Categories
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.

Categories
d. The Acquisition of Knowledge

The Acquisition of Knowledge

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) remarked on our inability to find a satisfactory criterion for knowledge. I will, therefore, define it as information held in peoples’ minds, which may be considered true or false, and which includes our beliefs and attitudes. “Knowledge”, “beliefs” and “attitudes” are essentially different words used to describe mental information in different contexts. This information, in combination with our reasoning processes and our needs, determines our behaviour.

Nurture

The knowledge of an individual is acquired in two main ways: from observation of the world around us and by receipt from others. All children are born with inherited predispositions but no knowledge. If a child had to work out for itself how to survive in its environment, then it would frequently make mistakes and might come to an unhappy end. Parents and other members of a child’s community will therefore provide an initial education which gives the child a working understanding of its environment.

Our early schemata are established in this way. However, as explained in the previous blog, information provided by others may have been distorted by their “effort after meaning”, contain errors of reasoning, and may even be lies. We accept as true any information which does not contradict our existing schemata. Failing that, we would acquire no new knowledge. Much of the information that young children receive from others falls into that category. Once established, the early schemata of the child will be resistant to change. As Aristotle famously said, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man”. Change can occur, however, if sufficient contradictions accumulate. Thus, our schemata alter in fits and starts. There is a period of rapid change followed by a period of quiescence in which the schema is resistant to change. In cases involving a significant change of worldview, this can be accompanied by an emotional crisis similar to grief at the loss of a loved one. Such crises can last for several years while the young adult goes through the stages of denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. The importance of providing children with reliable knowledge cannot be understated, therefore.

Socialisation or Social Learning

Social rules are necessary if society is to co-operate successfully for the benefit of its members. If we follow them then we will function successfully in our society, contribute to its success and, thus, prosper personally. Again, it is difficult for the child to work out these social rules for itself and, thus, parents and other teachers will provide an initial working education based on the culture of the society, i.e., its norms, values, beliefs and symbols.

During the 1950s psychologists developed the theory that we now know as Social Learning Theory. In summary, this theory states that some beliefs and strategies are formed in the following way:

  1. Identification with role models. Role models are usually parents, teachers, peers or people like oneself, and people seen as having advantages such as popularity, wealth, or fame.
  2. This identification leads to imitation behaviour and/or learning through observation. In the latter, behaviours may not necessarily be imitated immediately but may simply be remembered as strategies which can be used in later life. Seeing that a strategy adopted by another person successfully satisfies their needs will provide what is known as vicarious reinforcement and will condition a strategy even when it is not being performed by the person learning it. For example, if a colleague at the office always works through their lunch break and ultimately receives a promotion, then you may unconsciously adopt the same strategy in your next job.
  3. Imitation behaviour is either positively or negatively reinforced by other members of society depending on their beliefs about what is acceptable or unacceptable. These beliefs about social behaviour are referred to as norms. It may, for example, be the norm in your office to work through the lunch break. Through conditioning, norms become internalised or accepted as one’s own, and can be held unconsciously. Thus, the strategies underlying behaviour become conditioned or extinguished through social reinforcement. Highly conditioned beliefs about social behaviour form the conscience, a set of beliefs governing behaviour which cause psychological distress when our behaviour is contrary to them. For example, a socialised person will feel guilty if he steals.

In my next post, I will return to schemata, paradigms, and memes and describe the features that they have in common.