What kind of culture does an agile organization need?

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In the last few months I have been able to hold many discussions on the subject of agility. Exciting discussions, because almost every one of us has a definite opinion on this. And in many discussions, it is not so much about content details or subtleties that are philosophized at first, but rather generously ascertained: Agility is a mindset. Or: the employees must become more agile in their minds, and then it is also the company. Or: We need an agile culture before we take other measures. I think these statements are at least abridged, but I would like to use them here as stirrups to deepen the question of this „agile culture“.

Trust culture and permanent questioning as (too) abstract foundation

Häusling/Kahl/Römer (2016) from the HR Pioneers, who postulate the change from a culture of control to a culture of trust in their „maturity level model“, offer an already widespread solution to culture in an agile organization. The culture of trust is certainly an elementary component of agility, as it is the foundation of building organizations that are more decentralized and responsive. Regardless of whether the (agile) organisation is now based on strict rules such as Holacracy (cf. Roberson 2015) or on other, somewhat more flexible principles (cf. Laloux 2014). The culture of trust is a basis for ensuring that hierarchically centralised decision-makers transfer decision-making and action competence to the majority of their employees. This makes it possible to make decisions faster, act faster and react faster. The system is more agile. Thus, as Häusling/Kahl/Römer (2016) correctly state, a culture of trust is central. Nevertheless, the term „culture of trust“ is almost as abstract as the term „agile culture“ per se. There needs to be a more precise definition, a broader diversification, which is what this means.

Another aspect of the „agile culture“ I have derive analytically from another post: the systemic ability to constantly question (Krapf 2016a). This is also an important element for an agile organization, because in times of permanent change, self-evident facts have to be permanently questioned. The following monkey metaphor (cf. fig. 1) shows very illustratively why the excuse „we have always done so“ is absurd in dynamic times. But also the permanent questioning of self-evident facts is only one aspect of the agile culture that needs to be defined and diversified.

affen metapher

Figure 1: Monkey metaphor as a symbol of the need to question the obvious (project Phoenix 2015)

Culture of an agile organization: An analytical exploration and deepening experiment

The „agile culture“ must therefore be put into concrete terms, so that the possibilities for shaping it can be discussed at all. I would like to address this attempt at exploration and deepening in this context. In a first step, this will be somewhat theoretical; comparable to a mathematician who tries to explain his new formula for miracles – even if the comparison with the mathematician is not quite suitable, because in the present context no formula for miracles and certainly no absolute truth can result. Nevertheless, however, it is necessary to analytically derive the design dimensions presented below for the culture of an agile organization. This not only makes underlying patterns of value transparent, but also allows a real discussion about the benefits and limitations of these dimensions. If you are not interested in the following theoretical derivation, it is advisable to skip the next lines and read on directly from the fifth section.

1) Define Agile Organization

The first analysis step starts with the definition of the agile organization. Even if the understanding of agility often seems to be heterogeneous, in literature the agile organization is often defined as such or similarly: Agility describes „the ability of a company to continuously adapt to its complex, turbulent and insecure environment. In addition,[the organization] must quickly adapt to internal and external changes by developing the ability to anticipate these changes as early as possible, to be innovative and ready for change, to constantly learn as an organization and to make this knowledge available to all relevant persons „(Häusling/Fischer 2016, p. 30).

2) Finding researched concepts and using analogies

Although it may seem different to some, agility is not a new term and has been explored in various disciplines from different perspectives since the 1950s (Wendler/Stahlke 2014, p. 2). A concept that has already been researched for a long time stands out because it shares the definition with the agile organization: the learning organization. A forefather of this concept, Peter Senge, calls the core competence of a learning organization the continuous adaptation to the external circumstances for securing and shaping its own future (Senge 1994, p. 14). Other, often quoted researchers on the concept of the learning organisation describe learning enterprises as such that are flexible and can adapt continuously to the environment (cf. Argyris/Schön 1999, p. 190; Pedler/Burgoyne/Boydell 1994, p. 11). The short definition of learning organisations from Marsick/Watkins (2003, p. 142) is also symbolic of the analogy of the learning and agile organisations:“A learning organization is one that learns continuously and transforms itself. So that learning is therefore not reduced to the individual level, Argyris/Schön (1999, p. 195) see the central lever to the learning organisation in a learning culture „that functions like a constantly learning system“.

3) Fan out the different cultural approaches

If the agile organisation is now understood as a synonym for the learning organisation and if the learning culture according to Argyris/Schön (p. 195) can be used as a central lever for its systemic development, then an extensive fund of knowledge from research can be used. The focus on the learning culture allows a well-founded deep drilling into the details of such an agile culture, but also makes it necessary that different understandings of culture are separated at least analytically cleanly. As explained in an earlier article, the different cultural approaches differ in the idea of what culture is and how it can be changed (Krapf 2016b). And these different perceptions of the concept of culture then also determine the concretisation of the sought-after „agile culture“, which has hitherto been described as abstractly as learning culture, as well as the aforementioned approaches to a culture of trust (cf. Häusling/Kahl/Römer 2016) and the culture of permanent questioning (Krapf 2016a).

