Born at the turn of the last century, trailblazing American anthropologist Leslie White was a founding professor of the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. He was also the author of a controversial theory about how culture works, sometimes referred to as “White’s Law”.
The theory says:
“Culture is an organisation of phenomena—material objects, bodily acts, ideas, and sentiments…Culture is a kind of behaviour. And behaviour whether of man, mule, plant, comet or molecule, may be treated as a manifestation of energy.“
Written in 1943, White’s paper Energy and the Evolution of Culture presents a remarkably fresh and timeless view. It treads a path from the broad theory, across the elements above, deconstructing each one.
Early in the article, White states “the degree of culture development varies directly as the amount of energy per capita per year harnessed and put to work.” Or put more simply, how much culture changes depends on the energy each person puts towards it.
Culture project within organisations often ignores the energy on hand. Leaping instead from today to the future, paying scant attention to where the energy to affect the shift will come from.
Existing will is largely exhausted on the necessary activity to maintain the current state. An organisation needs to keep operating. So failing to consider where the surplus energy will come from to propel the shift, doom it to failure before it starts.
The issue isn’t only one of internal culture, but also for any evolution the organisation seeks – with customers, partners, investors, any stakeholders. But for purposes here I’ll stick with the inside view.
In White’s view, one element is essential to the energy available. Technology. Keeping in mind this was the 1940s, so technology mainly equals tools and machines (E.g., an axe, locomotive, or book). If he were alive today, his theory would likely include the evolution of things we now see as technology such as computers.
White uses the example of a person chopping wood. The skill to chop and time taken being equal, a steel axe will cut more wood than one made of stone. A look at the ripples of social media across society provides ample proof that the point holds despite quirks of the era. Technology expands the impact of energy, which in turn shifts culture.
This point reveals a fundamental flaw in the people or skill-centric view we hold of culture, where changing people’s behaviour or choosing different people lead the way. Focusing on the people misses the truly transformative role technology plays. An average woodchopper with a steel axe will always chop more wood than someone better with a stone axe!
So, go back to our culture project and apply the idea of using better tools to unleash the energy available to propel change.
For example, a common goal of organisations is to improve the culture of communication. A lot of effort gets wasted admiring the problem, bemoaning ‘unproductive’ meetings, toxic practices that create fear of speaking up, and the poor example set by leaders. Effort that results in nothing helpful and the whole cycle repeats a few years later.
To harness people’s energy and ‘put it to work’ more efficiently, you need technology (remember by this we broadly mean tools), and there are two choices. Improve the technology you have, or replace it with better technology. Simply identifying people need to “be more productive in meetings”, “communicate more openly”, or “be less negative” won’t change the culture.
Asking people to change without considering the technology they can use is akin to telling a woodsman with a stone axe to chop harder. It’s a trade that doesn’t work.
If you already have a clicking culture but want to give it a boost, technology is also an excellent place to look. The question is the same. How can you improve the tools you have or replace them with better tools?
White’s Law is well-worth reading; however, if wading through a 20-page academic paper is not your idea of fun, apply this takeaway next time you’re thinking or talking about your organisation’s culture.
A brand emerges from identity and promises and is also a result of how people put their skills and time to work – the culture. And evolving the culture requires energy delivered by ‘technology’.
1. Energy and the Evolution of Culture American Anthropologist, Vol 45, 1943