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j. Knowledge, Language and Organisational Culture

Knowledge, Language and Organisational Culture

Organisations, in the general sense, include individuals, clubs, nations, and what are referred to in anthropology as “cultures”.

We gain knowledge from both the natural and social environment. However, mistakes are possible, all organisations are capable of concealing information from others, and of supplying misinformation to them.

Culture comprises norms, values, knowledge or beliefs, and symbols. Thus, knowledge is part of an organisation’s culture. It is held in schemata which include not only an understanding of the environment and an operating schema, but also a schema for worldview or purpose, a social systems schema, an internal ethical schema, an external ethical schema, a self-image, and so on.

The American anthropologist, Roland B Dixon, in his 1928 book, “The Building of Cultures”, explained that the natural environment has greatest influence on formation of culture. The main factors are topography, climate, and the availability of raw materials and other resources, all of which vary from time to time and from place to place. Thus, our knowledge of these factors varies in the same way, and so too does the culture of which it is a part. Religion has a significant but lesser effect, and it too may be influenced by the natural environment.

This anthropological explanation is relevant for “cultures”, i.e., tribes and nations whose main external interactions are with their natural environment. For organisations and individuals within a “culture”, the environment must also include society.

There are two important points to note about knowledge and its influence on culture. Firstly, as knowledge of society is gained, this can alter both culture and social theory. Secondly, progress is not inevitable, shocks can occur, and knowledge can be lost. For example, the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages. Such losses can cause an organisation or society to revert to a culture and behaviours similar to those of earlier years.

Culture, in turn, is a part of what in a very general sense can be called “the mind” of an organisation. An individual’s mind is his brain. In larger organisations, it is the brains of its members linked via language. In both cases, however, the mind comprises schemata which, as Bartlett explained, are resistant to change. Existing knowledge effects the ability of both individuals and organisations to correctly absorb new knowledge. It also effects the relative priorities of their needs, what they regard as satisfiers, their motivators, their attitudes towards social interactions, and whether they behave in a co-operative, positively competitive, or negatively competitive manner.

Language and the individual mind are very closely interrelated. Vyvyan Evans, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University, Wales, UK, in his article at https://aeon.co/essays/the-evidence-is-in-there-is-no-language-instinct, explains that recent research has shown that language is processed everywhere in the brain. There is no distinct processing centre. He suggests, therefore, that language and our co-operative minds have co-evolved. This, in turn, suggests that they are reflections of one another. Language has evolved, and may still be evolving, to link minds into a single system, albeit rather unsatisfactorily at present. This provides a control system for organisations that is equivalent to the way in which an individual’s mind controls his body.

Evans describes a “Golden Triangle” comprising mind, language, and culture (of which knowledge is a part). This concept differs from the unidirectional Saphir-Whorf hypothesis that language influences the way that we think about reality. Rather, it includes the possibility that how we think about reality also influences our language.

The behaviour of an organisation, including communication, is directed by its multi-mind and language based control system, and this behaviour affects the environment. Thus, there is a feedback process in which:

  • the environment affects knowledge,
  • knowledge affects culture,
  • culture affects the multi-mind and language based control system,
  • the multi-mind and language based control system affects organisational behaviour, and
  • organisational behaviour affects the environment.

During this process, knowledge is continually updated and sometimes lost.

Anthropology reveals other ways in which cultural change can occur. Roland B Dixon, noted that ethnic migration can also result in cultural change, i.e., the introduction of those with a different culture, into an organisation or its environment. Whilst this has an anthropological basis, it can also be applied, more generally, to organisations of all sizes and might better be described as cultural, rather than ethnic, migration.

The concepts described in this article are summarised in the diagram below.

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