The learning culture in organization

1. What Might a Learning Culture Look Like?

The ideas spelled out in this chapter have resulted from many conversa­tions with the late Donald Michael (1985, 1991) and with my colleagues Tom Malone (1987, 2004), Peter Senge (1990; Senge and others, 2008), and Otto Scharmer (2007) about the nature of organizations and work in the future. They have also been tested in many workshops where I have heard first hand from leaders in both the private and nonprofit sector how rapidly the world is evolving into new uncharted territory.

1.1. Proactivity

A learning culture must assume that the appropriate way for humans to behave in relationship to their environment is to be proactive problem solvers and learners. If the culture is built on fatalistic assumptions of pas­sive acceptance, learning will become more and more difficult as the rate of change in the environment increases.

Learning-oriented leadership must portray confidence that active prob­lem solving leads to learning and, thereby, set an appropriate example for other members of the organization. It will be more important to be commit­ted to the learning process than to any particular solution to a problem. In the face of greater complexity, the leader’s dependence on others to gener­ate solutions will increase, and we have overwhelming evidence that new solutions will be more likely to be adopted if the members of the organiza­tion have been involved in the learning process (Schein, 2009a,b).

1.2. Commitment to Learning to Learn

The learning culture must have in its DNA a “learning gene,” in the sense that members must hold the shared assumption that learning is a good thing worth investing in and that learning to learn is itself a skill to be mastered. “Learning” must include not only learning about changes in the external environment but also learning about internal relationships and how well the organization is adapted to the external changes. For example, one way of understanding the failure of DEC is to note that they were committed to continued technological innovation, but there was very little reflection or commitment to learning how their own organization was creating destruc­tive intergroup competition.

The key to learning is to get feedback and to take the time to reflect, analyze, and assimilate the implications of what the feedback has commu­nicated. Feedback is only useful if the learner has asked for it, so one of the key motivations of the learning leader must be to ask for help and accept it (Schein, 2009a). A further key to learning is the ability to generate new responses, to try new ways of doing things. This takes time, energy, and resources. A learning culture must therefore value reflection and experi­mentation, and must give its members the time and resources to do it.

1.3. Positive Assumptions About Human Nature (Theory Y)

Learning leaders must have faith in people and must believe that ultimately human nature is basically good and, in any case, malleable. The learning leader must believe that humans can and will learn if they are provided the resources and the necessary psychological safety. Learning implies some desire for survival and improvement. If leaders start with assumptions that people are basically lazy and passive, that people have no concern for orga­nizations or causes above and beyond themselves, they will inevitably cre­ate organizations that will become self-fulfilling prophecies. Such leaders will train their employees to be lazy, self-protective, and self-seeking, and then they will cite those characteristics as proof of their original assump­tion about human nature. The resulting control- oriented organizations may survive and even thrive in certain kinds of stable environments, but they are certain to fail as environments become more turbulent and as technological and global trends cause problem solving to become increas­ingly more complex.

Knowledge and skill are becoming more widely distributed, forcing leaders—whether they like it or not—to be more dependent on other people in their organizations. Under such circumstances, a cynical attitude toward human nature is bound to create, at best, bureaucratic rigidity, and at the worst extreme, counter-organizational subgroups.

1.4. Belief That the Environment Can Be Managed

A learning culture must contain in its DNA a gene that reflects the shared assumption that the environment is to some degree manageable. The learn­ing leader who assumes that organizations must symbiotically accept their niche will have more difficulty in learning as the environment becomes more turbulent. Adaptation to a slowly changing environment is also a viable learning process, but I am assuming that the way in which the world is changing will make that less and less possible. In other words, the more turbulent the environment, the more important it will be for leadership to argue for and show that some level of management of the environment is desirable and possible.

1.5. Commitment to Truth Through Pragmatism and Inquiry

A learning culture must contain the shared assumption that solutions to problems derive from a deep belief in inquiry and a pragmatic search for “truth.” The inquiry process itself must be flexible and reflect the nature of the environmental changes encountered. What must be avoided in the learning culture is the automatic assumption that wisdom and truth reside in any one source or method. This point is especially important in that in the macrocultural world even what is considered “scientific” varies considerably, so we cannot take some of the physical science models of science as being the only way to truth.

As the problems we encounter change, so too will our learning method have to change. For some purposes, we will have to rely heavily on “nor­mal science”; for other purposes, we will have to find truth in experienced practitioners because scientific proof will be impossible to obtain; for still other purposes, we will collectively have to experiment and live with errors until a better solution is found. Knowledge and skill will be found in many forms, and what I am calling a clinical research process—in which helpers and clients work things out together—will become more and more impor­tant because no one will be “expert” enough to provide an answer. In the learning organization, everyone will have to learn how to learn.

The toughest problem for learning leaders here is to come to terms with their own lack of expertise and wisdom. Once we are in a leadership position, our own needs and the expectations of others dictate that we should know the answer and be in control of the situation. Yet if we provide answers, we are creating a culture that will inevitably take a moralistic posi­tion in regard to reality and truth. The only way to build a learning culture that continues to learn is for leaders themselves to realize that there is much that they do not know and must teach others to accept that there is much that they do not know (Schein, 2009a). The learning task then becomes a shared responsibility.

