To what extent does your organization have a learning culture? Before you take your first step on your journey, know where you are starting. Look around your organization. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What is your current culture?

Using Edgar Schein’s definition of organizational culture, you’ll want to know to what extent:

  • Underlying beliefs and assumptions support learning in your organization
  • Values and principles drive learning in your organization
  • Employees and other stakeholders (suppliers, Board of Directors, customers) see the symbols and artifacts of learning and performance improvement.

Do employees, their teams, and the organization as-a-whole know what they need to learn to be successful? Do they know how to develop these competencies? Do they know how to sustain this learning over time? Do they know how to ensure that learning is applied and makes a difference for the organization?

Tools currently exist that might be helpful in this analysis. Each of these tools is designed according to the Survey images (1)authors’ definition of a learning culture. For example, David Garvin and Amy Edmondson created an assessment tool to look for: a supportive learning environment, concrete learning processes and practices, and leadership behavior that provides reinforcement. I wrote this in a previous blog post about the tool:

As the authors say, the tool should be used for learning, not to judge the quality of an organization. The survey provides feedback for organizational reflection. By collecting the data and then discussing the findings, people must confront critical questions: Does our culture support learning? Do we have every day processes and procedures in place to ensure that learning and change are embedded in the way we work together? Do our top leaders make continuous learning a priority and communicate this throughout the organization? And then, hopefully, leaders will use the answers to these questions to motivate further learning and performance improvement and contribute to developing a learning culture in the process.

Another assessment tool is one created by Marcia Conner which she calls a“learning culture audit”. This tool is used to determine the extent to which an organization is oriented towards learning. She writes:

One way to begin the process of creating a learning culture and to enroll others in the effort is to conduct a learning culture audit. A simple diagnostic can help you assess your organization and your management team’s orientation to learning. An assessment describes the characteristics of cultures that encourage learning and those that block learning.

The dichotomous variables that Conner presents, comparing a “pro-learning culture” to an “anti-learning culture”, are certainly grist for discussion within your organization. For example, one set contrasts the item, “People at all levels ask questions and share stories about successes, failures, and what they have learned”, with the item, “Managers share information on a need-to-know basis…People keep secrets and don’t describe how events really happened.” Responses should stimulate a rich discussion about information sharing in an organization.

Learning to be Great™ has also created a learning-culture assessment tool. This tool is based on a framework that consists of five key elements of learning in organizations: 1) Alignment; 2) Anticipation; 3) Alliance; 4) Application; and 5) Accountability. These are the 5As of a learning culture. Each element is measured by four items in the survey. To fill out the survey and find out how your organization is doing on each “A”, go to the Learning to be Great website.

Whichever assessment tool you use, what’s important is to follow a stakeholder-focused process that results in organizational learning. Jim Stilwell outlines this process in his post titled, “How to Use Feedback from Employee Surveys to Change Organizations.” He writes that the organization survey process..

…works best if senior leadership communicates a compelling need for the survey in advance of sending questionnaires to all or a sample of employees.  As a part of this communication, leaders should clearly define the entire data gathering and feedback process emphasizing the role of employees.  Secondly, the findings from the survey would benefit from validation by key stakeholders – namely those who have provided the survey responses. The data from a survey can always be interpreted in many different ways given organizational circumstances, response rates, respondent demographics, the wording of questions and design of the survey. Thirdly, discussing the findings with groups throughout the organization and at all levels for their interpretation and recommendations leads to a deeper understanding, greater alignment, and vastly better solutions. A fourth important step in the process is for leaders to communicate back to the entire organization what it is that will be done as a result of the insights gained through the survey and all of the group discussions. This communication should clearly define what leaders know now that they didn't know before? What will be changed that will improve the work environment and increase organizational success? Who will be responsible and when will it happen? How will follow-up happen to ensure the success of the changes? 

The data from a survey is only meaningful if it generates a conversation in your organization that contributes to discovering of where you are starting your journey. Any survey of your organization should have as its purpose to learn from each other, to learn about your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and to learn what will improve performance.

Organizational assessment is the GPS of your journey towards a learning culture. It tells you where you are at a point in time. Then you’ll be able to select the best route to your destination: a work environment that supports and encourages the continuous and collective discovery, sharing, and application of knowledge and skills at the individual, team, and whole organization levels in order to achieve the goals of the organization. 

[This post first appeared on The Performance Improvement Blog at]