John Sumser: Peeling back the layers of culture

The word “culture” gets tossed around as if there was an agreed-upon definition held by everyone in the conversation. Not only isn’t that true, but much of our industry ignores the solid academic work done in this arena. The abominable failure rates for HR-technology implementations are due in part to our shallow ideas of what culture is and how things change in it.

In my investigations of biases in tech, I stumbled onto the idea of “Columbusing,” which is the act of discovering something that was already there, often for a long time, and thinking it’s novel simply because it’s new to you. It’s taken from the story of Christopher Columbus, who thought he “discovered” a vast continent, even though civilizations older than his native country were already there.

Columbusing is the categorical error many technology companies make when bringing their offerings to our shores, especially about organizational culture.

There is pretty significant intellectual work from academics like Peter Senge and Edgar Schein on the nature of organizational culture. But the science is young, and discoveries are easier when things are new.

Our organizations (and the people who inhabit them) are complex, dynamic systems. These systems don’t change in inherently rational or logical ways. I really like a way of thinking about this called “The Pace Layers View of Systemic Change,” one of Stewart Brand’s best ideas, published by MIT. It’s a fantastic framework for thinking about change and organizational learning.

The basic idea is that complex systems, like organizations, experience change at different rates in different areas. It’s useful to imagine these as layers of change. The framework is presented with the fastest-moving layer at the top and the slowest-moving layer at the bottom. Some parts respond quickly to the shock of change. Others move more slowly to preserve the status quo. The relationships between the layers allow the organization to adjust while maintaining continuity.

“Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient,” Brand wrote.

Here are the Pace layers applied to an organizational setting:

  1. Workforce Sentiment (Weather)
    This is the area most often described as “culture” in HR-tech products. It is composed of the workforce’s response to a combination of external influences and the deeper layers.
  2. The Work
    The stuff that people actually do in the organization changes based on trends, seasonality, contract, growth stage and other elements of value creation. The work is directly affected by the workforce “weather” above and the capital investment in infrastructure and resources below.
  3. Infrastructure
    This layer includes both financial and habitual investment. The solid infrastructure is the result of investments in equipment, facilities, software and other tools. Habitual investment boils down to “the way we do things,” which can be more entrenched than even the solid infrastructure.
  4. Administration and Governance
    Resource allocation and the processes for acquiring forgiveness and permission are the elements of this layer. You can’t have infrastructure without resource-prioritization decisions. This layer may also be known as “organizational politics.”
  5. Organizational Culture
    Culture begins as the set of relationships among members of the small founding group. You can often see the impact of the founders decades later. It’s a set of values and a way of seeing the world. It usually has a core definition of what is and isn’t actual work.
  6. Context (Region, Language, Industry, Ecosystem)
    The least likely to change element in organizational life is the context in which the organization came to be.

As we move into the next phases of intelligent tools, it’s important to set expectations reasonably. Great introduction and adoption strategies can be built by accounting for the differing rates of change that move our organizations.

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John Sumser
Emerging Intelligence columnist John Sumser is the principal analyst at HRExaminer. He researches the impact of data, analytics, AI and associated ethical issues on the workplace. John works with vendors and HR departments to identify problems, define solutions and clarify the narrative. He can be emailed at