Monday, February 19

It’s a matter of culture

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.

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 blasé 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?".


Anonymous said...

I really liked the example you took about the difficulties you had introducing the use of a keyboard in the 80s, while now we many times consider whether our younger generations will actually one day abandon to learn how to hand-write!

Many challenges I face in my organisation resembles this fight. I am also in training and the resistance we face by a good number of instructional staff upon the introduction fo this or that method - e-learning, videostreaming virtual classrooms, web 2.0, etc is incredible.

One of the main difficulties I have though is that it is not always easy to foresee that you are introducing the 'keyboard' - a must of the future. It is not always easy to have the vision,and sometimes, to the detriment of our arguments, we have tried to introduce solutions which never took off - anywhere...

Peter Isackson said...

Thanks Max,
Part of the problem is of course that the "vision" should be that of a new world of relationships (between people, but also with knowledge) rather than a vision of physical behaviour (e.g. using a keyboard). It's easy to have the lesser vision of procedures and actions -- partly because we think we can "manage" them -- but the only one that counts is the vision of performance. That's why I insist it's a question of culture, which consists of layers of actions and procedures that are built into strata of meaning (intention, understanding) to produce complex effects (results) that in turn produce more meaning, modifying the way procedures and actions are subsequently carried out. The life of an enterprise is a dynamic system, whether we like it or not. If we don't like it, we turn it into a bureaucracy, but even then it will remain dynamic since neither staff nor the marketplace accept to stand still.

P.S. that has nothing to do with the above. The blog has not asked me to type in a code in order to publish this. Weird things seem to be going on with Google that classed this blog temporarily as a spam site. Now that it is recognized as a legit site, we've lost a security feature. Is this part of Google's cultural evolution? Will this result in learning? Will the dynamic system be manageable... or are we entering a Kafkaesque universe?