My wife and I are vacationing on Prince Edward Island in Eastern Canada, visiting with some great friends. For those of you that don’t know PEI, it is the smallest of Canadian provinces with a population somewhere around 140,000 for the entire province. As with many smaller places or even smaller companies, there is a really strong culture here.
In PEI, culture manifests strongly in the form of folk music. As you drive around the countryside there are plenty of signs advertising an upcoming Ceilidh, a formal version of a musical kitchen party. Earlier this week, we went to a show to see the master of them all Lennie Gallant, who one person we met called the “Jewel of PEI”.
Lennie is a very accomplished musician, and perhaps an even more accomplished story teller. His family has been on PEI almost from the beginning of colonization by Europeans. He comes from an Acadian background, which means that he is of the minority French population making his culture even a smaller base. He is proud of his roots, proud of his connection to PEI and proud of his relationship with the local First Nations people, the Mi’kmaq. Each of his songs was deeply rooted in a facet of island life or a significant historical or cultural event.
As I sat watching and listening to Lennie the importance of folk music, or perhaps more accurately folk lore, to a culture was very obvious to me. While the show may have had importance from a tourism perspective the majority of the people that were there were islanders, and another slice were “people from away” who were invited by their local hosts. It showed just how much the locals value their culture, wanting to share it and have it better understood.
So what’s the value of that strong attachment to the culture of a people or place? Here’s some things that came to mind for me:
- Capturing Knowledge and Culture – probably the most historical and perhaps functional element of folk lore is as a means of passing on answers to questions like “why …?”, “what …?”, “how …?” with respect to the unique aspects of the culture, such that the next generation of the population is properly educated and has a base of knowledge to add to. While we have more permanent and reliable means of doing so now with printed and electronic media, this more primal form of knowledge sharing brings with it an emotional appeal that makes it much more compelling to learn.
- Gathering and Connection– in order for folk lore to be an effective means of knowledge transmission, it is best done in “one to many” mode It needs a gathering of members to hear the stories. Often such gatherings are a part of a larger social or structural event such as a festival or a retreat where people get to spend time together forging or renewing bonds. Being a part of a common group results a stronger desire to make these connections.
- Defining Identity – such gatherings are about a common ancestry, common goal, common cause or other interpersonal symmetry. There is a pride in belonging to something and there will be some characteristic to that belonging which becomes an identity. That might be rooted in prosperity or in need. In power or in vulnerability. In history or in vision. It is almost always about our sameness and being part of something bigger.
I also put some thought into anything that we might want to watch out for in a culture that is strongly based on lore. For each of the above strengths, it seemed as though there might be an associated weakness that we should be aware of as follows:
- Risk of Loss of Access – when we have a culture that uses lore as its primary method of passing on “the way” we often find that there is a lack of a written record to accompany it, placing a culture at risk if it loses a large portion of its story tellers at once. Many First Nations are great story tellers, but most of that skill and knowledge rests in the elders and thus they risk losing the knowledge to know the ways of their culture.
- Ability to Scale – in smaller groups, gathering everyone together to share in the magic of what makes that group particularly unique is easier. As the group grows, one of two things has to happen to ensure that everyone gets to hear the lore both often enough and accurately enough. One would be a regimented method of gathering everyone together regularly using technology or large facilities to ensure everyone gets to hear the storytellers. The other is to ensure that the group is constantly mentoring new storytellers using old storytellers.
- Innate Bias – as we define our identity of who we are, we also define who we are not. There are a couple of risks I see with this. The first is that we start to resolve relationships with a sense of who is like us and who is not, which in its extreme form may lead to xenophobia. The second might be that a degree of myopia forms as we gather to discuss “our way” and start to assume that it is the better way.
On balance, my belief is that the scale leans well to the side of cultivating lore in a culture. The values of this approach are quite compelling, and if we are aware of the flip side of the coin a culture should be able to continue to promote itself in this manner, perhaps learning to augment it with other media.
The corollary to this in organizational culture is obvious. I’ve been a part of lore based cultures, and I’ve been a part of hierarchical cultures and my opinion is that the “yin and yang” described above is very applicable.
What is your organizational culture based on? Has it shifted as it has grown? What pluses and minuses have you seen?