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Corporate training and culture: where do they meet and how do they align?

Training is often considered in isolation. It works towards set targets and is measured by performance outcomes, sometimes even regardless of the environment in which it happens. But other, external factors are at play that can determine the effectiveness of training.  One of those influences is organisational culture.

It raises the question how we recognise the role of culture in training and adapt our training to accommodate it.

And, if culture affects training, can or should training affect culture?

What is organisational culture?

Nearly 40 years ago in their book Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy elaborated the main facets of organisational culture.  They identified key elements – corporate history, beliefs and rites handed down, powerful narratives and heroic figures – that continue to influence the way people act.  They arrived at a succinct definition of organisational culture: it’s ‘the way things are done around here’.

Deal and Kennedy’s work helped make the rather nebulous concept of organisational culture tangible and explicit.  Yet, they also recognised that one of the major influences on creating and sustaining a corporate culture was the informal network of actors whose actions and interactions shape the way things are done around here.  This element is far harder to discern and influence.

Aligning training with culture

Corporate culture is a force to be reckoned with.  And we need to think explicitly about how a culture comes about and not just accept it as ‘organic’ or a passive thing over which we have little control.  If training is to make a real impact across the organisation it needs to take account of the organisation’s culture and work with it to achieve its goals. Often training’s focus is too narrowly focused on competencies: can X do Y.  We need to see it in a wider context.

The first step is to align training outcomes explicitly with business goals and strategy.  This means providing training that recognises the organisation’s vision and its way of working.  The outcomes are not only about performing a task, but also doing so within the broader context of business needs.

We need to bring training into strategy-making and planning.  If we are articulating a vision for an organisation, training has to support and realise it.  Training thus becomes a key driver in inculcating and promoting a company ethos.

Training reimagined

It’s no longer just about how you do something, but why you’re doing it as well.  Training itself becomes part of the strategic mission and needs to be advocated by business leaders and key stakeholders.  It’s not enough simply to have a personal endorsement from the CEO at the start of a training programme.  Training should be presented in the context of the organisation’s belief systems and tied explicitly to the organisation’s goals.

The benefit of tying training so explicitly to the concept of organisational culture and making it a strategic goal of its own is that it makes learners aware of why they’re learning something.  This added relevance then becomes a driver for more effective and targeted training.  Learners who understand the ‘why’ behind the ‘how’ are more likely to be motivated and that motivation in turn can make training more effective and enhance performance.

Cultural realignment

The alignment of training with organisational culture is an important step, but only the first one. That alignment explicitly recognises the importance of culture and how it shapes the way we work.

But culture is not immutable and may, and most likely will, change over time.  Cultures may develop informally, without clear direction and uninfluenced by training.  And having a culture isn’t to say it’s the right one.

Some cultures turn out to be less effective than others. Culture can impede development as well as enable it. What has worked in the past might not necessarily work in the future.  And, in a changing business landscape, a culture that doesn’t adapt might just become history itself.

So, the alignment of training with organisational culture can’t be a one-way street. There’s no point in aligning training with a culture that gets in the way of training or that has become outdated. Training and cultural need to go hand in hand.  And, consequently, it may be that you need to use training to reinvigorate or change the culture.

Shaping culture by training

The next step then is to see how training might re-shape a culture that is no longer working to meet and support modern business needs.

This is not simply a matter of providing training material and learning outcomes that explain the significance of the organisation’s culture and outline where it needs to go.  The question is rather how to use training to drive behavioural change across the organisation.  This can only be done as part of a training strategy that covers not only the type of training offered but the processes by which it is implemented and, crucially, how training is integrated with the business of the organisation.  It means breaking down the traditional separation between training and work.

We need to move from thinking of training as a singular event to seeing it as a continuous process and part of the formal and informal networks that allow an organisation to function.  This means moving from the paradigm of ‘training first, then working’ to a model where training is brought into the workflow and becomes part of working, part of the culture.  In short, this is about establishing a new culture, one of learning.

What is a learning culture?

A culture of learning recognises training as a continuous process.  It acknowledges the importance of the informal network of influences that shape corporate culture.  It establishes a direct link between the formal, planned training programmes and the information and learning that already exists in people working in an organisation.

Any training designed to create or sustain a culture of learning has to make use of existing talent and expertise.  It must be agile enough to recognise prior learning. It needs to be accessible and flexible enough to facilitate the sharing of information outside and beyond the usual training structures.  The sharing of information is vital in establishing a positive feedback loop where best practices are actively shared, and the exchange of information becomes part of the organisation’s ethos.

How ICT will help

The development of a shared culture of learning has been made easier by developments in ICT and people’s use of digital media.  Modern learners are used to accessing and sharing information anytime, anywhere they need to.  Their use of search engines and how-to websites mean that they feel empowered to learn what they want to know without sitting through a class or signing up for specialist training.  Social Media has underlined the value of sharing information and underscored the effectiveness of collaborative learning in asking for help, getting assistance, responding to answers, and critiquing responses.

The challenge in corporate training is to take that experience, now so familiar to modern learners, and replicate it in the workplace.  This means allowing access to training beyond the classroom and the LMS, taking advantage of mobile connectivity, providing ways of capturing and sharing information and recognising the power of informal learning.  This approach expands the scope and remit of training and makes learning a shared experience that involves everyone.  At the same time the strategy can be used to standardise practices and make sure that the information shared informally is captured and subjected to the same scrutiny and rigour as more formal training material.

Reaping the benefits of a learning culture

It’s clear that to be fully effective training needs to recognise explicitly the role culture plays in any organisation.  The obvious first step is to identify those cultural imperatives and map your training outcomes to them.  But if culture determines the effectiveness and usefulness of training, then training too can exert an influence over culture: from instilling cultural values to changing set behaviours.

Changing behaviours is not simply about prescribing a set of rules to be followed.  To affect a deep cultural change you need to promote a culture of learning where training becomes part of working and exists within the workflow.  This learning culture promotes the idea of continuous discovery and widespread sharing of experience and expertise.  It makes for a more productive, efficient and welcoming environment where people’s roles, ideas and influence are valued.

A culture of openness and receptiveness can help staff retention and talent acquisition.  It creates a virtuous circle of shared development and involvement in which training plays key role.

An organisation in which training and culture are closely aligned will see tangible benefits in greater efficiency, better performance and a revitalised ethos focused on realising business goals.

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