In my experience, phenomena that seem simple at first glance are often the most complex. Organizational culture is a prime example. We can feel it, we can see aspects of it, and yet most of us are hard pressed to define it. Edgar Schein (2010) defined organizational culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration….[and is]….taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel…” (p. 18). In lay terms, organizational culture is shared by all members and is what makes the organization tick.
People often use the terms culture and climate interchangeably. Organizational climate, however, is actually just one component of the larger organizational culture (Schein, 2010). Everyone is part of the organizational culture – it is omnipresent and endures even after people leave. Climate captures how an organization feels to its members – it is more easily changeable and perceptions of it often differ among people. Climate looks at who feels accepted? Valued? Safe? Organizational climate is often the canary in the mineshaft – an unhealthy or negative climate can be an early warning sign of problems within the larger organizational culture. If there truly is a problem with the culture of the organization, such as tolerance of harassment and discrimination, then addressing it on a climate level will not lead to lasting change.
The recent public discourse on sexual assault and harassment within entertainment, journalism, and government points to a problem with organizational cultures, not just climates. Certainly, any organization can have members who create hostile climates. When those problems persist year after year, despite changes in personnel and locations, the problem is with the underlying culture. This article about the workplace culture in Congress explains how sexual harassment is embedded in and perpetuated through organizational culture. Artifacts (such as policies that require mediation) and espoused values (such as the importance of catering to high powered “stars”) reflect basic assumptions that women are sexual objects primarily for men’s pleasure. Changing the artifacts, such as requiring sexual harassment training, will not be effective if the basic assumptions are not addressed.
Higher education cultures operate similarly. The graphic below illustrates how campus cultures can either permit and promote sexual violence or support respect and consent. Artifacts, values, and basic assumptions are located within each level of this model. It is critical to work through all three in order to change the overall culture.
Schein, E. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership (4th ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Organizational learning is a process that involves intentional efforts at all levels of the organization. Every person has to buy in – not just to the concept but also to the implementation. Organizations must have infrastructure and processes to facilitate (and reward) learning. In today’s digital world, many organizations are using online, social media based knowledge management platforms for that purpose. A quick online search shows an exhausting number and types of platforms; this does not include any homegrown initiatives that might be used.
Despite the prevalence of knowledge management platforms, questions remain as to whether they are truly helpful or another business fad. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Charlene Li (2015) wrote about the problems caused when there is a disconnect between leadership and employees around use of knowledge management platforms. She gave examples of management teams that would institute a specific platform, expect the employees to use it, and yet none of the managers would participate. In giving several examples of companies that had very successful knowledge management platforms, Li noted that the commonality was that the highest levels of management were active participants.
Online knowledge management platforms also offer the added benefit of tracking how learning spreads throughout the organization. Who is posting about what? Are people crossing department/group channels, or staying within one sphere? Are certain people always the ones responding to requests for help? How do the online patterns match up with the in-person interaction patterns?
I am very interested in this view of knowledge management because I see many ways the information could benefit leaders. The information can create a picture of how knowledge and information flows through the organization. It can help leaders understand when and how knowledge transfer turns into learning. Mapping organizational learning in this way can provide invaluable information to feed back into the system, further reinforcing the learning culture.
When I was preparing to leave my last job, I faced an immense challenge. What was I going to leave behind to help the person taking over my position? I had been in that position for eight years; this was more than half the number of years the position had existed. No one else had served more than 2 years. We were a small organization with little positional overlap. My co-workers and I kept each other apprised of what we were doing, but there was not a structure in place to share ongoing information about how that work got done. How could I get 8 years worth of information and experience out of my head and into a format that would be helpful?
Learning more about Dixon’s (2000) models of knowledge transfer gave me a new perspective on that dilemma. She reviewed five types of knowledge transfer that covered both tacit and explicit knowledge, routine and non-routine tasks, as well as similar and dissimilar contexts. The over-arching theme among all models was that organizations need to have an ongoing structure in place for knowledge sharing and a culture that values the learning that comes from knowledge sharing.
Both components (the structure and the culture) are key to maintaining a learning organization. Without some type of structure to guide information sharing, from ongoing review meetings to a Q&A listserv, knowledge cannot be shared in an efficient or effective way. Even organizations who truly value learning from others cannot hope to track or make good use of the information without a structure. The type of structure needed depends on the type of organization and the type of information. In the example I gave above, I worked for a very small organization. A complicated database of best practices would have been over the top. A regular process of debrief meetings that were written up in a shared drive, however, would have been extremely helpful.
Having a structure in place does not guarantee it will be effective. The organization has to have an underlying value of learning. After all, gathering, organizing, and transmitting knowledge is time consuming, no matter what the process. Employees will not want to engage in those processes if the results are not valued. Additionally, organizational leaders must embrace learning from mistakes and include that type of learning in the knowledge transfer as well. People often learn more from mistakes than when everything goes according to plan. Tracking mistakes, synthesizing learning from those mistakes, and communicating those lessons help ensure that future employees do not repeat those same mistakes. In my eight years at my previous job, I had made many mistakes. While I learned from each of them, without a mechanism to formally share that information within the organization, any new employees could not learn from them once I was gone.
While I did not know about creating knowledge sharing processes in time to help my previous organization, I plan to use the information in my future work. Whether I join an organization that is already committed to learning or whether I attempt to bring that information in, my understanding of knowledge transfer will benefit myself and my organization.
The terms “organizational learning” and “learning organization” are mirror terms – they are comprised of the same words that are ordered in reverse. Aside from making for interesting word play, the reciprocal relationship between the terms speaks to their underlying meanings. Organizational learning is a verb – the process of how organizations learn. Learning organization is a noun – an organization that learns.
Nancy Dixon (1999) points out that organizational learning has been conceptualized by multiple researchers in multiple ways. Some have very specific definitions and some have broad sketches. They all share, however, concepts related to agency, change, and growth. I resonate most strongly with Dixon’s discussion of organizational learning as the construction and reconstruction of meaning in a dynamic process. In this view, knowledge and information are separated from learning and individual learning is separated from organizational learning. Information only becomes useful when we integrate and make sense of it to form knowledge. When we take action on knowledge to adapt, grow, or change – then we are learning. Dixon also points out that individual learning is not the same as organizational learning, even when multiple individuals in an organization learn. Organizational learning requires a collective effort to share learning processes and outcomes in an integrated way.
The presence of learning does not necessarily lead to a learning organization. Learning organizations make intentional efforts to engage in learning activities. They have their eye on change. They value new knowledge, meaning making, and growth. They engage in the recursive process of learning, change, learning, and change.
In other words, they see themselves in both sides of the mirror.