I’ve taken this week out to think, research and write about learning culture: how is it formed, what are the challenges in global learning spaces and who owns it? First, we will think about who creates the culture.
I’m unsure of the etiquette here. Do i sit down and order the coffee, or do they come to me? In the end, i opt to sit and, sure enough, i now have my latte. It wasn’t the worlds biggest cultural dilemma, but it’s one of a multitude of differences that make me realise i’m not at home any more.
It always takes me a while to tune in when i leave the UK. Which way do you look when crossing the road? Should you tip? How much? How do i ask for a vegetarian meal? Everything is the same, but somehow everything is different. It’s only a fifty minute flight from home, but the houses look different, the cars are different, fashion is slightly different, the shops are mainly different (although some depressingly the same). People smile more here and both make and hold eye contact with strangers for longer. The lampposts are different too. I won’t go on about it, but this place is different.
It’s the same, of course, with organisations: they are all different. Which, when you stop to think about it, is quite odd. I mean, my friends all work in different places, but they are all my friends. They often work in the same sector, the same town, the same country, but our organisations differ in many ways. Some of the differences are obvious: dress codes, office furniture, amount of glass and steel, but others aspects are harder to spot. What type of learning culture does an organisation have and how is this manifested? What is the contract between the learner and the organisation? Is the individual viewed as an asset or an independent learner, or, indeed, both.
The world is a very different place from how it was even ten years ago: no longer is there such a thing as a job for life. It’s down to each and every one of us to keep half an eye and a degree of ownership over our careers and personal development. We can’t assume this will be done for us.
So who creates the culture?
The first answer to this must always be ‘the organisation’. Typically there is a syllabus, a core set of skills and knowledge that you need to succeed. Most organisations have been around long enough to codify these into their induction and development programmes. This material forms the heart of the formal learning.
Then there is the individual: often there is discretionary training on offer. Modules that can be sat by choice, internal or external resource available for development. The choice of who does what may sit with the individual, the manager or both.
But this doesn’t tell the whole story: increasingly there is then a social learning culture, spaces and resources that allow people to come together to learn, but not necessarily governed by the organisation. Sure, they may own the technology, but they don’t own the conversation.
The social spaces are semi formal: they relate to the core, formal learning, but also include messaging that is defined by the group. The truth is emergent here, not predefined. This causes challenges, indeed, it’s one of the greatest challenges for the uptake of social learning within business. To what extent is the existing learning culture supplemented by the new, to what extent is it challenged? For organisations that are used to owning both the spaces people learn in and the structure of the learning, it’s a bold leap to give up ownership of both.
So who creates the learning culture of the organisation?
As learning spreads ever further out, we start to lose the distinction between formal learning events and on the job performance support. Learning becomes continuous, measured less by the number of courses that you sit, more by overall results in performance. As social learning, virtual and physical but only semi formal communities become part of this, the question of ownership may become less relevant.
Organisation may continue to own the formal curricula and spaces, but they can never control the social elements. Similarly, cohorts may own the social spaces (although probably not the technology that facilitates it) but they are unlikely to drive it within a formal curricula. Indeed, the community may not even settle within the formal space: it may take off and land on Facebook or LinkedIn, or one of a hundred secure forum spaces.
So maybe the question of who creates the culture is itself less relevant than it used to be: part of it, the formal part, is still under control of the organisation. Part of it will forever be generated from the community. And the spaces that it inhabits will vary.
Organisations need to recognise this, to adapt and flex their position on questions around power and control. This is the new reality, the social reality. The world is changing fast, even when you just fly a few miles from home.