Lean, Social Business and Schein’s 10 Dimensions of the Learning Culture


This is a sequel of Edgar Schein Organizational Culture and Leadership review, focussing on the sole Chapter 20. In this chapter, the great man discusses Learning Culture and the Learning Leader.

Schein shares Gary Hamel points of view regarding today’s market and economy : we have no idea what tomorrow’s world will be except that “It will be different, more complex more fast paced and more culturally diverse. This means that organizations, their leaders and all the rest of us will have to become perpetual learners.”

Which somehow echoes what Mary Poppendieck said during Lean IT Summit 2011 : “In any industry nowadays, the fastest learner wins. if your competitor are faster learners then you’re in trouble.”

There is a paradox in the concept of a learning culture : how to set up such a culture when by essence, culture is more a conservative force aiming at reducing cognitive anxiety by making things predictable, shared and meaningful ?

The author have identified 10 dimensions of such learning culture, 10 dimensions he has observed in successful companies that are critical for companies to survive in today’s economy, and that requires special skills for the Learning Leader.

I just could not resist discussing how these dimensions are aligned with some of the Lean and Social Business principles …

What is leadership ?

There are many definitions of leadership. Some people get confused between leadership and management. Best definitions I know are from Peter Drucker (Management is doing the things right, leadership is doing the right thing) and John Kotter – in What Leaders Really Do (Management is about dealing with complexity. Leadership is about coping with change).

According to Schein, the essence of Leadership is creation and management of the dynamic processes of culture (…). Leadership is the source of organization beliefs and values and is highly sought by group members to reduce anxiety.

1. Proactivity

Schein is adamant that proactive problem solving is a critical skill for people to build a learning culture. Not only because problems are solved but also because while solving a problem, people learn. Learning by problem solving is the gist of Lean philosophy. During the 2012 edition of the Lean IT Summit, Mike Orzen insisted that one of the most important systems in an organization is the problem solving system.

2. Commitment to learning to learn

This is the definition Michale Ballé gives to Lean [FR]. Schein insists that learning is achieved while getting feedback and taking the time to reflect. This is where its gets complicated in our organizations as Chris Argyris reports in this HBR paper Teaching Smart People How to Learn (1991) :

Success in the market place increasingly depends on learning. The problem is that members of organizations that many assume to be the best at learning are, in fact not very good at. (…) Because many professionals are almost always successful in what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. Their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.

This is where Leadership comes into play : if leaders ask for help and accept it, they will show the path for learning. If leaders value experimentation and reflection, they will contribute to this learning culture.

3. Positive assumptions about human nature (Theory Y)

Douglas Mc Gregor Theory X approach of management (people are lazy and must be motivated and controlled) is not appropriate in the learning organisation as in that case, teams won’t learn and theory X will become self-fulfilling prophecy. Which can be viable in a stable context but surely not in such a turbulent one as ours.

Instead, Schein think that Learning Leaders must believe people will be keen on learning if they are put in the right and safety context (Theory Y). Besides, Schein evokes the post-heroïc leader whereby knowledge is more distributed and leaders are dependent on experts in their organization.

This is one of the main core value of Social Business. Actually #hypertextual strongly believes that social software in organization are the tools to implement Theory Y in the organization.

4. Belief that environment can be managed

We are here on the Doing / Being cultural axis. Schein argues that for organizations to learn in a turbulent economy, a Being culture whereby people are fatalist and enjoy what they have could survive in a slowly changing market but not in such as fast paced as ours. But to survive in ours you need a Doing culture.

5. Commitment to truth through pragmatism and inquiry

Schein positions the cursor on the Truth axis (from Dogma to Pragmatic and scientific method).  The idea here is that there is not a single learning method : as the type of problems to solve change there should be different methods. This is where his view tends to be contradicted by Lean philosophy which has been thriving using the same problem solving method, at all levels of the organization for about fifty years : the PDCA.

However, and this is where Lean and this statement of the MIT Emeritus professor converge, Lean Leaders knows there is much they don’t know and they do teach this to their teams. The only thing they know is that regardless of the problem, the scientific method will help them solving it.

Note that this pragmatic approach whereby the organization exposes its products to customers (and therefore to market’s reality) as soon as possible in a view to learn is at the heart of the Agile software development approach and it has been discussed extensively in 37Signals book Getting Real or in Eric Ries Lean Start-Up.

6. Positive orientation toward the future

Learning culture position on the Time orientation lies in the future. As the author puts it : “If the environment is becoming turbulent, the assumption that the best orientation is to live in the past or to live in the present clearly seems to be dysfunctional.”

Embracing Social Software is a way to make sure the organisation is a/ solving today’s problems with todays tools and b/ get used to integrating new wave of disruptive technologies as they emerge.

7. Commitment to full an open Task-relevant communication

The learning culture must be built on the assumption that communication and information are central to organisation well-being and must therefore create multi-channel communication system that allows everyone to connect to every one else.

This is a very strong statement which emphasizes the role of Social Software in the Learning Organization. Schein insists this openness must be limited to task-relevant information so that to prevent any interpersonal problems from happening across hierarchical or multicultural boundaries.

This views sheds a great light on a key issue for Social Software to create value : to be task-related and integrated in the flow of work.

8. Commitment to cultural diversity

The author idea here is that the more an organization is culturally diverse, the more capable it will be to deal with unpredicted events. This is something François Hisquin (CEO Octo Technology) reported to #hypertextual during his interview [FR]. The corresponding task for the leader is to ensure for diversity in the team and for good cross-cultural communication and understanding.

Here again, Social Software allows for horizontal communication across the organization and makes connections where none previously existed to quote danah boyd. This is invaluable as far as providing space for communication between different sub-cultures of the organization that would hardly have a chance to connect otherwise.

9. Commitment to system thinking

Ray Kurzweil made an impressive talk at USI 2011[FR] where he explained that the economy at the information age no longer is linear : it is exponential. Schein is aligned with this statement claiming that the learning leader knows the world is complex and overdetermined (most things are multiply caused).

There again, this is another pillar of Lean Thinking that Social Software, while creating horizontal real-time task-related communication, fosters and encourages.

10. Belief That Cultural Analysis is a Valid Set of Lenses for understanding and improving the world

According to Schein, in a learning culture, there is the belief that analyzing feedback and reflecting on their culture is a necessary part of the process. This point goes back to the whole book but also to Chris Argyris paper referenced earlier :

If learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward. They need to reflect critically on their own behavior, identify the ways they inadvertently contribute to the organization problems and then change how they act.

This takes courage and this is completely embedded in both Lean (reflecting on the way we work thanks to management coach – see Toyota Kata) and in Social Business which encourages rapid feedback and collaboration to solve business issues.


  1. Interesting post, thanks. As you know, I am a fan of the thinking and work of Schein and Argyris, and what they had to say 20 or 30 years ago is still highly relevant today.

  2. Actually this book is tremendoulsy inspiring for me. I am preparing another feature article on his vision of the 3 subcultures : operator, engineering and executive. So powerful !

  3. h/t Cecile for your timely and accurate article focusing on Ed Schein’s work. What looks pretty easy on paper is a real tough challenge in the real work context, where many different cultures “clash”, and yet have to work together to achieve the organization’s goals.

    Ed Schein’s newest book “Humble Inquiry” (a short distilled shared knowledge of his over 50 years in the field of organizational culture) I can fully recommend. Worth every cent.

  4. Hi Ralf,

    Thanks very much for your comment and for the recommandation. You are not the first recommending Humble Inquiry which is now on my To Read list of books for 2014.

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