Culture: Complicated

A slipperier concept than culture there is not and yet, we definitely love to talk about it. Now I'm not suggesting that all this talk stop. There is nothing wrong with trying out different approaches to cultural change and seeing what works. However, I'm a bit of an academic and I don't mind a little esoteric pondering now and then. The following discussion is a summary of some ideas I cogitated on a couple of years ago when completing a minor research project for my Masters.

The objective of my contemplation was to come up with a model of cross-cultural influence which would assist in the planning of appropriate safety initiatives at Indigenous Australian community aerodromes. The subsequent project to actually introduce some initiatives hasn't (yet?) eventuated but the process was worthwhile in expanding my own understanding of culture.

Culture: Defined

When starting at the beginning, definitions are usually a good stepping off point but this can sometimes also be the first road block. I won't bore you with the play-by-play definition tug of war which has/is played out between anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists.

The really, really, really quick version would be to say that some people consider culture to be the observable behaviours of a group and others think of it more in terms of the shared cognitive processes that exist within the group.

I tend to lean toward the cognitive or ideational viewpoint but in my project I took the easy road. I argued that a strict definition is not necessary when you are working at the conceptual level for the purposes of developing an operational model.

Since a model is a simplified representation of some real world concept, it need not adhere to the strictest of definitions. As long as it works within the recognised limitations of the model.

Culture: Levels

Cross-cultural studies look at the interaction between different cultures. Typically, we think of different cultures at the same level. For example, Australian versus New Zealand (national) or Apple versus Microsoft (organisational/religious?). But life is rarely that simple and the interaction between the different levels, be they sub- or super-cultures is much more interesting.

The definitions of levels is, of course, another problem and again, I'm going to lean on the argument of conceptual modelling to simplify the situation.

The standard levels of culture in the management literature tend to break down to the groups one belongs to within their working life - team, branch, department, organisation, nation. However, depending on the situation under examination there may be other levels worthy of definition.

Within the Indigenous Australian aerodrome context of this project, I identified the "Australia-at-large" national culture, the Indigenous Australia sub-culture, the organisational culture of the aerodrome operator and the occupational culture of aerodrome staff.

Each of these cultures exists in the sense that they are identifiable in their own right. They impact on the individual to different degrees although not in a way that is fully independent of each other - some of the different levels influence each other.

Culture: Aspects

Safety culture. This word is probably the most used but most poorly defined word in the safety sphere at the moment. It is often used to express a positive and strong shared attitude toward safety - typically at the organisational level. I think this is a gross oversimplification.

However, if it fits your model and your needs, fill your boots.

Any "culture", i.e. a the shared cognitive characteristics of a group of people, can be viewed in a variety of terms. Service, quality, innovation, creativity etc. are all aspects of culture which can be examined separately according to the issue in question. They all exist at the same time with differing levels of strength or cohesion and in different directions (positive or negative).

With the pragmatic approach I've mentioned a couple of times above, I sought to avoid the argument too. Instead, I used the concept of safety climate. Climate was much easier to relate to the cognitive view of culture I cultivated earlier and fit within the model I was developing. I was able to make a strong connection between the concept of climate and perception, which puts climate well within the cognitive framework I was cultivating.

Culture: A Model

In developing my model, I relied heavily on the work of David Cray and Geoff Mallory in their book "making sense of managing culture". Their model was aimed the standard organisational management set and needed a little tweaking to fit my research issue. At its basic level, it looked like this:

I tweaked it however, to accentuate the cognitive aspect of the model. I established the cognitive process between a stimulus and the resulting behaviour and then set the culture entity above. See here:

There a two important things to remember with this model. Firstly, while culture is shown here as a separate entity, that is just for conceptual convenience. Culture, for me, is the shared aspects of the cognitive framework of the group. You can think of the culture box as "the group" which includes the individual.

The second thing is the simplification of the culture-individual relationship. I see it more as a feedback loop with culture presenting a stimulus to the individual, their cognitive processes directing a certain behaviour which feeds-back into the culture/group for its feedback in the form of new stimulus - and around and around we go!

As mentioned above, cultural influences are rarely as simple as the above. Below is the final model I prepared for the particular scenario I was looking at.

In this diagram, I included the safety perceptions component of the individual's cognitive processes to show where safety climate has an impact. I also showed what I considered the relative levels of influence of each culture on an Indigenous aerodrome staff member. The rationale behind these levels involved a couple of thousand words, from which I'll spare you.

Culture: Action

All these pretty pictures don't mean much unless they can guide some form of action. So what does this approach offer by way of insight?

I took from it, two main lessons.

1 - You can't influence all levels of culture. The "higher" levels of culture - national, indigenous - are beyond the influence of most mortals. It would be better to understand the nature of these cultures and their influence on the individual. Then it becomes a matter of managing expectations and focusing on outcomes rather than processes - especially for  cultures significantly alien to your own.

2 - While the organisational level is often the subject of most discussion, I think the occupational/profession level of culture has been under-utilised as a field of battle. Especially in areas where this level is underdeveloped such as for aerodrome staff.

Culture: More to be Said

But, I've rambled long enough today. Let's save some culture discussion for another day.