Semiotics is something in which I’m becoming increasingly obsessed. The study of signs and signals to understand underlying culture and beliefs, it’s a method of interpreting the world around us at more than face value.

In my work over many years now I have regularly heard the words Culture and Behaviour used interchangeably, and the misinterpretation is really problematic when it comes to thinking about how one will make change happen in an organisation. And organisations often lack the sociological lenses that enable them to see clearly how things, people and behaviours are inter-related.

As a Sociology graduate, of course, I would say that. But let’s take a specific example.

Imagine if you will an organisation that has realised that it has become siloed, and that those barriers internally are significantly hampering the way in which it operates. I know a few.

A technological approach to this state will probably observe that there are systems that entrench these organisational silos, and that the solution is to amalgamate those systems into a common platform. Remove the technical barriers between operational units (say, for example with a big shiny new ERP or CRM system) and peace, harmony and collaboration will reign.

Except that’s not what happens. Ever.

At best the new system ends up replicating the silos of old. At worst it fails spectacularly.

Now let’s refocus. Let’s look at the problem of silos and acknowledge that the systems aren’t the problem, but merely a manifestation of the problem. Chopping away at them will be no more effective than when my kids take sticks to “get rid of the weeds” in the garden, whack the heads off, and then seem surprised when they just regrow a few days later.

To address the issue of silos we need to address the issues of how people aren’t talking to each other, are building up stereotypes of “others”, and start to get them to see the benefits of working across organisational lines. The systems reinforce the behaviours that we wish to change, but changing the systems alone won’t help. In fact, from experience, you can probably get more effective change to happen by the simple act of bringing the disparate groups together and getting them to talk to one another about what they do and how they do it. That’s at the core of the Rich Pictures work I’ve been doing with clients in the last year.

Why do we keep falling into these traps? Well, partly because the disciplines of practices like semiotics really haven’t been given great value in modern organisations, who tend to prefer maths-based disciplines as if numbers are the only form of valid evidence. But also the deeper work is far less tangible and predictable than something nice and concrete like a big ERP implementation. And so the tangible (if expensive) triumphs over the nebulous (but potentially must cheaper). And that goes back to the reliance on numbers.

One thought on “What if your systems are the result of your culture?

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