The thing is, organizational culture is like climate. We know it’s all around us and take it for granted when it’s pleasant. When it comes to change, of either, we know we can do better but, it means changing behaviour and really, who wants to do that?

Like climate change, 80% of us say workplace culture has to change, according to the 2018 study done by PwC.

But, change what?

It is difficult to change something that we can’t clearly define. We have a definition for climate but, we don’t have a definition for culture. We have several.

The following capture the range of definitions of organizational culture from a variety of sources;

  • “The values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization.” (Business Dictionary)
  • “Organizational culture is the values, behaviors, and shared vision that contribute to the environment of an organization.” (Hubspot)
  • “a set of norms and values that are widely shared and strongly held throughout the organization” (O’Reilly and Chatman)
  • “How we do things” and “a glue of rituals and values that integrates people” and “an immune system”. (Michael Watkins’ LinkedIn discussion on definitions of culture. From Harvard Business Review)

SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, says it best; “Culture is a nebulous concept and is often an undefined aspect of an organization. Although extensive academic literature exists relating to the topic of organizational culture, there is no generally accepted definition of culture.”

SHRM goes on to state; “Culture is not a thing. It’s not something an organization has or doesn’t have. Culture is something an organization is.”[…] “Because culture is difficult to define, […] Employees may also find it difficult to identify and communicate about perceived cultural inconsistencies.”

So, we have a situation in which most employees want change to their culture, but have difficulty expressing what exactly they mean. We faced this problem when we undertook cultural audits as part of our Cultural Rejuvenation plan process for clients.

What we understood very quickly was that the definition and value of culture was dependent on the perspective and place within the organization’s cultural network. We saw that culture was not an isolated, internal environment but had important connections to multiple groups outside the organization.

So, we began to think about culture differently. We thought about the role of organizational culture for all people connected to the organization; its employees, customers, suppliers and stakeholders. We thought about the organization and how culture can be an asset to it in navigating increasingly complex, competitive environments.

We concluded that there are multiple things or elements to organizational culture. Each of the definitions and concepts we considered touched on one or more of the things that constitute good, resilient, organizational culture. We agree with SHRM that culture is not a thing… It is many things.

We call it a Culture of Things (CoT).

Our definition builds on the Renaissance concept of ethos, the definition of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the ecosystem business model.

Ethos, from the Greek word meaning character, describes the “characteristic spirit of a culture or community as seen in its beliefs and aspirations.” The beliefs and characteristic spirit shape the values system, the stories and even the language used by an organization. It is its ethos that makes an organization unique, differentiated and attractive to employees, customers and stakeholders.

The Internet of Things definition continues to evolve but a key concept that we borrowed for our Culture of Things definition is the idea of “a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that when connected create environments that are sensitive and responsive to the presence of people.” It is this ambient intelligence created by networks that helps us navigate and adapt to change required for growth and resilience.

The ecosystem business model concepts include “networks of shifting, semi-permanent relationships… combine aspects of competition and collaboration” and the idea that “players coevolve as they redefine their capabilities and relations to others over time.” The ecosystem model captures the dynamic responsiveness required of people, networks and systems to cope and grow in increasingly complex environments.

We believe that a Culture of Things (CoT) must be a dynamic, responsive network that recognizes that it is not self-contained but, an integral part of the larger, interconnected systems of our communities and marketplaces. A strong CoT is both influenced by and is an influencer of, their community and marketplace systems.

A Culture of Things, by our definition, is:

“a unique, interdependent network of shared human values, beliefs, behaviours and responsive organizational processes and systems that promotes and sustains the fulfillment of the organization, its employees, customers and stakeholders.”

In a Culture of Things, there are four main elements in the organization’s culture. These elements have been iterated and adapted from the extensive academic work to date and includes observations from our own cultural work for clients. They are;

  1. Meaning

The rituals, symbols, values, stories and even distinct language that an organization uses to transmit its culture to all employees.

  1. Sense-making

The behaviours and norms employees use to interact in their organization’s environment.

  1. Order

The processes, systems, structure and information flows that support the patterns of behaviour needed to work in the organization’s environment.

  1. Direction

The purpose, vision and plans (business, HR, career and all other plans in the organization) that guide the members of the organization to its agreed upon goals and objectives.

In a Culture of Things, these four elements are the framework of the organization’s culture. Each element, and its components, are fully integrated with the others, creating a sturdy foundation on which to design, nurture and grow the culture that best fits with the goals of the organization, its employees, customers and stakeholders.

A Culture of Things, like climate, recognizes the power of culture while also understanding the need to nurture, support and when necessary, change behaviours so culture is there. For all of us. All the time.

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