If one is to consult in and around “culture” , it seems one should be able to define it. 5 years ago, when I had just started my masters degree at UT , I wrote a short paper on why culture is like an elephant. I think the analogy still holds true.
In many ways, culture is like an elephant. Every individual experiences culture in her own way much like the ancient parable describing the way blind men experienced an elephant. Culture is also significantly larger than any individual. To further the analogy, culture is almost impossible to push. Culture, like an elephant, is difficult to describe to a person who had never seen one. Unlike an elephant, even after careful study, culture defies a static definition.
In the parable, several blind men were asked to determine what an elephant was like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. Each had his own definition: a pillar, a rope, a wall, and a fan. All were correct, but none had the whole story. Each individual brings to the cultures with which they interact their own experiences and perspectives. While they may gain insight to the whole experience they are still limited by individual perceptions. Like Truth, there is always more to learn about culture.
Another way culture is like an elephant is its size. Even a “small” organizational culture encompasses many facets. There are so many different parts to an organization or society’s culture that a single definition of “culture” has yet to emerge. Perhaps the analogy of the elephant is too small.
In business, it is often said “you can’t push an elephant”. Culture is this way. Rarely can an individual “create” a culture. It has to be lead. In the reading, Hatch spoke of power and politics, both of which seem to exist when beings interact. These two elements work to lead culture. Culture creates itself and is shaped through the lens of each of the interacting individuals, including those who rebel against it. While an individual may represent to some the shared values and appear to be a leader, that individual is really only a symbol of the collective.
So how is culture not like an elephant? In many ways, culture is fluid and is truly different from moment to moment. It is actually different due to each of the individuals that interact. Even cultures with the strictest of rules, boundaries and traditions are constantly changing. For example,, my perception of culture changes with everything I read or watch, the people I meet and the places I go. My perceptions again with contemplating and writing about culture. For me, these perceptions are my reality, therefore culture actually changes for me.
Culture may be experienced by individuals in many very different and varied ways, like the blind men and the elephant. Culture is rarely pushed and is really only lead in a direction it chooses to go. Unlike an elephant, culture truly is dynamic. Each individual is the sum of all of the various cultures with which they interact.
So it follows, the culture of any organization is defined by the observer. While some members may see a magnificent beast with grand tusks, majestic wing-like ears, and a super cool trunk (we all kinda want one of these- at least to try…) another member may see the whole of the rear end and be mired in the poop.
So I’m going to bring in a new concept… Organizational Health. See, If these 3 blind men had been in a healthy organization- some one likely would have been popped on, once, and they would have learned the way around the beast and it wouldn’t happen again. Every situation, person, place, or culture has different pieces and they aren’t all al pleasurable. The elephant is going to poop, that’s not the problem- it’s the nature of the beast. In a healthy organization, this is know, acknowledged and dealt with.