I am often asked how to make someone more sensitive to culture. My short answer is “Travel more.” It is through giving ourselves more varied experiences in more different kinds of cultures that we learn about cultural variation and develop cultural humility. The learning leader should make it a point to spend a lot of time outside his or her organization and travel to as many other cultures as is practical.

1.6. Positive Orientation Toward the Future

The optimal time orientation for learning appears to be somewhere between the far future and the near future. We must think far enough ahead to be able to assess the systemic consequences of different courses of action, but we must also think in terms of the near future to assess whether or not our solutions are working. If the environment is becoming more turbulent, the assumption that the best orientation is to live in the past or to live in the present clearly seems dysfunctional.

1.7. Commitment to Full and Open Task-Relevant Communication

The learning culture must be built on the assumption that communication and information are central to organizational well-being and must there­fore create a multichannel communication system that allows everyone to connect to everyone else. This does not mean that all channels will be used or that any given channel will be used for all things. What it does mean is that anyone must be able to communicate with anyone else, and everyone must assume that telling the truth as best they can is positive and desirable.

This principle of “openness” does not mean that we suspend all the cultural rules pertaining to face and adopt a definition of openness as equivalent to the proverbial “letting it all hang out.” There is ample evi­dence that interpersonal openness can create severe problems across hier­archical boundaries and in multicultural settings. But we must become sensitive to task-relevant information and be as open as possible in sharing that. One of the important roles for learning leadership is to specify, in terms of any given task, what the minimum communication system must be and what kind of information is critical to effective problem solving and learning. More information is not necessarily a good thing because the more we know, the more questions we develop about what we don’t know. Full task-relevant information can be achieved only if the members of the group have learned to trust each other, and trust is basically built by the parties telling each other the truth as far as the rules of the social order will allow. One of the major challenges for learning leadership is how to establish trust in a network where people may not have face-to- face contact.

1.8. Commitment to Cultural Diversity

The more turbulent the environment, the more likely it is that the organization with the more diverse cultural resources will be better able to cope with unpredicted events. Therefore, the learning leader should stimulate diversity and promulgate the assumption that diversity is desir­able at the individual and subgroup levels. Such diversity will inevitably create subcultures, and those subcultures will eventually be a necessary resource for learning and innovation.

For diversity to be a resource, however, the subcultures or the individu­als in a multicultural task group must be connected and must value each other enough to learn something of each other’s culture and language. A central task for the learning leader, then, is to ensure good cross-cultural communication and understanding. Some ideas of how this can be accom­plished will be covered in the next chapter. Creating diversity does not mean letting diverse parts of the system run on their own without coor­dination. Laissez-faire leadership does not work because it is in the nature of subgroups and subcultures to protect their own interests. To optimize diversity therefore requires some higher- order coordination mechanisms and mutual cultural understanding.

1.9. Commitment to Systemic Thinking

As the world becomes more complex and interdependent, the ability to think systemically, to analyze fields of forces and understand their joint causal effects on each other, and to abandon simple linear causal logic in favor of complex mental models will become more critical to learning. The learning leader must believe that the world is intrinsically complex, non­linear, interconnected, and “overdetermined” in the sense that most things are multiply caused. This has come to be a central issue in the analysis of safety issues in high hazard industries and in health care.

1.10. Belief That Cultural Analysis Is a Valid Set of Lenses for Understanding and Improving the World

In a learning culture, leaders and members believe that analyzing and reflect­ing on their culture is a necessary part of the learning process. Cultural analysis reveals important mechanisms by which groups and organizations function in completing their tasks. Without cultural analysis, it is difficult to understand how groups are created, how they become organizations, and how they evolve throughout their existence.

2. Why These Dimensions?

Many other dimensions could be analyzed as being relevant to learn­ing. I have chosen to ignore those where the conclusion as to what would aid learning seemed unclear. For example, with respect to the dimension of individualism versus groupism, the best prescription for learning is to accept the notion that every system has both elements in it, and the learning culture will be the one that optimizes individual competition and collaborative teamwork, depending upon the task to be accomplished. A similar argument can be made around the dimen­sion of task versus relationship orientation. An optimal learning sys­tem would balance these as required by the task rather than opting for either extreme.

With respect to degree of hierarchy, autocracy, paternalism, and par­ticipation, it is again a matter of the task, the kind of learning required, and the particular circumstances. In the Alpha Power example, we saw that knowledge of environmental hazards and how to deal with them was initially learned in a very autocratic, top-down training program, but as experience in the field accumulated, the learning process shifted to local innovation, which was then circulated to the rest of the organization. Innovative solutions to environmental, health, and safety issues were cap­tured in videotapes and circulated throughout the organization. Monthly award lunches were held, at which successful teams met with senior man­agement and each other to share “how they did it” and to communicate solutions to other teams.

In the end, we have to recognize that even the concept of learning is heavily colored by cultural assumptions and that learning can mean very different things in different cultures and subcultures. The dimensions I listed previously reflect only my own cultural understanding and should therefore be taken only as a first approximation of what a learning culture should emphasize.

The role of learning-oriented leadership in a turbulent world, then, is to promote these kinds of assumptions. Leaders themselves must first hold such assumptions, become learners themselves, and then be able to recognize and systematically reward behavior based on those assumptions in others.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

2 thoughts on “The learning culture in organization

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