If we talk about learning in organizations, many people will think of courses that are offered by the company’s training department. If we say e-learning, this is often associated with web based training modules. This is what we mostly refer to as “formal learning”. As we all probably (intrinsicly) know, there are more opportunities and places to learn than the formal classroom or web-based courses. What do you do when you are stuck with a problem at work? Do you call the training department for a course, or would you go ask a colleague, see if you can find info on the web? I guess we first go look for other people that can help us with our problem. Many of the tasks at work need some kind of learning to take place in order to get it done. We share our knowledge and expertise every day through conversations of any kind. We are being knowledge productive. We use knowledge to do our work better. And it is clear that this knowledge does not only come from formal courses, but a lot comes from the informal connections and conversations with from within and beyond the borders of your organization.
For some of you, who are in the learning business, this story is probably familiar. But yet, lots of organization still organize their learning through some kind of separate department. These are often called training departments, or corporate academy’s where people are are deciding what courses are needed for that organization. In this culture, managers often go to this department and ask for a training as a solution for their business issues. Willingly, training staff provides a training that seemingly fits the need and all are happy. Charles Jennings has referred to this phenomenon as “the conspiracy of convenience“.
But I can see times are changing! More and more, training departments are changing towards “learning and development” and starting to look at informal or social learning solutions. People from these L&D departments are exploring the possibilities of web 2.0. They want to have social networks, blogs, wiki’s and other tools alike.
The risk of all of this is that sometimes, focus is too much on the tools instead of the process. Also, there is a tendency to view the social as “good” and formal as “bad”. Etienne Wenger has pointed out the importance of thinking about learning strategically. Learning needs to be connected with the strategic goals of an organization. It needs to contribute to whatever it is the organization wants to reach. That is why I think it is important to view learning in organizations from a more holistic, systemic point of view. This tells us that informal as well as formal learning solutions can have a place as long as they are aligned with the business. Moreover, in order to be successful, the horizontal processes that take place within informal learning needs to get connected with vertical processes within an organization.
The concept of Culture can help us looking at learning in organizations more holistically. There are various literature available on culture and culture in organizations. One of the clients I work with is IDEAS4, a management consultancy firm specialized in culture. They have (re)directed my attention again to this field and pointed me to studies from Hofstede and Schein. Geert Hofstede describes “the shared meaning of daily praxis” as the core of an organization’s culture (I’ve read the Dutch version, so this is freely translated). This description triggered me in several ways a) it is a shared meaning, so it is negotiated. And b) it is about the daily praxis. So, the core of organizational culture is about what we all think that we are doing here.
Schein needs a little more words: “Culture can be defined as (a) a pattern of basic assumptions, (b) invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, (c) as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, (d) that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore (e) is to be taught to new members as the (f) correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” Schein also adds up with the importance of leadership with strength and clarity of these basic assumptions. This again calls for the alignment of the horizontal with vertical in the organization if we want to go ahead.
Just recently, Bersin and associates came out with a full report on the importance of Learning culture for an organization. They have taken culture as a concept to describe that learning in organizations is more then just the course catalogue:
“Learning Culture is the collective set of organizational values, conventions, processes and practices that influence and encourage both individuals and the collective organization to continuously increase knowledge, competence and performance.”
I think it is absolutely needed to approach learning in organizations from this holistic perspective. Especially when we want to leverage the use of social media for informal/ networked forms of learning. We can even think of the power that social media can have in changing an organization’s culture. A culture that emphasize the importance of sharing knowledge and making it productive. A cultural that learns from its failures instead of punishing people that make them. What can be other values that are important for such a learning culture?
If we want to move towards a learning culture, we need to involve the system as a whole. It is not only bottom-up or only top-down that will do the job, it requires full system participation. This includes a “systemic shared leadership”. Leadership and management that is able to let go and involve employees in their decisions. Employees taken shared responsibility over the issues they are working with and take actions together to solve them. instead of sitting back and wait for leadership to take action.