It is as you might guess from a Latin word Cultus, a noun meaning a lot of things: tilling, care, tending, training, education, high living, worship, reverence, veneration.

As far back as the time of Cicero its meaning has been associated with cultivation of the soul.  In the 17th century it focused on betterment or refinement of individuals usually through education and promotion of individuality and even waywardness to achieve expression of the authentic self.   In the 18th century it began to refer to large groups of people or societies with particular aspirations or ideals.  Culture is primarily understood now as a unique shared spirit among people that gives them identity.

This year’s winners of the Nobel Prize for physiology in medicine made discoveries that explain how the body’s cells communicate, illuminating our understanding of how nerves in the brain transmit signals, how the immune system attacks pathogens and how hormones, like insulin, get into the bloodstream.  It led to the commercial application of affordable insulin production.  I found it interesting that one of the winners, Randy Schekman emphasized the need  in his interview with NPR for funding research in what he called “basic knowledge”; knowledge not in service of practical application.   His point was that if they had been doing research for a specific (and thereby limiting) practical application they might never have made the discovery.    Schekman’s comment points to the risk of ignoring the 17th century concept of culture that promotes “wayward freedom” allowing the research to go where it will.

Do the practical ends sought in business impose limits on culture? Is there room for wayward freedom in work? What are the implications for innovation?

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Dan Clark

Dan Clark

Principal of Bowline Consulting, process designer/fixer, wireless telecom veteran, addicted pick up soccer player, fly fisher, backpacker, beer brewer, guitar player, choir singer, recovering bag piper

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