Friday, 24 May 2013

What is culture? Implications for creating a KM culture

Organisational Knowledge Management Culture has been a theme of this blog for a long time - what is the KM culture, how to change
the culture, and so on.

An HBR blog last week on the nature of culture got me thinking about this issue even more. The blog, based on a Linked-In survey, suggests that culture could be

  • how organizations 'do things'
  • a product of compensation
  • a jointly shared description of an organization from within
  •  the sum of values and rituals which serve as 'glue' to integrate the members of the organization
  •  civilization in the workplace
  • the organization's immune system
  • [shaped by] the main culture of the society we live in, albeit with greater emphasis on particular parts of it.
  • It over simplifies the situation in large organizations to assume there is only one culture... and it's risky for new leaders to ignore the sub-cultures
  •  a living culture
Culture is hard to describe, and is all these things and more (a "meme-set" for example).

In KM terms, we are interested in understanding culture for two reasons - finding how amenable the culture is to Knowledge and Learning, and finding how how we may change or influence or steer the culture to become more amenable.

There seem to be two characteristics of culture which inform our strategies for change.

Firstly, whatever culture it, it is sticky and self-reinforcing. The stories, the beliefs, the incentive systems, the rituals, all form a coherent whole, and all reinforce each other. If a culture is one of ruthless internal competition, for example, then this is reinforced from all sides. The posters on the wall are about "employee of the month". The CEO talks about "the best sales team in the company," peers talk about "we beat the French team this week!", you find more (or less) money in your pay packet depending on how internally competitive you were. You don't help other colleagues - why would you? They wouldn't help you! Everything feeds into a self-reinforcing, self-sustaining situation.

Secondly it takes a huge amount of effort and energy to climb out of this sticky situation. Culture is like quicksand. Its far easier to stop fighting and sink back in. Culture change does not take place gradually, because gradual changes are not enough to escape the stickiness - the organization's immune system quickly deals with small shifts. Culture change therefore is not a gradual shift, or a tweak here or there, it's a big jump to a different state, with a different set of self-reinforcing influences (see here).

Those of you with a science background, or who are young enough to remember science classes at school, may remember about electron energy states, and how an electron will stick in one state, until, if energised enough, leap to another new state (a "Quantum" leap) (forgive me if my physics is a bit rusty here). We saw diagrams like the one shown here, but with electrons and not culture states.

The way to move electrons is to excite them - to make them restless - until they have the energy make the leap to the next step. It's the same with cultures. You have to make people restless with the current culture, until they are energised to move, despite the quicksand. You do this through cognitive dissonance - through introducing messages and stories and incentives that are at odds with "the way we have always done things" and that contradict "the jointly shared description". The most powerful way to introduce this dissonance is through creating, and then rewarding, a small-scale model of the new culture. in other words, a Knowledge Management pilot.

You choose the pilot well, so that the pilot team are already natural knowledge sharers and users, and you
work carefully with them to introduce KM behaviours, processes and incentives. Then you hold them up to the rest of the organisation as a model, tell their stories, give them lots of public praise - dinner with the CEO, front page of the company magazine - until people start to mutter "I didn't think we worked like that".

Then you put in place the second pilot, then the third, moving people one at a time, or one team at a team, from one culture state to the other. Gradually the number of people in the Yellow state decreases, and the number of people in the Green (knowledge friendlier) state increases, until you reach critical mass, and the rest join in. You see this clearly in the "Leadership from the dancing guy" video, and in the video below of penguins on an ice floe.

The penguins were in one self-reinforcing behaviour set, hungry but safe, huddled together on the ice. They made the quantum leap to another behaviour set - individual free swimmers with plenty of fish. The way they made the change was to watch the first wave of penguins (the "pilot project"), to see ifthey survived. If the  penguin pilot was a success,  and seemed to be swimming happily and eating lots of fish, this gave enough impetus for the second wave to make the leap, then the third, until critical mass took over.

(If the video does not play, click to watch on YouTube)

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