The word 'culture' has come to carry a lot of baggage. In his seminal work, Culture and Society, first published in 1958, philosopher Raymond Williams described how the word's metamorphosis began towards the mid-19th century. Up to then it simply implied 'the tending of natural growth'. This was a time when many words, common in our vocabulary, acquired new connotations as a result of the consequences of the industrial revolution and subsequent changes in economic, political and social awareness - words such as industry, democracy, class and art. The complexity of our world has steadily increased and global economic competitiveness and technological change has stretched vocabularies considerably.
Culture is now a buzz word, beloved of chairmen and frequently used by them in company reports and speeches. These buzz words tend to come and go. One remembers years ago the ubiquity of the word 'environment' or 'social concern' in company literature. The contemplation of this culture thing bids to be more enduring. Sometimes, one suspects, it is used like 'truth'. Pilate, said Bacon, asked what it was 'and did not stay for an answer'. Well, in Cultivate Your Culture (p38), Gerard Egan has popped the question about culture and stayed with it.
Most simply it might be defined, within companies and institutions as'the way we do things here'. Too often this is delivered as 'that's the way we do things here', a variation that makes the phrase menacing, a kind of 'end of discussion' warning to newcomers who feel something might be done differently.
Nowadays, doing things differently and doing that constantly is a philosophy that some practise but to which many more pay only homage. At first sight it seems like strength through turmoil but change (don't we know?), can be managed. Egan's point is that those who genuflect but do not act need to face the fact that a culture which just happens and is unexamined inhibits success or, in the worst cases, ultimately proves lethal; whereas a culture that is 'preferred' (ie, planned with strategy in mind) leads to progress and profit.
This is a form of re-engineering that can alter the face of a company and its chances of survival: the difference between past and future. In a world where benchmarking has become a kind of theology, who can afford to stay where they are? Self-satisfaction has gone for good. A degree of guile may be necessary to start the process off and stamina will certainly be needed to keep it going. Egan refers to some formidable practitioners who have succeeded.
A first step for those who feel a vague sense of discomfort when thinking about culture might be to find out what the perception of the company and its culture is from the inside, from the labourers within the vineyard. This daring, almost certainly chastening ploy is more than likely to turn that vague sense of discomfort into the realisation of a need for positive, possible crusading action.
Once change is in motion it should produce its own unstoppable momentum, a proviso being that everyone is kept informed about the objectives and also the method. To leave the last word to Raymond Williams: 'The human crisis is always one of understanding: what we genuinely understand we can do.'