How to Create Learning Systems that Sustain Strong Organizational Cultures Diane M. Gayeski, Ph.D. is a partner in OmniCom Associates (407 Coddington Road Ithaca, NY 14850 (607) 272-7700; gayeski@omnicomassociates.com). Internationally recognized as a researcher, consultant, and speaker on organizational communication and learning systems, sheís led over 200 client projects involving the assessment and adoption of new technologies and policies for improving organizational performance through integrated information, collaboration, and learning systems. She also maintains an academic appointment as a professor in the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College.
 
 
Overview

Successful, expanding organizations often face the threat of losing the strong and unique cultures that made them attractive to their employees, investors, and their customers. This short guide highlights the importance of corporate culture, gives examples of organizations that are successfully striving to maintain their unique identities, and provides some tools to ensure that training and performance improvement professionals create learning systems that promote and sustain strong cultures.

 

Corporate Culture and Learning: How Are They Related?

Many of the most successful organizations today are thriving and growing because, in large part, of their unique and strong styles and values Ė their "corporate culture". Yet these same conditions pose a critical set of challenges: how can an enterprise expand, extend its boundaries to include and learn from new sets of customers, employees, and partners, and yet retain the essential cultural elements that have made it attractive and resilient? More than ever, successful organizations will need to develop learning and communication systems that will sustain the kind of strong cultures that make them distinctive and yet adaptive.

Because of the current popularity of notions like the "learning organization" and the current emphasis on continuous education of our workforce, many enterprises are asking the question, "How can we create a culture that promotes learning?" I actually believe that the question needs to be turned around: "How can we create learning systems that promote our culture?". I say this for three reasons:

Organizational culture, then, is an important asset of an organization and one that needs to be nurtured. Since an organizationís culture is a set of learned patterns of behavior and belief, itís important to see how training and performance improvement professionals can design and manage their organizationsí learning and communication systems so that the culture continues to thrive, remain strong, but not stagnate.
 
 

How Does Culture Affect Performance?

Organizations that have strong and unique cultures generally experience excellent performance. Why?

So What Exactly Is Culture?

Almost every executive Iíve talked to in the past year or so has been concerned with maintaining or changing the culture of his or her organization. This metaphor of "culture" has been the key, they believe, to creating the kind of environment they need to move the organization in the direction they desire.

Applying the term culture to organizations is rather new; most people think of it as a characteristic of ethnic or national populations. However, a number of theorists have defined and applied it more specifically to organizations as:

How can you tell what an organizationís culture is like? Generally, researchers figure this out by extensively interviewing employees. The culture consists of things like: In many ways, culture is an organizationís "look and feel.", to borrow a term from the software industry. Today, when employees consider prospective employers, they look not only at salary, benefits, and location, but at the organizationís total work environment and philosophy. A large part of the culture is communication; it is not just what the organization communicates, but how it does so.

A common culture makes it easier to communicate. One of the ways in which many new quality initiatives within organizations strive to improve functionality is providing various departments with a common "language" or set of terms with which to share their ideas and request information.

Many aspects of an organization need to be examined and brought into consistency if a strong, identifiable culture is to be created. These include:

As work life becomes increasingly symbolic, and as reality is indeed being constructed within peopleís minds, the ability of trainers and performance consultants to shape an organization through communicating the right messages through the right channels has never been needed more.

How "Good" Communication and Training Can Impede Organizations

Chris Argyris, in a 1994 Harvard Business Review article, states that organizations will find it difficult to survive unless they get better work from their employees, and this "better work" means employees "whoíve learned to take active responsibility for their own behavior, develop and share first-rate information about their jobs, and make good use of genuine empowerment to shape lasting solutions to fundamental problems" (p. 77). He claims that many practices, considered "good" communication and training, actually impede learning by following the assumption that management is responsible for keeping employees happy and well-informed, and that employees have little responsibility for making changes themselves. Examples of this are when employees are given the opportunity to make suggestions or question management, and then executives are expected to be responsive and provide a rapid response to their complaints. Itís also commonly considered good practice for managers to share whatever information they have in a top-down or "cascade" approach. This often leads to information overload and also impedes more informal conversations among employee groups.

So weíve seen how whatís commonly viewed as supportive can impede growth. Some of the same statements can be made about traditional training practices.

In one of our assessment projects, we reviewed the training and communication practices and products of a large Canadian bank. We found that much of the training for their front-line employees was purchased from outside vendors, and that the style and content of many of these were not in alignment with the Bankís stated values and mission. Moreover, many of the training courses actually contradicted one another in basic, practical content. To top it all off, we found that tellers actually performed less well after attending training courses ó they were often overwhelmed by all the information and even "froze" on the job. The training courses here, as well as at a restaurant company and an insurance company where we conducted similar projects, were so detailed and long that many employees left their jobs during training ó before they had ever spent an hour on the job. It became clear that the training had left them with the impression that they would be unable to succeed at ever learning how to do these jobs, even though each of them was a relatively simple entry-level position.