Agile culture or learning culture in the variable approach

The variable approach assumes that the organization has a culture and that it consists of variables to be defined (Jenert/Gebhardt 2010, p. 8). In the present context, the formative idea in this understanding would be that the learning (or agile) organisation has a (learning) culture which could be roughly described as a framework that promotes learning (cf. Sonntag et al. 2004, p. 107). These framework conditions could then be extended to various variables and arranged accordingly. This sounds – especially for the practice – very promising, as such (pre-)defined parameters can be used to derive measures directly and change them voluntarily. The problem with the understanding of learning culture as a framework to promote learning lies in the fact that learning by individuals is not the same as learning the overall system (cf. also Rüegg-Stürm/Grand 2014, p. 176). Under a variable approach, learning culture as a lever to agile organization can thus promote individual learning, but it only provides a limited explanatory approach to how the organization learns as a social system. For this reason, this approach is not compatible with the definition of Argyris/Schön (1999, p. 195), who see the central lever to the learning organization in a learning culture „that functions like a constantly learning system“.

Agile culture or learning culture in the metaphors approach

The variable approach is juxtaposed with the metaphor approach. While under the variable approach the organisation has a culture, the organisation is a culture in the sense of the metaphors approach. In this sense, the organisation is a social construction of its members and can therefore be understood as a metaphor for culture (Jenert/Gebhardt 2010, p. 9f.). Or, to be more precise, in the present context: The learning organisation would be a metaphor for the learning culture. This approach has the advantage that culture is not exploited and is seen as a function of the organisation. For, as explained above, this would result in culture being understood as merely a „learning-friendly framework condition“, whereby only learning at the individual level would be dealt with. The problem with the metaphor approach lies – especially in the following areas for practice – by negating the ability of culture to shape itself and thus enjoying philosophical value not only for organisational developers.

Agile culture or learning culture in a dynamic approach

The dynamic approach combines the variable and metaphor approach and assumes that an organization has both a culture and a culture (Jenert/Gebhardt 2010, p. 10f.). In our case, this means that the learning (or agile) organisation has a learning culture that cannot be shaped directly and arbitrarily, but can at least be influenced. At the same time, the learning culture in this understanding is not reduced to the framework conditions for individual learning, but refers (also) to the socially constructed or systemically collectivized learning processes. Thus, the dynamic cultural approach seems to be the perspective under which the illumination of the learning culture as a lever for agile organization in the sense of Argyris/Schön (1999, p. 195) seems to be appropriate from both a theoretical and a practical point of view.

4) Defining a culture of learning as a lever for learning organization in the leading paradigm

Now that the dynamic cultural approach has been chosen and justified as a leading paradigm, the role of the learning culture in connection with the learning (or agile) organisation can be examined in more detail. This requires a better understanding of not only the concept of the learning culture but also that of the learning organisation.

Learning culture as collectively shared patterns of action and perception

As already discussed in detail in another article, learning culture can be understood as collectively shared patterns of action and perception that relate to learning (Krapf 2016b). This definition of learning culture is first of all purely descriptive at this moment, in that all patterns of action and perception regarding learning shared by the members of the organisation or group are understood as learning culture. However, the learning culture in the sense of the learning (or agile) organization is not arbitrarily pronounced, but rather it should „function like a constantly learning system“ (Argyris/Schön 1999, p. 195).  In this way, the patterns of action and perception are given a certain characteristic, which must then be determined in greater detail.

Learning organisation as a permanent change in the patterns of action and perception

As stated in the definition of the learning (or agile) organization, the model is a system that can change permanently and adapt to the new circumstances (Argyris/Schön 1999, p. 190; Häusling/Fischer 2016, p. 30). In order to understand the role of the learning culture described above in this context, it helps to understand which attempts to interpret the learning organization in the chosen paradigm or from a social constructivist point of view are not expedient (cf. Schüerhoff 2006, p. 6f.):

  • The learning organisation cannot be reduced to individual learning processes, because the learning of the individuals does not necessarily mean that the system as such has „learned“ something.
  • As a social system, the learning organization cannot be equated with people and their learning. In the chosen understanding, organisations do not have any cognitive abilities that allow them to process information in the same way as people and to make adjustments on this basis.
  • The learning organisation cannot be subdivided into different levels (individual, team, organisation), which then serve as stirrups to distribute the knowledge of the individual through appropriate knowledge management within the organisation.

From a social constructivist point of view, the learning organization as a social system relies on an adequate change in the collective patterns of action and perception (Grundhoefer 2013, p. 25). Changes in the behaviour of individual individuals may play an important role here, since they are responsible for these patterns of action and perception; and appropriate knowledge management tools may support the change of socialised behaviour patterns. In the present understanding, however, the learning organization focuses on collectivized patterns of action and perception, whose change can be understood as a change in the system. Therefore, it was not wrong to describe the permanent questioning of collective patterns of action and perception as an important part of the learning culture as a lever for agility (cf. Krapf 2016a).

