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It’s a matter of culture

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Mon Feb 19 2007

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I'd like to follow up on my last post and also weigh in on the question of investment in formal training and informal learning. I tend to see the world through my own professional lens, which is that of culture. Although usually taken to be about the behavioral differences between people of different national, geographical, ethnic, religious origins, culture is everywhere and constitutes a property of all groups. This idea isn't new to the industrial world, since for the past 20 years or so we have talked about "corporate culture", which for many more decades has been pro-actively practiced by companies such as IBM (with its now abandoned dress code and "IBMer" identity) or HP, with the "HP Way". Jack Welch used a much softer and holistic approach at GE, where, as we now know, there was a strong emphasis on informal communication and bottom-up creativity, aiming at creating a learning culture.

Defining or imposing a culture and disseminating its principles aren't enough to make it effective. The key reason for this is organizational inertia. And consistent with it is the relatively short tenure of CEOs, whose promotion of culture is essential if we wish to maintain any hope for cultural change. Alas, though essential, it isn't enough, partly because the permanent management -- from divisional directors to line managers, the ones who have to deal with human performance -- see the CEOs as living in a stratosphere that has nothing to do with their lives and their professional objectives (i.e., in most cases, maintaining their jobs). Have any of you tried inviting a group of people in a "teaching situation" to be creative? Even though - depending on the group -- a few voices will inevitably speak up, it generally isn't creativity that's expressed but rather "competitive personality". And its effect is usually to silence the others (the same thing happens in discussion groups, by the way). Department heads live essentially in a world of competitive personality.

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I began working on the subject of professional culture when it became a mission critical issue in the 1980s as companies here in Europe began the revolutionary step of introducing the PC into their workspace. This was a major paradigm shift, especially concerning the distribution of power and the status of staff autonomy. It wasn't an easy ride, but it certainly was an interesting one, and possibly more important in terms of world culture and even geo-politics than the collapse of the Soviet Union. I did a lot of work with one company in the Thomson group where the CEO was on a mission of mondernization. Nobody knew at the time, but he was asked by Thomson's CEO to prepare this subsidiary of a state-owned company, which possessed a largely military culture and thrived on defense contracts, to be sold to a privately-owned Canadian competitor and to be more active in the civil sphere. My small training/consulting company was asked to prepare the entire staff on two fronts: intercultural (dealing commercially with other countries, including speaking the same language) and adoption of PCs (the machine, the keyboard, DOS, spreadsheets, databases, word processing, etc.). To my surprise, the biggest challenge was getting French males to use a keyboard!

This was an exciting mission and, knowing the CEO had clearly stated his goals, I began by interviewing the department heads whose staff was concerned by the "new culture". Imagine my disappointment to discover their attitude was unanimously blas and even dubitative. In the following months, we had some fun and achieved some significant but limited success, until the CEO resigned 18 months later and the great experiment was abandoned (and they never managed to sell off the company). In the meantime I had been co-opted to create a new department of engineering services around training technology (basically, interactive video) to be proposed to the company's clients, so I was no longer involved in the internal training challenge.

We all know now that the teething problems of introducing the PC lasted as long as teething problems tend to last and that, among other things, within three years French males started massively accepting the use of a keyboard. There is little doubt that this happened not because of a massive increase in training (which actually did take place), but because there was a deep cultural shift leading to a much more massive amount of informal exchange. Training helped, but it remained blissfully ignorant of the cultural reality around it. The question we can now ask is, "could it have happened more quickly, more efficiently and at less cost had training departments taken into account the informal?". The answer should be resoundingly "yes", but as Don Clark points out, there are no "objective statistics" to cite, so that a classic resource management approach is incapable of taking the issue on board.

How could informal learning have been encouraged? First of all, by concentrating the formal training less on the technical skills of the staff and more on the human skills of department heads. It could have included things like group dynamics and communication training, to say nothing of corporate culture itself (which I still don't see as a significant item in training course catalogues). Although this type of action is formal, it represents a direct investment in informal learning and could be added to the column of strategic investment rather than "just in time" fixes. They could have encouraged rather than neglected the potential of the expensive and hard to deploy groupware (Lotus Notes) they began investing in during the 90s. They could have looked at questions of corporate architecture (some did, by the way, but not necessarily with the conscious idea of stimulating informal professional exchange). They could have adopted an attitude of "visionary evolution" focused on the long term, taking into account human behavior; but of course the obsession with quarterly results still makes that difficult. Executives with long-term vision write books rather than struggling to impose their vision in the real corporate environment they work in.

As this is turning into an essay, I'll stop here, for reasons of inappropriate length. But I'm sure others will have many things to say to keep the discussion going and tease out the meaning of these issues, including the "how to invest in informal learning". If we could situate the "how to", we might be able to clarify the "how much?".

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