrospect. 
Direction can be suggested through a nurturing of the amplified communications.
Management needs to be responsive to changing conditions.
Clear direction can be found through forceful focus.
Clear connection between communications and goals can be established.
Success still not guaranteed.

Where can we take this knowledge and these skills?

There are a wide range of questions that we can pose around Cultural Spaces, here are some examples:

  • Does your organisation know when to allow free flowing communication?
  • Does your organisation know how to implement the right filters (and how that shapes Learning)?
  • Does your organisation know when to build containers i.e. around some areas of Finance?
  • Does your organisation know how it's subcultures are structured (and how that affects Tamwork)
  • Does your organisation know how to Change and build, tighten and loosen structures?
  • Do you know how to perform outside of your structures and how this affects Strategy
  • Do you know how to Perform within your structures?
  • Do stakeholders affect your structures?
  • Do stakeholders benefit from your influence?

YourBigPic Specialisms are in bold- for which we have a Specialist Partner working with me to unpack Culture for your organisations- if and when required,