What makes the culture such a difficult concept?

What is culture? That question has been asked and responded to in books, articles, and social media for an age. Yet, confusion about the term still clouds effective application of the power the culture concept offers organisations.

It’s our view that the reason for this confusion is in the complex array of perspectives that an approach to explaining and working with culture takes. Of these there are two perspectives which are valuable to framing decisions:

  • Culture as content
  • Culture as an analytical approach
Culture as content

The term culture, when understood as content, encompasses a huge space.

This space has an historical lineage commonly associated with traditions – how ideas of who “we” are and how it is best to live in the world set precedents that are enculturated from an early age and which become so second nature they slip from consciousness.

The key word, “ideas” is important as it helps us pivot to the next perspective, analysing culture.

Culture as an analytical approach

Academics have been working to understand what influences people to act in particular ways for centuries. As the complexity of understanding has increased, academics have specialised resulting in fragmented research1. Schools such as philosophy, psychology, social science (sociology, anthropology, politics, and economics to name a few) have pursued the subject of culture in ebbs and flows. Many of those schools have splintered further; often along the fault lines of geography or interests.

As a consequence, “experts” explaining the notion of culture are also inadvertently shaped by culture. For example, psychologists often present culture as a mental phenomenon, anthropologists and archaeologists have a leaning towards explanations that favour whole civilisations, while cultural studies academics seem to have preferences towards communications, especially text, flavoured with structural inequality.

So what?

The specialisation discussed above promised two improvements; in narrowing the focus research would deepen while the reintegration of research outcomes would expand understanding. To best grasp the benefits of the culture concept means that the ongoing developments from these specialist domains must be brought together in a way that makes sense to all of them. That’s difficult, not least because attempts to do so have been only marginally successful. That said, there are dynamics which many disciplines concede are essential parts of the story:

For culture to have an effect on action there has to be a bodily link. Bodily here is not just in the mind, although this is often emphasised, but includes dispositions that are beyond the realm of the brain

For ideas and practices to be exchanged between humans, culture is social after all, there has to be some form of external mechanism to ‘carry’ the exchanges – these can be found in the many systems of communication available; from conversations to mass media and other institutions

There must also be forms of sensory engagement with these external mechanisms as well as processes of adoption through practices such as learning, socialisation, and enculturation

How does this background help?

When it comes to working with culture in and around organisations there are a plethora of approaches promoted as ‘best.’ In deciding which of these, if any, to employ, it is useful to understand their origins and how these fit with the specific issue your organisation is working with.

We suggest that all the dynamics mentioned above are necessary to some degree. A broad perspective helps illuminate the pernicious effects culture can have in every area of the organisation. For example, we have helped uncover cultural influences that were previously hidden in:

  • Strategy
  • Risk
  • Decision-making
  • Leadership and management
  • Process and routines
  • Teamwork
  • Identity

In short, culture infuses every area of work-life. In the absence of understanding how culture pervades organisations, they are operating with diminished vision thereby risking sub-optimal decision-making. Whilst it might be impossible to entirely step outside of the effects of culture, an ongoing effort to understand how culture permeates activities at work will lead to better outcomes for all.


1. As Margaret Archer puts it, “sociological specialisation means that researchers are only interested in one domain of agential practice, be it employment, the family, education, religion, health and so forth. Such can never be the case of agents themselves.”

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash