About the Book :: Table of Contents :: Excerpt :: Contributors

Creating a Learning Culture: Strategy, Practice, and Technology. Marcia Conner and James G. Clawson (editors). Cambridge University Press; September 2004. Available in Paperback and Hardcover


Douglas K. Smith

John Seely Brown and Estee Solomon Gray

Part I: Perspectives on a Changing World

1. Leading and Learning with Nobody in Charge by Harlan Cleveland

We begin the volume with Cleveland’s essay on the increasingly “uncentralized” context in which modern organizations operate. Cleveland argues that in an information-rich environment, centralized leadership is less valuable and functional. After commenting on several aspects of modern society, including education, he offers a checklist for leaders of uncentralized organizations.

2. Our World as a Learning System: A Communities-of-Practice Approach by William M. Snyder and Etienne Wenger

Snyder and Wenger extend Cleveland’s introduction to the modern context of learning organizations by examining the development of communities of practice throughout history and their role in our increasingly global community. The authors describe the growth of the Chicago Biotech Network, SafeCities, and Ayuda Urbana communities. They then discuss the “fractal” nature of communities of practice and how these fractal systems operate.

3. Developing Talent in a Highly Regulated Industry by Karen Kocher

Kocher takes us into CIGNA, the insurance and health care giant, for a look at the challenges of simultaneously following strict regulations and nurturing employees. By describing the learning challenges of introducing Microsoft XP and complying with the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and the Patriot Act, Kocher reveals the difficulties of managing learning in society’s pillar industries. She ends by summarizing the key strategies for a major corporation trying to manage learning while complying with regulations.

4. The Invisible Dogma by Mitch Ratcliffe

In this chapter, Ratcliffe calls for managers to think critically about the information tools they choose for their organizations. We shape the tools we use, but they also shape us, he writes, and we must be aware of the “invisible dogmas,” the underlying assumptions, that are built into what may seem like straightforward, transparent information technologies.

5. Looking Back on Technology to Look Forward on Collaboration and Learning by David Grebow

Grebow gives us a sweeping history of 30,000 years of human interaction and learning by identifying the key technological achievements that have helped create a worldwide community of learners. From speech, to knowledge gathering, to writing, to printing and beyond, Grebow describes how the human mind has moved ever closer to its goal of communicating, unimpeded, with other minds.

6. Using Measurement to Foster Culture and Sustainable Growth by Laurie Bassi, Karen L. McGraw, and Dan McMurrer

The authors declare corporate accounting systems a relic of the industrial era, largely inappropriate for a learning society and its organizations. The most widely used measurement systems, they argue, discourage managers from investing in the learning of their employees and should be replaced by systems that can measure organizational learning and the impact of that learning on the bottom line.

Part II: Adaptive Approaches to Organizational Design

7. Innovative Cultures and Adaptive Organizations by Edgar H. Schein

In this prescient essay, Schein outlines the characteristics of cultures and their organizations that allow them to adapt to changing circumstances. Using a socio-technical approach, he lays out the nature of adaptation and the qualities of organizations that can adapt well in a rapidly changing environment.

8. A Relational View of Learning: How Who You Know Affects What You Knowby Rob Cross, Lisa Abrams, and Andrew Parker

The authors build on their prolific research on informal social networks to point out how much the people with whom you are connected affect your ability to learn in an organization. They demonstrate that not only who you know but also how well you know them—and whether you trust them—greatly affects your capacity to learn.

9. Improved Performance: That’s Our Diploma by Wendy L. Coles

The learning organization is a nebulous concept, particularly given the common metrics, so, one might ask, what does it look like when an organization learns? Wendy Coles uses her extensive experience at General Motors to tell us what she saw in that “learning lab.” She then offers nine methods corporations can use to accelerate learning among their employees.

10. The Real and Appropriate Role of Technology to Create a Learning Culture by Marc J. Rosenberg

Technology can strengthen a learning culture but is not its true foundation. Many of today’s training managers, however, have embraced wholeheartedly the technology solution to the learning challenge. Rosenberg cautions that there is an appropriate role for technology in education, but the classroom is not dead and neither is face-to-face instruction. One way out of our confusion about the role of technology is to recognize that learning and training are not one and the same.

11. The Agility Factor by Eileen Clegg and Clark N. Quinn

Clegg and Quinn draw on Mother Nature’s “extremophiles,” organisms that can survive in extreme environments, to point out the importance of the “agility factor,” the ability to adapt to a changing world. The authors describe the characteristics that enable extremophiles to live and thrive in environments where most organisms perish, and they relate these characteristics to strategies that can help organizations prosper in turbulent times.

12. Tools and Methods to Support Learning Networks by Dori Digenti

Digenti writes about learning networks, which she defines as more communities of interest than communities of practice. In this chapter, she explores the tools and methods that can support learning networks and gives us a detailed glimpse into how learning and communication tools have been tailored to meet the needs of two vibrant learning networks: C3 LearnNet and the COSP Network.

Part III: Expanding Individual Responsibility

13. Envisioning a Learning Culture: History, Self-Governing Citizens, and No Dancing Elephants by Brook Manville

Many view large corporations as large, unwieldy, and not very good at creating learning cultures. What if, wonders Manville, we could imagine a completely different sort of organization? Manville takes us back to ancient Greece to explore the city-state structure and its ability to learn widely and rapidly. The principles of democratization hearken back to Cleveland’s opening article and invite us to consider how we can build learning cultures without centralized leadership.

14. Individual Competencies and Partnerships: The Primary Cultural Influencers by Brenda Wilkins

The individual, Wilkins argues, is the primary cultural catalyst, so managers must ask themselves how they are shaping organizational culture. Successful cultures depend on inspired individuals who develop competencies of assessment, action, and adaptation—the age-old components of learning and change—and engage in the powerful processes of coaching and mentoring.

15. Learning Culture in a Global Context by Gunnar Brückner

Brückner stretches our perspective to the challenges of creating a learning organization worldwide by examining the experience of the United Nations Development Programme. The enormity of this organization and its efforts at stimulating learning among hundreds of countries make a startling contrast to the individual and corporate perspectives presented elsewhere in this volume.

16. Learning in the Company of Maniacs by Garry O. Ridge

WD-40 CEO Ridge attributes his company’s doubling in sales in seven years to the organization’s emphasis on creating a learning organization. He gives us a rare inside-out view of how senior management can approach the issues of growth and sustainability from a learning perspective. What if your first question in a performance interview was not, “Did you make your goals last year?” but “What did you learn last year?”

17. Trust, Identity, Reputation, and Learning in Organizations by Cliff Figallo

Organizational cultures deal in personal emotions in a major way. Figallo brings forward the issues of trust, organizational identity, and reputation and their impact on learning outcomes. He uses the example of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, The WELL, to show how membership in online learning communities is affected by trust, identity, and reputation. This essay gives us a wonderful insight into the beginnings of Web-based learning communities.

Marcia L. Conner and James G. Clawson

In our final piece, the editors offer a condensation of the concept of organizational culture and a strong rationale for why an organization’s culture should be oriented around learning. They point out that culture appears at several levels and then highlight some imperatives for executives who want to strengthen the learning aspects of their own organizational cultures. In the end, they suggest, culture begins with the executive who is deeply committed to learning and believes that it can create sustainable competitive advantage in a rapidly changing world.