Monday, October 10, 2011

Learning, culture, shoes

I always try to wear smart shoes. Early on in my career I was in a meeting to discuss the sale of some elearning we had created. We were talking big numbers. I thought the meeting went well. Afterwards I turned to my commercial partner 'what did you think?' he shook his head dismissively 'Did you see his shoes?'. Nothing came of the meeting. Whether coincidence or not, it taught me that some people may judge you solely on your footwear (apologies for the pun).

On those occasions where we have the chance to talk to learners before creating learning content, I often find that there is quite a difference between what stakeholders view as the learning requirement, and the needs as described by the intended audience. This will be a familiar picture to most of us; for my part I frame the challenge as how we properly dovetail the 'top-down' requirements ('these are the things they need to know') with the 'bottom-up' requirements ('these are the things we need to know'). But over the last few months I have been wondering about the role of culture, and the learning department's relationship to culture. I think that historically learning hasn't had much of a relationship - because culture is the stuff of informal learning, and l&d activity has tended to focus on formal ('top-down') learning. But as our intention shifts to informal learning, we find ourselves encountering culture. Informal learning accounts for 85% of organisational learning - at a guess culture probably features to a similar degree in explanations of why employees do what they do.

Rather than trying to define culture, I'd like to put yourself in the shoes of a new starter: culture are the norms you observe, the stories you hear, the ways in which people present themselves and the sets of expectations implied thereby. In many cases concerns about the effectiveness of internal communication or learning can be traced back to the overwhelming influence of culture in shaping organisational behaviour. Culture is all around us, and through our innate tendency to conform it defines us. Conformity is what gives our organisations their cohesiveness. At a microscopic level whenever there is any uncertainty - second by second in meetings - social referencing guides our behaviour.

A central challenge has been to understand how learning interventions can influence culture. One thing becoming clear is that beyond observational referencing, stories and storytelling are the normal format for cultural exchange: stories which are handed down to new starters, stories which are told on Monday mornings between colleagues, stories which form the cornerstones of our life's architecture.

People develop as if governed by Newtonian mechanics: given momentum and direction during their early years then continuing on the same track unless something intervenes, knocking them into a new trajectory. These rare moments are typically characterised by emotion, and archived in story format ready for transmission: it may be something as simple as observing remarkable leadership behaviour in a line manager, or as dramatic as a life-threatening error of judgement. In each case a story forms the means of wrapping a learning point in it's emotional context. It is through stories we learn the importance of good leadership, or safety.

So often the critical error made in formal communication or learning is abstraction: conveying the message whilst stripping away the story. The 'sender' understands the significance - they know the story, after all - but in the absence of the story, the message is near meaningless to the receiver - 'data protection matters' etc. By contrast a good speaker knows the importance of stories: they are memorable, they keep our attention, they have impact. Storytelling is the stuff of childhood, since it is then that we have so much to learn. Only in a world where adults had no further need to learn, would storytelling be restricted to children.

At present my team are heavily engaged in story capture and story creation (story, scenario, simulation) - because we hope to influence behaviour, because we hope to influence culture. When we capture a story or create a story, I hope that by sharing it we augment or create attractors in cultural space - i.e. formats which will stick in people's minds, form part of their conceptual architecture, be passed on or absorbed into a model of 'how things are done around here'. We hope to take something which exerts a powerful influence at local level and share it globally - or to take the lessons of one generation and share them with the next.

Anyway, I guess by now you have looked at your shoes.

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