In Business Learning Curve

Organisational Culture is a deep and curious thing. It is more than just history and heritage and geography and the maturity of the business.

Even now that companies no longer sculpt their name into the architecture of the buildings they expect to occupy for decades, culture is still embedded deep in the spaces where people work. Think of how the historic and corrupted behaviour of the old newspaper industry was changed only by moving out of Fleet Street, a move that was much more than merely symbolic.

Think of the grip of coal mining on the communities where the miners came from.

A business starts with the imprint of the founder, even if it’s only window cleaning or a corner print shop. Out of that grows a pattern of behaviour endorsed, permitted or encouraged by the bosses who are in line of sight.

But such culture often persists as the company grows, dominated by a leader such as Bill Gates or Sam Walton of Walmart.

Years after the Time magazine co–founder Henry Luce died, long time executives confronted by a problem would ask themselves – out loud – “What would Henry have done?”

And at Walt Disney, business plans used to be rated as “Good Mickey” or “Bad Mickey”, and when a Disney executive bought you lunch, he would cheerily announce: “This one’s on the Mouse”.

But how is all this stuff accumulated in a continuing organisation? How do new recruits learn how things are done?

Initiation and training have a lot to do with it.

The BBC sent me off to London Zoo to learn how to commentate with the late Brian Johnston within a month of my joining the newsroom as a humble subeditor with little immediate prospect of using the veteran cricket commentator’s insights in the work I was hired to do.

But what a lot I learnt about working for the BBC in my afternoon at the Zoo trying to describe into a live microphone the feeding of the sealions, which Brian, of course, did effortlessly.

These thoughts are generated by the way that businesses are now adopting the Internet (or rather the company Intranet) as training device, the subject of this programme.

They know that their recruits are part of the digital, always on, generation. They worry that the newbies will not respond to the traditional training sessions, all white boards and (now) powerpoint presentations.

So organisations are starting to use the new social networking tools as training systems. (They call them “learning” systems, because I think they are often afraid of the top down implications of that word training.)

Instead of knowledge being disseminated by a trainer who is a formal teacher, electronic learning systems enable anyone with a decent idea, tip, hint or improvement to use a simple device such as a mobile phone to add a video or audio contribution to a library of contributions accessible by anyone in the organisation.

Users – alias trainees – can criticise the contributions, add extras, rate them and rank them. As in a social network, the best create a buzz... and they can move round the firm in a trice.

But you see what is happening here? The shape of knowledge is being broken down. The old lines of command and control are being undermined at a very important point: the level at which recruits join the organisations, and where new procedures and practices are put forward, where lifetime impressions are formed.

And if the trainees can openly rate the people who contribute to their training, then to conventional corporations it may feel as though something like anarchy is in danger of may be breaking out.

For the social network generation (the people they call “Gen Y” or “Millennials”) any organisational attempt to control blogs and responses will seriously undermine the plausibility of the democratic new way of learning.

In fact, corporate culture has always been in the hands of the many who make up the organisation rather than the few who think they lead it. But electronic learning may make that fearfully obvious in a way it never was before.

Peter Day

Previous Programmes

Watch Your Language - Peter Day joins a group of enthusiasts determined to improve the language of business.

Keep it Local - As pubs struggle to survive, Peter Day travels through villages in Yorkshire and Cumbria to talk to local activists.

Space - Peter Day asks what happens next on the USA's journey into space.

German Pencils - Peter Day asks Faber-Castell and Staedtler how they both stay sharp ...

Building BRICS - Peter Day finds out about the BRICS - Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and China

Over A Barrel - Peter Day contemplates the turmoil in the Middle East and fears it will affect the price of oil

Reconstructing Capitalism - Peter Day hears all about the challenges to the way capitalism works.

All at Sea - Peter Day hears all about sea transport.

China Dispossessed - Peter Day hears about some of the problems caused by China's rush for prosperity.

Back on the Road - Alan Mulally tells Peter Day how he changed the way Ford works and how it is now back in the business of selling cars.

Asia Bling! - Peter Day ponders how the rise of the Asian comsumer will change business.

Euro on the Rocks - Peter Day asks what is the future for the Euro?

Bitter Pills - Peter Day looks at changing face of drug development.

Operation Robot - would you allow a robot to operate on you? Peter Day looks at robot-assisted surgery.

Growing Pains - Peter Day asks, what is the main component of growth?

After the Crunch - Government funding and regional development: the view from Newcastle.

Chips off the Old Block - Computing in the UK, past, present and future.

Hidden Depths - Graham Hawkes, DeepFlight and exploring the oceans.

Sociability - How social technology makes new business models possible.

Are CEOs Up to the Job? - Two thirds aren't according to Xinfu's Steve Tappin. Peter Day investigates.

In at the Start - Saeed Amidi and Silicon Valley

Power Play - Is the 'smart grid' the start of something big?

Now Wash Your Hands Please - How a simple idea can transform lives in the developing world

Coming Soon - What can the experience of previous financial crises tell us about the current one?

Ticking Over - Can the Isle of Man rejuvenate the business of watchmaking?

Not Just Silicon - what can Silicon Valley teach us about innovation?

Press under Pressure - what lies ahead for the world of newspaper publishing?

Remembering CK Prahalad - in a world of change and multiple opportunities, how does a company keep up?

Rwanda Rising - building a clean safe state where business can flourish.

Life Cycles - building businesses around the idea of new kinds of bikes.

Who Sets Our Standards - the business and social benefits of standardisation.

Ready to wear - the ethical issues of the international clothing industry.

Doing It Wrong - what's wrong with the way business works?

New Age - the business of aging.

Project Alcatraz - rehabilitating offenders in Venezuela.

Selling Salvation - Peter Drucker and the Salvation Army.

Let Me Entertain You - office parties and away days.

Brazil's Sugar Rush - Brazil.

Small Wonder - microfinance.

Unlimited Company - organizational models.

Credit Crunch - cash and credit.

Student Startups - student entrepreneurs.

Media Mayhem - changes in the newspaper industry.

Squeaky Clean - branding.

Battery Power - Bolivia.

Women's Work - women in the city.

Hell For Leather - John Timpson and Timpson's Shoes.

Learning Curve - organisational culture.

Let's Start a Bank - banking.

Goodbye to Intel - Craig Barrett and Intel.

Location Location - So?

Iceland feels the Heat - the credit crunch in Iceland.

The Cisco Kid - Mike Lynch and John Chambers.

Grand Design - business schools.

Power Drive - the car industry.

All New - innovation.

Europe on the edge - What is this thing called "Europe"?

For more programmes visit the In Business programme archive.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.