Although many training courses purport to teach empowerment, teamwork, appreciation of diversity, and creativity, the very systems of training and common methods of developing and enforcing policies actually undermine these goals. We "send" people to training, whether or not they want to go, we imply that skills should be performed in one manner and that the "correct" way is taught in class rather than by co-workers, and we teach people to follow the letter of the law, rather than their own common sense and heart.

Too often, however, formal meetings and training courses actually impede this from happening; they take up precious time and they leave employees feeling that all they need to know has been covered in class. For example, it was found that shrinking the size of the cafeteria at Siemens Power Transmission and Distribution took away important time and space from informal learning opportunities. And why did they diminish the size of the cafeteria? To create several conference rooms for meetings and training!

 

 

Is Your Organizationís Culture Being Challenged?

Expanding organizations face a number of important challenges with regard to learning, communication, and identity. Here are some questions that may start an important series of conversations with your executive team.
 
 
 
Questions about Culture To Pose to Your Leadership Team
What would you say characterizes our culture?
Which of those elements are important to retaining our customers and employees?
Which of those elements may tend to impede performance?
How can we both maintain the values and styles that are the foundation of our identity and success and still develop a learning culture in which people and teams grow, and through which the organization learns, innovates, experiments and thrives? 
How can the potential pitfalls of distance and diversity and size best be overcome and turned into opportunities? 
What should be our learning priorities? 
What are the elements (policies and practices) regarding communication and learning that will promote a distinctive culture and excellence in performance? 
How do we learn and grow and continue to be us?

How Can We Develop New Approaches to Learning and Culture?

Organizations need to "re-wire" their approaches to communication, collaboration, information, and learning. Rather than looking to other organizations as models by using popular techniques such as "benchmarking", organizations instead should look inward. What are the values, history, rites and rituals, and support systems that make the enterprise unique and attractive? And how can those attributes be infused into the environment?

The first step in implementing a strategy to promote a strong culture and an effective communication and learning system is to assess the current status. We often use a version of this form when we are engaged by clients to perform a communication and learning system assessment.

 

Check off the statements that describe your organizationís situation.
 
Common Traits How this affects the organizationís performance
  Culture and training arenít currently part of the organizationís strategic plan or executive conversations  
  People complain of "information overload" because thereís so much news and training to communicate  
  We donít have a good way of identifying in-house expertise or "capturing" knowledge  
  People donít act like learning and teaching and enculturating new employees is part of everybodyís job   
  There are few organizational legends and stories that most people know and often use as examples to explain their decisions and experiences in work life  
  Training, technical publications, employee communications, information systems, and external communication do not work together regularly to focus &integrate core messages  
  Employees with a long tenure in the company are discouraged by the way it has changed  
  More and more policies and training are being generated to engineer the behavior thatís desired among employees  
  Our organization is losing good employees to the competition for reasons other than salary  
  We frequently use training and communication materials provided by outside vendors that may also be used by our competition  
  Most employees canít name a corporate "hero"  

Finally, hereís an action plan template that will guide a project than, in under a year, to "re-wire" your learning and communication system to help promote and preserve a strong culture.
 
Action Item Who will do it When
Conduct a short ethnographic study to uncover your organizationís "true" culture; compare that to the organizationís stated beliefs and values, and make a stab at reconciling any differences    
Write a one-page white paper identifying key performance gaps caused by having an unclear or weak corporate culture and by outmoded learning and communication systems    
Get input from and support of at least three internal colleagues - at least two of whom are in different departments    
Get endorsement of your ideas and coaching from at least three outside "experts"ócan be peers in other companies, books or briefings or outside audits by respected authors and researchers, etc.    
Influence at least one key executive to "buy into" exploring new approaches to learning and communication    
Form an inter-departmental study group or strategic planning committee    
Identify colleagues for key executives who are at their level in other organizations and who are also exploring new ideas regarding learning and communication    
Develop descriptors of the corporate culture, and of an "ideal" communication and learning infrastructure that would make that culture apparent to internal and external audiences    
Select a prototype project: design and develop it using "re-wired" philosophies and technologies; assess its impact     
Hold a conference, open house, celebration, or "learning day" to share your experiences    
Get approval and resources necessary to develop a set of materials that will guide communication and learning practices within the organization that will promote its culture    

 

 

 

References

Argyris, C. (1994, July-August). Good communication that blocks learning. Harvard Business Review 72 (4). 77-85.

Bormann, E.G., Howell, W.S., Nichols, R.G. & Shapiro, G.L. (1982) Interpersonal communication in the modern organization (2nd edition). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Burke, W.W. and Litwin, G. (1989). A causal model of organizational performance. in Pfeiffer, J.W. (ed). The 1989 annual: developing human resources. San Diego: University Associates.

Hall, E.T. (1959). The silent language. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Schein, W.H. (1985). Organizational culture and leadership: a dynamic view. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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