All organizations have a culture. Some cultures support learning more than others. Some cultures stifle learning by marginalizing the training and development function, by discouraging risk-taking, by not rewarding learning, by not allowing opportunities for informal and social learning, and by undermining performance improvement efforts.
It’s not that managers are sitting around discussing how they can prevent learning; this is rarely consciously intentional. Rather, their behavior is shaped by the values and beliefs, routines and rituals, symbols and artifacts of the organization.
Chris Cancialosi provides us with a good example of how culture gets in the way of learning in this description of a client company:
Under intense pressure to deliver, the firm no longer tolerated “failures to launch” on every single deliverable. Rather than driving innovation, this created a dynamic that stifled the behaviors needed to achieve it. Employees no longer took risks, and the firm established an underlying culture that affected its ability to compete in the marketplace.
In this failure-is-not-an-option environment, people are not being allowed to learn by trying something new, putting their knowledge and skills into practice, and learning from successes and failures.
In a learning culture, the values and beliefs, routines and rituals, symbols and artifacts of the organization are quite different from what we see in this example. In a previous blog post, I wrote:
A “learning culture” is a community of workers continuously and collectively seeking performance improvement through new knowledge, new skills, and new applications of knowledge and skills to achieve the goals of the organization. A learning culture is a culture of inquiry; an environment in which employees feel safe asking tough questions about the purpose and quality of what they are doing for customers, themselves, and other stakeholders. In a learning culture, the pursuit of learning is woven into the fabric of organizational life.
I’m sure most executives would claim that this definition describes their organizations. However, they don’t see the barriers to learning in their own organizations because of their blindspots. They look in the rearview mirror and, seeing a clear path, continue forward only to be sideswiped by something in the culture that's not in their field of vision.