February 25, 2009

Skin carries – and reveals – the memory of the body’s interaction with the world, whether it is as an interface with the environment (the effects of being out in all kinds of weather, excessive suntanning, scars from injuries and burns) or as a manifestation of what the body has consumed over time (drug and alcohol abuse, diet, poisoning). We can look into a person’s face, and read aspects of their history, and this becomes easier and easier as they move into middle and advanced age.

The skin is not alone in this. Other parts of the body have different ways of remembering (and reminding), whether it is old injuries to tissue that become cancerous, injuries to joints that become arthritic, or toxins and chemicals stored in fat that when released with the burning of the fat can revive echoes of hallucinogenic experiences years before.

But skin is interesting because it is revelatory. Where the inner body is cryptic, the skin reveals as well as conceals, both things about itself and things about the body it clothes.

In this respect the parallels between skin and organisational culture become intriguing. Culture, like skin, stores memories of its history, and is affected by both inner and outward influences. Like skin, culture has a visible and revelatory aspect as well as a concealing one.

It doesn’t take long to get a feel for the culture of an organisation one has joined, just as it doesn’t take long for an experienced observer to read a face, a neck, hands. Like skin, culture carries baggage from the past, some of which is traumatic and creates scar-like pattern-behaviours, some of which comprises slow accretions of damage over time which weather the culture out of its early resilience and attractive glow. Culture, like skin, reflects very quickly the presence of strong toxins in the body corporate. And culture like skin, is slow and subtle.

Learning how to read the memory of skin over long periods of time and to trace causal linkages between early mistreatment and later consequence, creates a technical ability to read the destiny of skin from current patterns of lifestyle and behaviour. I mean destiny in a teleological sense, not absolutely determined, where particular identifiable outcomes are driven, influenced or made more likely by current behaviours.

And learning how to read the future of skin from present, repeated conditions, allows us to move from a simplistic, reactive and curative approach to the ailments of the skin (after much of the damage is already deeply embedded in memory), towards an early, educational, preventive and healing approach. From a “low” knowledge to a “high” knowledge. Understanding our memories allows us to understand our future, and gives us a capacity to influence our destinies. Sunscreen, parasols, moisturizer, indoor work, dietary changes, all gain new affordances and powers in our eyes.

So if culture clothes the body corporate as skin clothes the corporeal body, and if culture carries its own memory of injury as skin does, to reveal it slowly long years after the fact, can we also gain useful insight about the destiny of a culture from the analogy with skin? Can we learn to be more deliberate and effective in influencing a culture’s future health?

The analogy of skin does, to me, raise interesting questions about changes we might make to how we address organisational culture and change. Our higher knowledge about skin stresses lifestyle, deeply embedded and repeated patterns of behaviour, a diachronic view over many years – essentially recognizing the subtlety and slowness of skin. Yes, there is still the low knowledge of skin to address those sufferers for whom it is already too late, cosmetic surgery, cosmetics, or the market in palliatives and cures.

Our view of organisational culture, and our treatments, are still primitive, as primitive as we used to be about skin. The way we typically address culture is to take synchronic readings or snapshots, of states and desired states, and map engineering-type interventions to “fix” the identified gaps and problems – essentially the same as the crude, reactive, low knowledge approach to skin. And as in the “low” reactive treatment of skin, it’s hard to tell the boundaries between genuinely helpful treatments, mere slowing of inevitable decline, cosmetic cover-ups, or magic potions that have no effect? And as in the low knowledge of skin, we continue to inflict the slower injuries and poisons, or through ignorance, fail to halt them.

What would a recognition of the slowness and subtlety of culture give us? What would we be able to discover about the workings (and the possible futures) of culture if we took longitudinal views of how culture evolves and responds over time? Would we be able to give advice about specific lifestyle and behavioural changes for greater long term cultural health? How would we take such longitudinal views? I am sure that instruments such as Sensemaker can help to play a role, but what non-intrusive processes could we put in place to allow such instruments to do their work? And does anyone actually care about the destiny of a culture beyond the current financial year?

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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