3.1.1 Can you change a culture?

The importance of a learning culture cannot be emphasized enough. As we all know, culture eats strategy for breakfast. But is it even possible to change an organizational culture in a desired direction? Or does a culture lives its own life? In the upper- and undertow?

Yes, you can change a culture!

We quote Bersin: "Many experts have pointed out that culture is a real and changeable part of any organization. It can be monitored, measured, and adjusted. While changing culture is like “moving the mountain,” you can in fact move it if you first understand what it is. A few keys to this topic:

  • First, culture is like the air we breathe – it is all around us yet very hard to see.  It is a real thing – and as you read the 40 practices you will start to see actual evidence of culture in almost every process, decision, and interaction in your company.
  • Second, culture is hard, not soft.  It is not a “touchy feely” thing – but rather an important set of behaviors and processes which impact your organization’s success.  What do your leaders do when something fails, for example?  How do they treat the people who deliver bad news?  How well are decisions delegated to owners of a problem?  These are critical questions which deal with culture – and their answers often mean success or failure for many business initiatives.
  • Third, culture is created by, reinforced by, and often destroyed by leaders. Among the 40 high-impact practices we found, we estimate that 8 are owned by top leadership, 25 are owned by line management, and only 7 can be owned by HR or L&D.  In your efforts to change culture, you must work with leaders at all levels – and often help them question what they do and how they work.
  • Fourth, a learning culture is very business-relevant and not at all academic.   “Learning Culture” is what enables BP, Toyota, Microsoft, or IBM to identify the problems in their products and fix them quickly.  It is what enables Cisco and Google and Apple to “out-innovate” their competitors.  It is what enables Wal-Mart, UPS, and Dell to drive down costs and maintain service quality.  It is what enables ING Direct, Zappos, and Starbucks to grow at rates 10-100X their competitors.  And it is what prevented Digital Equipment Company, Tandem, Apollo Computer, Silicon Graphics, and hundreds of other defunct companies from embracing changes in their markets and evolving their products.  This topic is important:  it means life or death for many organizations."

We as SOL have seen enough examples in practice to know it is possible to create a (more) learning culture. It's not easy, and it takes time because in the end it needs behavioral change. Not the easiest thing to realize.

Remember, you can change a existing culture, but don't focus to much on results / KPI's. Focus on the process, and trust it will lead you to both better leaning AND better results!

In this module we present our vision on how to develop, implement and maintain a Learning Culture. For this we introduce our Change from Within methodology (chapter 3.3), based on our theoretical model and the biggest challenge; "informal learning" (chapter 3.2).

We finish up with offering support to develop a Learning Culture in practice (3.4 SOL Support) and by working on your Action Plan (3.5 Action Plan).



"You can diagnose your learning culture and you can change it. No matter how big your organization is, you cannot ignore this topic." 

Josh Bersin

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