Breaking Down Culture


softwareI appreciate your answers to the questions about culture.  The reason I say that we need a new definition of culture is that there are about eleventy hundred definitions of culture out there already and none of them appears to be sticking.  Every time the conversation about culture comes up someone is going to say “well, how are we defining culture?”  I think there is a need for a simple concise definition that makes sense and “sticks” for HR, OD and Talent folks.  I don’t know whether we can pull that off or not, but lets certainly explore this further.

To me, culture is basically the software of an organization.  Everyone understands the role that software plays on the laptop that I am working on.  In addition to that, we have come to understand DNA as the software of the human being.  I think that culture is the software of the organization or for any social group.

Let me over simplify things and break the organization down into two primary components, the system (hardware) and the culture (software).  The system consists of the tangible aspects of the organization, the things that you can touch and quantify in some way.  Buildings.  Inventory.  Policy.  Mission statement.  Strategic plan.  Title.  Job description.  Organizational chart.  All parts of the organization that have some kind of physical presence, that are tangible in some way.  Culture is the invisible stuff…assumptions, politics, relationships, communications, group dynamics, exceptions to the rule, trust, etc.  You cannot really be aware of it from outside the organization, but if you are on the inside you can feel it, understand it and discuss it…though you can’t catch it and put it in a box.

I think all organizations have some gap between what they say and what they actually do…and that gap is usually the difference between the system and the culture.  Most organizations say the right kinds of things about people and about talent…and a lot of those organizations actually treat people like shit.  The system says one thing; the culture drives a different kind of behavior.

Having a policy that says one thing is part of the system.  Knowing that said policy does not apply to everyone is something that exists in the culture.  The system can set parameters for behavior (terrain), but culture drives behavior (path).

It is easy to make changes to the system (goals, process, budget, structure, etc.), but difficult to change culture, and I would actually say that most change initiative fail because they ignore culture altogether.  The system consists of specific independent pieces that can be changed, such as a policy or a budget or a sales forecast.  The culture is a shared thing, part of which exists in every single stakeholder.

You can make changes in the system by changing one single thing, you have to guide change in everyone involved to change culture.

Thoughts about this as a starting point for breaking down culture?



  1. i think you’re right on when you say that systems are often contradictory to culture. it creates a catch 22 because even initiating “simple” or “invidvidual” systems change becomes difficult when dealing with an organization that has serious culture/systems contradictions. what to do?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.