Kala S Retna is a senior lecturer at the School of Management at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). Her main areas of teaching, research and consultancy are school leadership, design thinking, organizational behaviour, learning organization, knowledge management, cross-cultural management and teaching and learning in schools and higher education. She is the author/reviewer of several journal articles and conference papers. She is also an Editorial Board Member of other journals.
Pak Tee Ng is Associate Dean, Leadership Learning, and concurrently Head of Policy and Leadership Studies Academic Group at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His main areas of teaching, research, training and consultancy at NIE are learning organization, change management, knowledge management, innovation, leadership, coaching and education policies. He is the author/co-author/editor/co-editor of five books and numerous journal articles, book chapters and conference papers. He is also the executive editor of Educational Research for Policy and Practice, the flagship journal of the Asia-Pacific Educational Research Association
This project reports the approaches used by six Australian organisations to build and maintain a learning culture. The research study identifies pressures which have contributed to the participating organisations' commitment to learning as well as the similar and dissimilar characteristics which allow these organisations to consider themselves as learning organisations.
That organisations should demonstrate a commitment to learning, or, that is to say, the importance of a learning culture orientation has become a common theme in much popular management literature as well as in government policy positions and some more academic organisational writing. Despite the prevalence of such a view and the prescriptions of management gurus about the process, we have little understanding of this concept from the perspective of organisations. The research reported in the following pages set out to explore how the concept of a learning culture or a commitment to learning is currently understood by Australian organisations. In so doing the research investigated the approaches and strategies that organisations, which claimed to be on a trajectory to achieving a learning culture, had used to establish and maintain such a culture within their enterprises. Identification of consistently successful strategies or approaches may provide insights for other organisations seeking to move along this pathway.
The research for this study was conducted by a team of researchers from the Research Centre for Vocational Education and Training (RCVET), University of Technology, Sydney and the Centre for Research in Education, Equity and Work (CREEW), University of South Australia. This study was funded by a National Research and Evaluation Committee (NREC) grant.
This report provides an overview of literature. It describes the context which has generated an awareness of the need for organisations to promote a culture of, and make an increased commitment to, learning. It also discusses some recent research that has examined the nature of learning initiatives implemented by Australian organisations and describes some of the organisational behaviours and structures which various writers have prescribed as being the fundamental features of 'learning organisations' or organisations with learning cultures. The report provides case studies of six organisations which are seen as having a learning culture orientation. These case studies illuminate the various factors that have contributed to building and maintaining learning cultures in organisations. A cross-case comparative analysis providing insights into the conditions which have been catalysts to the growth of this orientation to learning and the strategies and approaches that have contributed to the building of such cultures in each organisation is included. This comparison highlights similarities and differences between the organisations and is the basis for drawing some implications for the purpose of future policy formation or transfer of practice between organisations.
In planning this study the research team rejected the frequently unstated assumption that a learning culture is a homogenous concept which manifests itself uniformly within organisations. The team saw the phenomenon as both socially and contextually constructed and therefore sought to conduct research that would capture insights about practice from a variety of contexts.
Perspectives of the phenomenon were gathered from very different organisations and from a range of potentially differing viewpoints. Participating organisations were from metropolitan or regional areas in New South Wales and South Australia. Some of the organisations were globally based; others primarily operated within a local environment. Organisations came from a variety of industries and were of varying size. Opinions were sought from employees at different levels within these differing participating organisations.
Rather than deliberately targetting organisations characterised by 'best practice learning culture' features, organisations were selected because they identified themselves as having a learning culture. No attempt was made to select organisations with any predetermined learning culture characteristics other than, firstly, the self-identification of a commitment to learning, and secondly, that the organisation was on the journey of building a learning culture. This approach created the opportunity to determine how each organisation had constructed its understanding about the establishment of a culture of learning.
Information was gathered using a loose research protocol. This provided a degree of consistency in the data gathering and later became a mechanism for reporting data coherently. Using this protocol researchers both gathered and analysed data concerning:
- the organisation-its size, structure, recent history, present challenges
- strategies or approaches which the organisation believed demonstrated a commitment to learning and indicated progress in building a culture of learning
- factors assisting or limiting achievement
- outcomes emerging from the approaches used
Case studies were compiled from individual and focus group interviews and organisational document analysis. Each participating organisation was provided with the opportunity to review and amend the final case study.
Cross-case analysis was then conducted which yielded the following general findings:
Organisations understand the concept of a learning culture in different ways and attempt to implement such a culture accordingly.
In some organisations the prime characterising feature of its commitment to learning is the evidence of a highly structured learning system. Some of these systems are closely aligned to the Australian Qualifications Framework or other initiatives resulting from a government policy position on skill formation. In other organisations, the systems and approaches are completely non-aligned. In yet other organisations, a prime feature is the promotion of a more communicative and collaborative environment in which individuals learn from each other and through collaborative work endeavours. Such environments frequently provide employees with regular feedback on performance or information about organisational development and changes in organisational direction.
Organisations respond to the need for more effective production of goods and provision of services when new systems, structures and processes designed to enhance production or service provision also increase learning opportunities.
Learning and the development of a learning culture are part of various organisational changes generated by the pressures of the external environment. The changes are managed in a way that promotes and often rewards a learning orientation. A commitment to learning therefore develops as part of the introduction of changed systems rather than from the exhortation of managers or the goodwill of employees.
Building and maintaining a learning culture orientation is fostered by an increased capacity of employees to contribute to decision-making if not at the policy-making level, then at the work process level about practices in the workplace.
Frequently decision-making is supported through consultation opportunities and performance feedback technologies or systems.
Often a learning culture orientation is associated with the development of systems and structures that support learning.
These systems include more visible documentation about work processes, work roles, formal learning and development programs or performance data provision and performance review systems and formal meetings for review of work processes.
Often, building a learning culture is associated with working with a range of external stakeholders or other partners.
These partners include supply chain partners, or other educational or consultancy providers.
In summary, this study indicates that the development and maintenance of a learning culture is a response to organisational needs for enhanced production or service provision rather than a more specific response to policy initiatives related to skill formation. Organisations embark on this pathway in response to immediate pressures and implement approaches and develop systems which best meet their own needs. Such systems vary considerably. Some adopt an education program approach, while others are more aligned to new ways of working and often provide more opportunities for employees to make decisions collaboratively and to learn from each other, through exposure to the work processes and from work performance data or new work structures. The model emerging from the diversity of strategies used by participating organisations suggests that future policy initiatives aimed at encouraging organisations to make a greater commitment to learning could achieve increased levels of buy-in of workplace employee training programs if they provided opportunities for diversity in approach. It is important to avoid a 'one size fits all' approach especially one that primarily promotes a training classroom model of employee development. Similarly, in addition to using traditional training and development methodologies, there is a need for organisations seeking to foster a learning organisation orientation to examine the systems and structures that govern the way work is carried out and people are managed.