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Discovering the Layers of Culture

“The universe is true for all of us and different for each one.”     Marcel Proust

When I was in elementary school, a lesson each year in geography had to do with contour maps.  The maps were in 2D on a textbook page, and I never understood the concept that these maps represented elevation.

Years later, I taught the same lesson, in the same way, forgetting how difficult this concept was to grasp looking at a flat representation of elevation.  On one of the first days working in an architectural office I came across a model of a house addition, sited on a steep hill.  The model of 3D, with elevation represented with layers up gator board in contour format, caused a glaring light bulb to go off in my head – “oh, contour maps show elevation!!” The truth was there all the time; however it now had a more meaningful representation for me.

And so it was after our discussion about Hatch’s Cultural Dynamics theory.  I had a very difficult time getting through The Dynamics of Organizational Culture (Hatch, 1993). Our class discussion helped a bit, in particular the diagram of the theory and the discussion around symbols as representations of individual meaning.  We picked at the model, we discussed it, we tried to interpret it, and we applied it to a research study.  At the end of class, I concluded that the way the model is presented allows it to be all things to all people.  If you can’t quite wrap your hands around Schein’s Artifacts/Values/Assumptions framework, just add symbolization, interpretation, manifestation, and realization in a reciprocal relationship and you can prove it relates to any cultural observation somewhere within the model.  Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a way to simplify the concept, to increase my understanding of cultural dynamics, much like the 3D contour model had done for contours and elevation.

The name Mary Jo Hatch seemed to emit a sense of awe among class colleagues and our guest instructor.  It was inevitable that YouTube would not disappoint – but there were only 2 videos of Hatch.  I decided to watch this video:  Art, Design and Management.  To my surprise, in this video Hatch reveals extreme aggravation with the academic world over doing exactly what we had done with her work:

“…you can only define concepts related to something as complex as organizational culture so far, and then you run into a series of overlaps and it gets messier and messier.  They want clean, clear definitions so the methods vultures can descend on your definition and feed upon it until the point of saturation, which is when they have sucked all the meaning out of the words.  ….the more you can extract the meaning away from the data you are working with the easier it is to use the data to generalize, to get us closer to that universal meaning.  The trouble is the meaning lies in the difference that the universe is for each of us, and we lose that when we conceptualize something for the purpose of operationalizing it, measuring it and then nailing it with the numbers…”
 Were we being vultures?  Should we focus less on how an element of culture fits a framework or theory and more on how a framework helps us to understand the culture?  The meaning lies in the difference that the universe is for each of us.

 Schein makes a similar point in Organizational Culture and Leadership when he suggests, “you will benefit most from asking yourself in each of the chapters what your own position is on every dimension we will review.”  Whether it is discovering what the universe is for me or as Shein suggests, discovering “the layers of culture within yourself,” I need to remember as I conduct organizational analysis of any kind – for academic, social, or personal reasons – to be very aware of my position as it relates to the analysis: there’s a 2D version, and a 3D version.


2 Responses to “Discovering the Layers of Culture”

  1. As I read your latest posting, I am reminded of how much we need to be aware of where we are as we consult. In our consulting project, I have tried to remain keenly aware of my place in the subsector, my relationships, etc. However, like you viewing the topographical map as a child, I find myself looking at the organization chart in my head and wondering, “What does it all mean?” In our consulting project, I have found your involvement to be invaluable in helping to interpret my own “You Are Here” sign.

  2. Thanks for your candidness on the Hatch article. Whew, that was a tough one. Although I found it hard to follow her lengthy analysis and interpretation of Schein’s model, I can appreciate her attempt to warn us all – when you are working with people, there is not going to be a predictable response. We are not fixing a car, we are talking about people with individual needs and goals, and companies with goals, needs, agendas and profits (usually).

    Like Hatch’s quote – we tend to want to make it simple so we can”dummy down” this thing called culture, and we are frustrated that we cannot.

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