Schein’s 10 Dimensions of a Learning Culture

5 Jul

I wish to share my delight and excitement with a recent reading.

In “The Learning Culture and the Learning Leader,” (Chapter 20 of Organizational Culture and Leadership), Edgar Schein identifies 10 dimensions of a “learning culture,” i.e. an organization that intends to prioritize learning (rather than, say, stability, production, efficiency, survival, comfort, influence); my summaries, paraphrases, and quotations are below the fold.

First, my general take: Schein’s dimensions are helpful, pertinent, appropriate, and fairly revolutionary.  I suspect most employees would agree that the 10 criteria he identifies are not generally manifested in the workplace.  In the average workplace, instead, a list of opposites is probably exhibited: a sense that we need to be efficiently “doing something” precludes key elements of thought; a kind of suspicion exists of learning for its own sake; we don’t give ourselves any real psychological safety, the ability to experiment/fail, or time to reflect; intrinsic motivation isn’t sufficiently tapped; folks may not really believe that a turbulent environment is manageable; there’s a sense if you don’t know everything, you’ll get in trouble; and so on.

Fortunately we can see these 10 dimensions as a kind of recipe to help us make things better, and since I ascribe to Dimension 6 (Positive Orientation Toward the Future), I suspect we will!

1. Proactivity

Rather than passively waiting to be told what to do, “a learning culture must assume that the appropriate way for humans to behave in relationship to their environment is to be proactive problem solvers.”  In fact, the “learning process” is prioritized over “any particular solution to a problem.”

2. Commitment to Learning to Learn

Everyone has to believe that “learning is a good thing worth investigating” and “a skill to be mastered.” Importantly, people will need time to experiment and to “get feedback . . . and to reflect, analyze, and assimilate.”

3. Positive Assumptions About Human Nature

At the core of a learning community is “faith in people,” or that “humans can and will learn if they are provided the resources and the necessary psychological safety.”

4. Belief That the Environment Can Be Managed

Your organization has to believe that it can adapt to, and have some control over, your rapidly-changing environment.

5. Commitment to Truth Through Pragmatism and Inquiry

Increasingly “no one will be ‘expert’ enough to provide an answer,” so we’ll have to be flexible in how we go about knowing things, choosing among scientific method, knowledge coming from lived experience, and, increasingly, Schein’s “clinical research process”–in which “helpers and clients work things out together.” Importantly, leaders will have to “come to terms with their own lack of expertise and wisdom.”

6. Positive Orientation Toward the Future

Schein suggests our best orientation in time is to direct our attention no to the past or present, but to “somewhere between the far future and the near future.”

7. Commitment to Full and Open Task-Relevant Communication

The community can’t process information and learn if people aren’t sharing what they know and see, so we’ll need a “multichannel communication system that allows everyone to connect to everyone else,” though it should be limited to “task-relevant” information (too much openness is, surprisingly, not helpful).

8. Commitment to Cultural Diversity

Diversity brings multiple perspectives that will be needed to solve the complex problems that arise in chaotic environments. Learning cultures should therefore “stimulate” diversity and even allow sub-cultures, which are key to innovation.  Though Schein notes these sub-cultures must work well together and respect each other.

9. Commitment to Systematic Thinking

Thinking “systemically,” or overcoming our reliance on “simple linear causal logic in favor of complex mental models” will become increasingly important in a world that is “intrinsically complex, non-linear, interconnected, and ‘overdetermined.'”

10. Belief That Cultural Analysis Is a Valid Set of Lenses for Understanding and Improving the World

If the learner needs feedback, so does the learning culture, if it wants to know how it works and how it can improve; this comes in the form of encouraging and investing in activities that allow for “analyzing and reflecting” on culture.

2 Responses to “Schein’s 10 Dimensions of a Learning Culture”


  1. Leaders of Learning Organizations | Theatrical Smoke - October 17, 2011

    […] recently posted on the characteristics of learning organizations, which I excerpted from chapter 20 of Edgar Schein’s lovely book Organizational Culture and […]

  2. The Disruption Percentage « Theatrical Smoke - October 16, 2012

    […] like Edgar Schein’s idea. The leader of the learning organization, he says, in my beloved chapter 20 of Organizational Learning, has to simultaneously assuage his team’s anxieties and prompt people to learn and change in […]

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