If you were to ask me a question about organizational culture, or learning culture, I would most probably reply very quickly:

Organizational Culture: “Making it easy for people to do the right thing.” I used to be very happy with the elegance of my definition till I came across David Teece’s more cynical version: “Culture is control on the cheap…. Corporate culture is about getting people to do things without necessarily having to bribe or threaten them.” (David Teece, Dynamic Capabilities and Strategic Management, Strategic Management Journal, August 1997)

I’ll circle back to organizational culture later in this post. But before that- my 10 point definition of a thriving Organizational Learning Culture:

  1. Learning culture thrives in an organization where learning strategy stands on an equal footing with business strategy.
  2. There is C-level acknowledgement of the contribution of L&D to business.
  3. Management models and rewards learning habits and applications of learning.
  4. The L&D function listens meaningfully and creates dynamic governance plan and roadmaps that address global and regional, team and individual, current and future learning needs.
  5. L&D designs interventions that feed measurably into KPIs and strategy.
  6. Functions and individuals know who to approach with their learning needs.
  7. They are provided different types of opportunities to learn, practice, discuss, and provide and receive feedback in the flow of work and in total psychological safety.
  8. With time, learning becomes an unconscious habit in the organization.
  9. Efficiency, Creativity, and Innovation increase and attrition decreases.
  10. Employees who do leave become ambassadors of the organization’s learning culture, thus inspiring external talent to consider joining the organization.

Is it possible to have a thriving learning culture if the organizational culture is weak/ negative?

From experience, I’d say this is rare but possible and depends on several parameters. For example, how we delineate the scope of the term, “Learning”. A weak organizational culture will certainly pull down development strategy (ie, the D in L&D), or at the very least, make it inaccessible or incomplete. But pockets of robust learning strategy can still shine through in weak organizational cultures if the definition is narrowed down to only Learning (ie, the L in L&D, whether offered by HR or by functions). In such organizations, people build up their knowledge and skills only to leave because they could not find opportunities to apply their learning and grow. A sad loss of resources.

Do strong organizational cultures always have strong learning cultures?

Again, from experience, I’d say usually, but not always. I’ve worked at organizations so proud of their (once glorious, it should be admitted) cultures that they’ve fallen prey to hubris, and not taken any steps to maintain their culture, improve it, or transform it. Here I also want to bring up the idealistic but impractical aphorism: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Whenever I hear this, I ask: “It can- but should it?”

Strategy gets a bad rep because it’s consultantspeak. What we don’t realize is that effective Strategy is the operationalization of Culture- it is what actually makes things happen. Scroll up to review the ten bullets explaining a thriving organizational learning culture. Could such a culture be achieved without effective strategies? It could not. I’m a big fan of strategy because:

  1. Good strategy is a great connector: Strategy connects culture, people, and business success. Further, strategy is useful to maintain a status quo while simultaneously levelling up with organizational transformation/ dynamic capabilities.
  2. Good strategy is a great collaborator: Strategy identifies cross functional efficiencies, thus bringing teams together in common cause.
  3. Good strategy is a great leveller: Good strategy is egalitarian and favors business success and sustainability over individual or clannish needs.
  4. Good strategy is a great measurer: Culture on its own is a nebulous sentiment, but with KPIs and insights, strategy is unambiguous.

Of course, I’ve also experienced organizations with a surfeit of strategy, but with little organizational culture, typically start-ups or organizations who’ve bet their all on one make or break product launch. These workplaces have their own set of challenges. The truth is that instead of being predatory, Culture and Strategy should be in lockstep for best possible transformation, efficiency, and future readiness.