In a senior administration meeting, a colleague recently asked: “What kind of culture do we want in the institution?”
That got me thinking about the fairly substantial intersection between my academic work and my administrative duties. The short answer to my colleague’s question is that we don’t get the culture we want. We get the culture that has evolved over time. Our ability to change that culture is substantial, but our ability to engineer it is almost nil. The difference between changing and engineering, here, is intention. Yes, we can change the culture. We change it every day in a multitude of ways by our every word and action, whether we like it or not. But we can’t intentionally shape it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In fact, we have to. It is the ethical thing to do.
Culture is an evolutionary system. The social networks in which it evolves are complex systems. The humans who host culture are intentional agents. Because social networks are complex, and because even in the smallest social networks we are aware of only a tiny part of the whole at any one time, the intended consequences of our intentional behaviour are few, localized and short-lived, while its unintended consequences are many, global, and ripple on through time ever after we’re gone. Making intentional change in one area has unintended consequences in other areas. A few unintended consequences will be predictable and our decisions and actions should take them into account. But the vast bulk of unintended consequences (potentially an infinite set) are unknowable before they are observed, and I would argue most will never be consciously observed because we will not connect then to our intentional actions.
Because culture evolves, what traits prosper and multiply depends on the current environment or cultural ecosystem. We can’t predict in advance which practices, ideas, or inclinations will be fit in a particular cultural ecosystem. I would go further and say that the variants that we can intentionally supply to a cultural ecosystem are limited in two ways by its current structure. When we want to change culture, we can imagine a limited set of variants as alternative to the culture’s current state, and the introduction of a limited set of variants can be tolerated by the current state. Because of the way a cultural system is currently configured, some changes are very unlikely to take hold, even if backed by very intentional behaviour. On the other hand, some changes are very likely to take place despite intentional measures against them.
Some might conclude from this that trying to change the status quo is useless at best, and at worst a very dangerous exercise. If we can’t predict how our intentional advocacy for culture change will actually change things, if the only thing we know is that the many and long-lasting unintended consequences of our advocacy will eventually outweigh its few, short-lived intended consequences, and if we have a limited ability to even imagine how our culture might be different, why try to change things at all?
The above premises lead me to a different conclusion. Since culture is an evolutionary system, it will change with or without us. The only reasonable thing, is to do what we think is right, to say what we think will help, and argue what we think is good. Doing nothing intentional ensures that we will only have unintended consequences on our environment. Intentionality is an important trait of humans and is at the core of the success of our reliance on culture as an adaptive tool. But as administrators, we get to realize just how divorced our intentions are from the outcomes of our actions and decisions. Intentions matter because they drive our behaviour and our behaviour contributes to change and to adaptation of the overall system. However, our intentions don’t matter in relation to the outcome of our actions. Once we realize that, we are free to act as our conscience dictates and free to advocate for what we think is good.