tl;dr: “Culture” is mysterious and goopy, but valuable and important in decentralized organizations. By taxonomizing the systems of people who build it for a living, we can help communities be more intentional about building shared meaning together.
Culture is the secret sauce of organizations: the half that you can’t just fork. This is because how an organization performs depends just as much on the behaviors that are incentivized as those that people internalize. You’d think DAOs would have changed that. Mechanized trust could have eliminated the need for all the goopy stuff that makes traditional organizations so hard to build: norms, values, human trust, tacit knowledge. But are you really going to be surprised if it turns out that culture matters, that organizations, centralized or not, are more effective when their members feel aligned with others, connected to them, recognized and trusted by them, heard by them, when they are constantly in touch with how they fit into a bigger system that does something they care about? As DAOs get ever better at pinning down the formal dimension of accountability, this informal side will become an ever greater fraction of the mystery of decentralized organization design.
We’re Seth Frey and Taylor Ferrari. Seth is a Prof at UC Davis, trained in cognitive science and data science, and specializing in the study of online governance systems. He does that work mostly with large data sets and fun computational methods, but recently with goopier approaches like surveys and interviews. Taylor is a consulting researcher and strategist trained in anthropology and design. She specializes in qualitative data collection and strategy development across public and private organizations. We’re working with SCRF support to aggregate the concrete practices and processes that traditional organizations use to build strong cultures. In this project, we’re beginning from a faith claim that internalized values and behaviors matter for DAOs. It could be wrong. We may be attaching too much importance to culture. If so, we’ll all see. In the meantime, let’s take the challenge at face value.
Culture, for our purposes, is the set of values, mental models, and behaviors that are widely internalized by members of a group. Culture building is an organization getting itself to a point where many members have done that internalization. It matters because following rules you believe in gives you another consensual route to complex collective initiative.
Organization and mechanism designers currently have great tools for all the formal structure side of building an organization: review systems, accountability processes, supply chains, and so on. The tooling for culture building is, well: is there any tooling exclusively for culture building? With a better understanding of how groups get there, we can start to say what those tools might look like, and what they’d need to succeed.
It can be tough to root up the internalized dimensions of an organization, but the “secret sauce” metaphor might be holding us back, giving culture a little too much mystique for our own good. There’s a fair chance that it’s mysterious not because it’s hard, but just because it’s a lot of work.
What’s the work of culture building? If we could talk to dozens of experts, compare and group their insights, and translate them for decentralized organizations, could we get a concrete set of practices that anyone can follow? It’s not so far-fetched.
So that’s what we’re up to. We’re interviewing and studying on-the-ground culture building professionals who have taken a systematic approach across organizations, to distill the specific practices they use, and the purpose of those practices. We’re doing it by reviewing and taxonomizing dozens of books by professional organizational culture consultants, and with interviews of some of those same professionals. These include consultants for traditional hierarchical organizations, large and small, but also culture building professionals who specialize in the more value-heavy non-profit sector, who specialize in supporting collaborations and networks, and those who specialize specifically in non-hierarchical organizations. We’ll then aggregate, organize, and pass it around for use by people who run decentralized and non-hierarchical organizations: DAOs, volunteer-run organizations, collaborative networks, cooperatives, and collectives.
We’ll be sharing what we find as we go. If you have questions or comments, we’re all ears. Thanks for your interest!