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Overview of WHAT IS CULTURE ..

Culture is formed through agreements between people and their shared perspectives. It is not an external entity but a construct of the mind. Intangible experiences and knowledge shape our sense of meaning, and culture emerges when this meaning is agreed upon by a group. Repetition of meaning across multiple perspectives, facilitated by structures and communication, creates a shared sense of culture. However, variation and disagreement exist, challenging the formation of organisational culture...

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What is Culture ..

.. and where does it come from

"In the end I just came to the conclusion it doesn't exist - and that really helped."

This story will briefly outline how a single culture is formed as an agreement between people through a repeating point of view. We then ask how variety or disagreement affects this cultural stability.

This helps develop our understanding of culture, our approach to forming and maintaining an organisational culture, our work with subcultures, and our collaborations with external cultures. Topics that can be explored in later stories.

Where are we with culture?

A lifetime bedded into a world of creative, artistic and ‘cultural’ activities should help me explain what culture is right? Simply being a human means that I have at no point been outside of cultural activities in one form or another. So defining culture should be quite straightforward..? Well it isn’t.

A useful realisation is that culture doesn’t exist - we make it up in our minds. At least when I was younger I was told only certain activities were allowed to be called ‘culture’. This made it a bit clearer. But social disruptions broke this down until most, if not all activities, gained the potential to be ‘culture’. From there has developed a debate over what are the right and acceptable ways to behave in society. And this is the context within which we currently try to define our organisational cultures.

“an unrealistic but useful clarity on culture”

How can we define culture?

To define culture more clearly I find tangible activities a helpful starting point. But beneath this, culture is rooted in the intangible experiences and knowledge that shape our sense of meaning in the world. Our sense of meaning isn't tangible, so we create unrealistic but useful clarity to help us understand it. Here we'll say our sense of meaning only forms a culture when it is agreed between a group of people.

Where does agreement come from?

To form an agreement on our sense of meaning, and therefore form a culture, we need the meaning to repeat across multiple perspectives:

  • From one perspective we want repetition to be ‘wide’ across a group of people in the same moment - everyone agrees on the meaning;
  • From another perspective we want repetition to be ‘deep’ in the details - it repeats throughout the depths of experience and specifics of knowledge;
  • And from a final perspective we want repetition to be ‘long’ through time - the agreement was formed in the past and repeats into the future.

How do we facilitate repetition?

To increase the potential for repetition we use structures, and we can structure meaning 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 - are processes through which communication of meaning occurs;
  • Context - is the situational impact on meaning

How do we spread repetition?

If we use the above elements to create structures of meaning, then to repeat them across a group we spread it through communication. I used the example of ‘activity’ or ‘behaviour’ above as one method of communication, but it comes in three very broad forms:

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

So to communicate repeating structures of meaning between people creates a group where everyone shares the same sense of meaning. One culture.


But that’s an extreme example offering a useful but unrealistic clarity on the architecture of culture. In reality organisations are often made up of several subcultures, team members in their lives associate with multiple external cultures, and ecosystems of collaboration or value chains of transaction surround single organisations with differing views of the world.

And while structure encourages agreement, and agreement promotes structure. Variation or disagreement reduces structure and promotes fluidity as we’re forced to move from one perspective on meaning to another.

This variation of perception amongst the group could also grow to be wide, deep and long - bringing with it certain benefits.

So what does this do to our goal of defining and forming organisational culture? It suggests culture is a constant balancing act that plays out between agreement and variation, structure and fluidity - a kind of cultural conversation as cultural elements are communicated explicitly or unconsciously.

Is this a threat to the notion of culture, or an opportunity? A challenge or a complement?

“Is this a threat to the notion of culture, or an opportunity? A challenge or a complement?!”

In the next story we will look at how intentionally influencing the combination of structure and fluidity affects how we can combine and maybe even design cultures. In particular how we can create spaces of cultural flow, cultural filtering or cultural containment.

Exploring "Culture" or needing a deep dive ..

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