Why we ignore functional cultures?

In my last blog post, Functional Cultures, I summed up a long realization and long running discussion of functional cultures. There was more. There was this nagging question about how it is that software developers ignore functional cultures. Nagging questions just lay in wait for serendipity. There is more to the answer to this question than “Hey, cultures are so easy to ignore.” It probably takes more sociology, anthropology, or ethnography than I have under my belt. But, there it was a serendipitous aside in a math book of all places.

It’s been forever since I last took a math class. I dived into a review and some efforts to extend my mathematics capabilities. I started out wanting to be able to do differential games. These days I read several math books at once. Do some math. Jump to conclusions. Ask questions framed in mathematics. And, turn this stuff into tools that might be interesting to product strategists. This stuff is math simpler than the Black-Scholes options equation.

So here I am reading a BA math book. Yes, you can get a BA degree in mathematics. That would be a book “About” math. Not a book where you are bludgeoned within inches of your life by some calculations, computations, or symbolic manipulations that we engage in when “do” math. If you do enough math you get a BS degree in mathematics.

Notice the distinction I made about “about” and “do.” I typically express his as being “on” vs. “in” a culture. Poets might say “On love” vs. “In love.” The distinction is analogous.

We went through this a lot back in school. American history class taught us content without methodology. It taught us “about,” rather than how to “do” history, aka write a persuasive piece using historical methodologies and primary evidence on some narrow, but deeply defined historical conceptualization. We were “on” history, rather than “in” history.

History is just one subject we took. History is more than a subject. When you pursue any masters degree, you lean the who of your field, any field, not just history. Who you know, and who you know of will define your career. It likewise defines your Ph.D. thesis, and where you go to get that Ph.D. It determines what ideas you are exposed to, what conceptualizations. It defines your approach to the topic. But, all of these things are the result of your interactions with people, people in organizations, people that share meaning, ritual, purpose, and work—CULTURE, more specifically, a functional culture.

If you took more history than that required for graduation, American history class, you move from the surface into the depths. You traverse a geography, an organized collection of populations of ideas and people that looks like a Venn diagram gone mad. This geography has a map. It shows elevation. To get from “about” to the Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of War’s view of the Louisiana Purchase, you have to climb a mountain and look around, repel down the mountain, and take only your bibliography when you go. If you make that climb, you are never again the same. This even if you don’t like what you saw and vow to never bring it up again. Brain science will make you a liar.

So it is with every discipline be it mathematics, computer science, engineering, finance, data processing, optics, composition, or business. The doing changes, the conceptualizations changes, the lexicon changes. But, the sociological processes that led us to do it that way are universal. We learned to do it with our peer, who like us, traversed the same geography, and came to subscribe to the same norms of our functional culture.

A software developer can come from different functional cultures: engineering; mathematics; computer science, today a different subject and separate from mathematics; the b-school IT programmer; philosophy; HF/UX expert,  the hacker. They might program the same application, but at the level of code, methodology, priority and focus on given aspects that application will be very different.

Every unit within a corporation has a functional culture. Some of those functional cultures are given power. The functional culture with power provides the roots of the corporate culture. The business units share an education in business administration. They share a culture. That education serves as a set of protocols, an infrastructure, a carrier of the monetization(s).

The typical definition of corporate culture is “How we do things here.” But, here is a complicated thing. There are niches within a corporation. Every business unit, every functional unit is a “Here.” Put differently, there is a geography. That geography isolates populations, so a culture emerges. In functional units, the functional culture is established by the functional unit manager. The people they hire are qualified by their education where they entered the functional culture, and their work history where they expressed, refined and evolved their functional culture. The people are unique, but share a common pool of meaning. They are different from others in other functional units in the same corporation.

There is more to this “Here.” There is also a “When” that expresses itself as a cultural container. In academia, professors must change the topic of their research every eight years. They do this on a continuous basis. This leads them to teach their subject differently over time. They develop pedagogical approaches to their subject. Their students learn something that their peers do not. So graduates from a single department over the span of a decade are different. Over twenty year, they are even more different. Generations are similar, but functional unit staff spans these differences.

A good team has specialists that support the rest of the team. Every team member has a particular strength and set of interests. These differences and this structure keeps the functional unit fit to evolve as various technologies mature.

The ideas being taught are either continuous or discontinuous. The ideas divide populations into sub populations that subscribe to the idea or not, or to what degree. Just being aware moves the person within the cultural geography. Discontinuous ideas lead to discontinuities in populations. These population discontinuities involve long time-frame, sociological processes, technology (idea) adoption. These discontinuities are paradigmatic.

The way an idea is taught, the pedagogy,  has similar effects.

The communications across a paradigmatic gap is complicated. Shared vocabulary and shared meaning is clipped.

Requirements elicited from a functional unit is complicated by the cultural geography of the functional unit. Requirements elicitation prioritizes the paradigmatic subcultures. Some meaning is captured. Some meaning is omitted. This happens withing the functional unit itself before the wider tradeoffs made by executive sponsors. The functional unit manager decides who will be elicited from, which paradigms are installed, and which paradigms will work at a disadvantage given meaning loss that requires adjustment.

Just a few examples of meaning differences, cultural divides:

  • Traditional cost accountings vs. activity-based cost accounting vs. throughput accounting
  • Capital as defined by accountants (cash) vs. capital defined by international economic development economists (laws that improve the efficiency of cash)
  • Demos as defined by marketers (demographics), and multimedia producers (example functionality)

So the book was How Math Explains the World by James D. Stein. In this book, the author says

Part of the reason for the success of mathematics is that a mathematician generally knows what other mathematicians are talking about, which is not something you can say about any other field. If you ask mathematicians to define a term such as group, you are going to get virtually identical definitions from all of them, but if you ask psychologists to define love,…

You get the picture. Mathematics is young. It has, however, grown to the point where it is no longer possible for a mathematician to know all of mathematics, so like psychologists, mathematicians will lose the coherence of their definitions. Their functional culture will broaden into a collection of sub cultures.

Mathematics amazes me. Many issues in how we teach Calculus, for example, were resolved less than 50 years prior to when I was taught Calculus. I’m not that old.

So why is that we BS grads ignore functional cultures? I’ll accept the notion that the coherence of our definitions at the core of our disciplines leads us to believe that everyone else is like us. Some of use even code as if our users are just like us. We believe in the math of populations. We happily aggregate dissimilar people. We have numbers, blunt numbers, a brute force attack.

We think that all things are functions. In the years to come, maybe we will be equally at home and fluid with the notions of all things being manifolds globally, and functions locally.

Later Stein mentions the word “Duck!” and reminds us that it has one meaning as a noun, a water fowl, and another as a verb, get out of the way.

Again, local-global, function-manifold, and sub populations.

So here you are having been exposed to this idea of functional cultures and the need for meaning fitness. I’ve pushed you into a subculture. Lets evangelize these ideas. Lets make more money because we finally quit ignoring functional cultures and paradigmatic subcultures. Lets eliminate the need for users to spend time compensating for meaning loss.

Comments please!





One Response to “Why we ignore functional cultures?”

  1. Choice Cultures | Product Strategist Says:

    […] Why we ignore functional cultures? […]

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