When I was at Aerials last week there was a question from the audience (from Boris actually) to the panel referencing the idea of high and low context cultures, derived originally from Edward Halls's book Beyond Culture. We were discussing organisational culture and change, and Boris's question related to the differences that might need to be considered not just from the culture within an organisation, but that inherent to the society in which the organisation is operating. Briefly, the concept of high and low context cultures is used to describe broad cultural differences in societies. Quoting from this source (which is about the most succint definition I could find):
High context refers to societies or groups where people have close connections over a long period of time. Many aspects of cultural behavior are not made explicit because most members know what to do and what to think from years of interaction with each other. Your family is probably an example of a high context environment.
Low context refers to societies where people tend to have many connections but of shorter duration or for some specific reason. In these societies, cultural behavior and beliefs may need to be spelled out explicitly so that those coming into the cultural environment know how to behave.
So high context is all about contextual elements that help people understand the rules, less verbally explicit communication, more internalised understanding, more situational or relational knowledge, multiple cross-ties and intersections with others, more networked. Low context is rule oriented, little taken for granted, overt and explicit messages, task centred, highly organised time, interpersonal connections of a shorter duration.
The question related to the potential influence of societal cultures that are either largely high or low context (the Wikipedia entry has a list) on organisational culture and change, which is a really interesting thought. But as the definition that I quoted from states:
'While these terms are sometimes useful in describing some aspects of a culture, one can never say a culture is "high" or "low" because societies all contain both modes. "High" and "low" are therefore less relevant as a description of a whole people, and more useful to describe and understand particular situations and environments.'
And I think this is true as well in the context of organisational culture, and the context of our discussion at the event about how you change aspects of organisational culture. I'd talked in my presentation a lot about what autonomy, mastery and purpose might mean in relation to creating the kind of organisational culture that thrives in a digitally-empowered world.
Some of these elements feel more at home in a high context environment, some in low. The role of a strong purpose and vision in shaping implicit behaviours, expectations and reducing unnecessary process, for example, feels very high context. As does a personal acceptance of failure. More knowledge being external, public and accessible on the other hand, feels very low context. I'm not sure I have any answers about understanding how you might categorise or measure different aspects of organisational culture in this way, but I think there's something in that thought about how one situation might contain an 'inner high context core and an outer low context ring' for those who are less involved, and also in considering the influence of the societal culture in which the company is operating.