What does a learning-enabled organizational culture look like?

A really useful metaphor for thinking about organizational culture is the iceberg. If we apply this metaphor to the idea of a learning-enabled organization, it can help illuminate what such a culture might look like at different depths/levels.

At the easily visible (above the surface) level, we can see formal policies, systems, and practices – the way the organization “officially” thinks about and does things.

Just beneath the surface, not obvious to outsiders, are informal practices, norms, and symbolic actions – “the way we really do things around here”. These are the aspects of organizational life that a newcomer learns as the insiders “show them the ropes”. We often learn about norms and informal practices by unknowingly violating them. [The same is true in all cultures, e.g. when we travel to another country and notice people gasp when we do something we always thought was ‘normal’.]

The deepest level of culture, often held only in the subconscious of insiders, are the underlying beliefs, values, and attitudes that permeate organizational thinking and behavior. Generally, people look to the symbolic actions of leaders (at the next level up) to infer the underlying values and beliefs. For example, we watch who gets recognized or promoted and who gets sidelined; we watch whether the leaders ‘walk the talk’ and do themselves what they are asking staff to do.

So what does the culture of a learning-enabled organization look like at these three levels? Here are a few ideas based on the literature and my own experiences …

Policies & Systems
  • Genuine evaluation protocols, tools & methods used to evaluate key programs & activities
  • Evaluation is positioned structurally for maximum influence
  • Effective knowledge management systems
Formal Practices
  • Deliberate experimentation with new ideas & approaches (and with failures expected)
  • Regular benchmarking against others’ outcomes and good practices
  • Scheduled ‘evaluative conversations’ about what really matters, what ‘excellence’ looks like, etc (evaluative rubrics are a great tool here)
  • Scenario planning to anticipate possible external changes
Informal Practices
  • Flexibility/fluidity allows continual evaluation & streamlining
  • Diversity of practice & methods; deliberate use of diverse teams
  • Assumptions & status quo regularly challenged
  • People often seek out advice or ideas from other organizations or teams
Symbolic Actions
  • Near misses on high goals are rewarded more than easily clearing easy targets
  • Negative results are celebrated as new knowledge
  • Top management actively seeks out tough criticism
  • Those who constructively critique the status quo are recognized and rewarded, and not sidelined
  • It is valuable to distinguish good from poor performance
  • Without feedback & criticism, excellence is impossible – especially at the top!
  • No ‘sacred cows’ (important ‘undiscussables’ that cannot be raised or questioned)
Values & Attitudes
  • The evaluative attitude: the relentless pursuit of the truth about quality and value
  • Openness to change and continuous improvement
  • Diverse perspectives and ‘outside-the-box’ thinking are highly valued
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5 comments to What does a learning-enabled organizational culture look like?

  • Hi Jane

    Very nice post and published in a more appropriate time! I think one important reason in relation with we don’t lessons learned from failure and even success is observable on the pretty learning medium (iceberg). May be Over 70 % of our attentions in programs, organizations and evaluations belongs to above the surface .For this problematic status I think we need to revolution in evaluation and other related subject.
    When I deeply think about these maters I more admire Professor Michael Scriven for his DEBATE on rethinking all of evaluation! He proposed workshop for the summer institute at Claremont Graduate University, where he will suggest it’s time to reconceptualize evaluation from the ground up.
    In historical typology of evaluation, grate evaluation researchers and developers discussed about four generations of evaluation: Measurement, Description, Judgment & Interpretive. I think evaluation filed and profession near to another generation of evaluation: THE FIFTH GENERATION EVALUATION: CAPACITY BUILDING.



  • Chad Green

    The table above looks fine to me with the exception of the overemphasis on top management. Top managers got their jobs because they demonstrated, through past behavior, the desired beliefs, values and attitudes of the organization. Therefore, to expect these senior managers to seek out tough criticism from others just doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t fit their purpose in the organization. Instead, the focus of emergent change should be on middle management (i.e., the center of gravity), especially those key boundary spanners who see the big picture and understand the realities of those in the trenches.

    I know this because I work closely with the key boundary spanners of my organization on a daily basis. This was not the case when I started my job as an internal evaluator. During the first week I was told that major change events happened only when senior staff retired from the organization. I believed this advice for a few years until I started to think and act like a social neuroscientist. When you think in this way, you see leverage points throughout the organization that others simply do not notice. With this deeper knowledge you can empower your boundary spanners to effect the desired changes as necessary.


  • Chad Green

    BTW, I am not the first person to make this claim. Check out this video by management guru Henry Mintzberg:

    Toward the end of the video he provides some lessons learned about management training and learning. Here is a synopsis that I shared with my colleagues at work a few months ago (see #2):

    Lessons Learned about Management Training and Learning

    1) Organizations function best as communities of human beings. Smaller communities (e.g., formal and informal work groups) should scale up to build bigger communities within organizations. Ongoing management training and learning can contribute to this sense of community building (“communityship”).

    2) Middle managers are key drivers for major organizational change, including strategic change. Change comes from middle managers who both know what’s going on the ground and are able to see the big picture. These managers are most effective when they can discuss their organization’s practices together in groups. The goal of management training and learning should be to build their confidence, enthusiasm and commitment to the organization.

    3) Organizations should emphasize a style of engaging management over heroic leadership. The purpose of management training and learning is to engage managers so they can engage other people (i.e., impact their respective teams at home).

    4) Effective managers are reflective in the context of taking action. It’s the relationship between reflection and action that creates change in organizations and management styles. The purpose of management learning is to combine reflection and action for organizational impact.

    5) Management learning works best in small groups in order to provide meaning to managers’ experiences. Happenings become experiences when we reflect on them and learn from them and thereby make changes in those activities.


  • Jane Davidson

    Great points, Chad – many thanks for the reminder of how very important middle managers are in all this.

    But, of course, senior managers who don’t walk the talk with undermine all the efforts of middle managers by showing that none of this “really” matters. So, important to think about the roles of both.

  • Great summary! I think under formal practices, I would have included environmental scanning as this practice helps to gain input from the external context thus enabling it to avoid surprises and to take advantage of opportunities. This is probably assumed in your mention of scenario planning.