What is organisational culture?

What do we mean when we say “organizational culture”?

Last week, I was talking with some friends who work for large NGOs about the differences in our professional lives. Throughout our conversation, we were all using “culture” to describe our different workplaces. Sometimes, we used referred to organizational culture as the source of our workplace problems: “at my work, there is a culture of unhealthy competition between the departments”. Other times, it was a source of strength and solutions: “it’s because our culture that encourages trial and error that we were able to solve that problem”. When I got back to the office, I started asking myself: though we clearly share a general idea of what “organizational culture” means, what exactly are we talking about?

Defining Organizational Culture

At COCo, we often describe organizational culture as the ensemble of rules and expectations, said and unsaid, that influence the behaviour of individuals who are inside of that culture. In other words, organizational culture is a system of values and shared norms, that, taken together, define the attitudes and behaviours of the people in that system or organization (Reilly and Chatman, 1996). One of the experts on this issue, Edgar Schein, says that organizational culture is something that develops and evolves as groups test different hypotheses in the face of difficult situations. The process of “testing these hypotheses” teaches individuals about the way that they should perceive, understand or feel in a given organization.

Often, when we ask why an individual is acting (or not acting) in a certain way in our workplaces, we tend to point the finger to “personality”. What the research shows is that organizational culture has a very strong influence on the way individuals behave, and that is certainly backed up by our experience working with community groups.

For example, a nonprofit that has a more “familial” culture would probably reward individuals who followed the traditions and norms of the organization, would encourage group activity, and highlight the successes of the group as a whole. On the other hand, a nonprofit that had a more “entrepreneurial” culture would value risk taking, initiative, and individual success, and would reward individuals for those kinds of behaviour. A culture, at the end of the day, is a reflection of what is important to an organization (Winkler 2016).

What do we mean by “Culture of Learning”?

As part of our project “Learning Organizational Lab”, we are asking ourselves a lot of questions about learning in organizations, and the link to organizational culture. Imagine an organization that highly valued learning. What norms, or values, would that organization have? What kind of behaviours would it encourage? In other words: what would having a culture of learning look like?

To begin our quest, we can take a look at the work of Marsick and Watkins, who specialize in adult education. They describe 7 dimensions of a “culture of learning” in an organization. For them, a learning organization:

  1. Creates continuous learning opportunities.
  2. Promotes inquiry and dialogue.
  3. Encourages collaboration and team learning.
  4. Establishes systems to share and capture learning.
  5. Empowers people toward a collective vision.
  6. Connects the organization to its environment.
  7. Provides strategic leadership for learning.

Stephen J. Gill, a consultant who is interested in developing learning culture in nonprofits in the United Stated, believes that “a culture of learning is an environment that supports and encourages discovery, the sharing and application of knowledge in a collective way”. He cites communication and leadership as two vehicles for the development of this kind of culture.

Lastly, the  Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community, whose mission is to support nonprofit organizations to improve their performance, says that a culture that values learning is based on 10 pillars:  

  1.  The board, management, and staff understand the organization’s mission and desired results and review them periodically to ensure that they are still relevant.
  2.  The board, management, and staff continually seek to do even better for the people or causes they serve.
  3.  The board, management, and staff are open and transparent about their results—whether the results are positive or negative—to fuel learning and improvement.
  4.  People in all parts of the organization have high expectations of themselves and of their peers.
  5. The board, management, and staff take on the challenge of collecting and using information, not because it’s a good marketing tool, and not because a funder said they have to. They believe it is integral to ensuring material, measurable, and sustainable good for the people or causes they serve.
  6.  The board, management, and staff recognize they can’t fully understand the needs of those they serve unless they listen to and learn from constituents in formal and informal ways.
  7.  The board, management, and staff take the time to benchmark themselves against, and learn from, peer organizations that are at the top of their field.
  8.  Senior management leads by example and encourages people throughout the organization to be curious, ask questions, and push each other’s thinking by being appropriately and respectfully challenging. High-performance cultures are innovative cultures, mindful that every program and process eventually becomes dated, even obsolete.
  9.  Senior management creates an environment in which staff members feel safe acknowledging when there are problems. They use what others might deem “failures” as an opportunity to listen, learn, and improve.
  10.  Even the busiest leaders, managers, and staff members carve out formal and informal opportunities to step back, take stock, and reflect.

For my part, it seems that all cultures of learning:

  • Support, valorise and reward learning and innovation
  • Encourage questioning, dialogue, risk taking and experimentation
  • Allow for failure and see it as an opportunity to learn and share
  • Support open and sincere communication
  • Assume that all individuals the capacity to learn and act in their environment
  • Give importance to the well being of all of the members of an organization

What do you think? Based on your experience, what are the elements of your organizational culture that encourage learning?

What is the Learning Organizations Laboratory?

Piloted by COCo in partnership with Centraide du Grand Montréal, the learning organizations lab (LabOA) aims to reflect on the best ways to support and equip community organizations in the development of their capacities to learn and share knowledge. In the context of that project, COCo is publishing a series of reflections on the idea of learning organizations and a culture of learning. Our goal is to share the knowledge we are building over the course of this project, and get your feedback, so we can improve our research findings!