Last updated: 4 august, 2009 - 09:45 GMT

Learning Curve

About this programme by Peter Day

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 leant 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 maybe 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.

Previous updates - July


  • Peter Day finds out how to innovate your way out of an economic downturn.

  • A sense of time and place is changing Internet businesses everywhere.

  • Social entrepreneurs from Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt who are all innovating and confronting poverty in new ways.

  • A look at a hugely successful childrens TV series and it's boss Magnus Scheving.


  • Intel is going to appeal against both the judgement that it broke European Union monopoly rules and an eye-watering fine.

  • Men got us into this current economic mess, maybe women can get us out of it.

  • An entrepreneur's thoughts on a way of weaning motorists off their reliance on oil.

  • The industry that changed the world – the US automobile business – is in deep trouble. Peter Day finds out why.


  • A look at the edges of Europe and asking whether joining the EU, or in the case of Iceland wanting to, was worth it?

  • A look at the edges of Europe and asking whether joining the EU, or in the case of Iceland wanting to, was worth it?

  • A look at the edges of Europe and asking whether joining the EU, or in the case of Iceland wanting to, was worth it?


  • Sydney Finkelstein, co-author of Think Again - Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep It From Happening to You.

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