Linking learning culture and learning organisation

As is now evident, the learning culture describes the collectively shared patterns of action and perception with regard to learning. It loses this descriptive character when it is based on the goal of being a lever for a system that is constantly learning (see above). The learning organisation, in turn, is a system in which collective patterns of action and perception are constantly changing in order to secure the future of the organisation (Senge 1994, p. 14). If we understand the change of such collectively shared patterns of action and perception as organizational learning (Argyris 2009, p. 157), then the learning organization represents a prescription for permanent organizational learning (Schilling/Kluge 2004, p. 370). This in turn requires socialised practices in order to be able to constantly change the collectivised patterns of action and perception. Or more concretely: a learning culture (collectivized patterns of action and perception with regard to learning) is needed, which will question and help to change the collective’s patterns of action and perception, which are no longer appropriate. For this reason, learning culture in literature is often equated with the learning organization (Schilling/Kluge 2004, p. 367; Steckelberg 2010, p. 5). Whereas the general collectivised behaviour patterns in a (learning) organisation are both system-specific and dynamic, the appropriate patterns of action and perception with regard to learning (learning culture) form the stable backbone of this organisational dynamics (Palos/Stancovici 2016, p. 3). Because in an organisation there are not only collectivised patterns of action and perception in relation to learning, it would be shortened somewhat to equate the learning culture with the learning organisation in its entirety. In addition, equating culture and organization would correspond to the metaphors approach rather than the dynamic cultural approach. However, because in learning or agile organisations the socialised patterns of action and perception are permanently changed, a learning culture as defined above and understood in the sense of Argyris/Schön (1999, p. 195) is the dominant cultural constant. Thus, if we follow the closer illumination of the „agile culture“ or the culture of an agile organization, then this understanding of the learning culture can be linked to this very understanding.

5) Ensuring intermediate knowledge in order to enable further deepening

At this point I welcome again those who have skipped the theoretical derivation. Until now, it has been shown that learning culture can be defined in the dynamic cultural approach as collectively shared behavioural and perception patterns in relation to learning. In turn, the agile organization as a synonym for the learning organization was understood as a system that can adapt and change continuously. In a socially constructivist understanding (cf. Schüerhoff 2006, p. 6f.), the agile organization distinguishes itself by the fact that collectivized patterns of behavior and perception are (can) be permanently changed. Or in other words: In agile organisations there is a continuous organizational learning process in which the established „theory-in-use“ is replaced by new practices (Argyris/Schön 1999, p. 22ff.). Thus, if organizational culture is understood as the combination of all collectivized patterns of behavior and perception and the learning organization excels in constantly changing the collectivized patterns of behavior and perception, then the question arises: Does the learning or agile organization have a culture at all? As explained in the theoretical discussion, the answer is „yes“, because the dominant cultural constant of such an agile organization is a learning culture „that functions like a constantly learning system“ (Argyris/Schön 1999, p. 195). The „agile culture“ or the formative culture of an agile organization is thus a learning culture in the sense of goal-oriented, collectivized patterns of action and perception with regard to learning. It is now necessary to deepen these patterns in order to describe the „agile culture“ in a more tangible way than it was first done with „culture of trust“ or „culture of permanent questioning“.

6) Dimensions of the learning culture as the dominant cultural constant of the agile organization

The already mentioned knowledge fund, which opened up with the equation of agile and learning organization (cf. above), now helps to concretize this prescriptive learning culture as the dominant cultural constant of an agile organization. For example, there are some researchers who – based on the normative model of the learning organization – have defined their central behavioral and perceptual patterns (i. e. culture) and translated them into a survey instrument. The best-known of these instruments (cf. e. g. Seufert et al. 2016, p. 305) are the „Checklist of the Learning Organisation“ (Pedler/Burgoyne/Boydell 1994) and the „Dimensions of the Learning Organization Questionnaire (DLOQ)“ (Marsick/Watkins 2003). The DLOQ seems to be more widespread both in practice and in science, which is due not least to the fact that this instrument shares the stated idea of learning culture as the dominant cultural constant of the learning organization (Leufven et al. 2015, p. 2; Palos/Stancovici 2016, p. 8). In addition, this instrument has already been validated several times, which gives the results more legitimacy (Marsick/Watkins 1999, p. 49 Song/Joo/Chermack 2009, p. 44; Yang 2003, p. 152).

With its DLOQ, Marsick/Watkins (2003) defines seven design dimensions that are central to an organization’s ability to learn in the present sense and to adapt continuously. These seven dimensions can thus also be understood as the central main categories that determine the desired collectivized behavioral and perceptual patterns of learning (learning culture) in the model of a learning organization:

Continuous Learning: The learning of the individual is integrated into the daily work, the employees take care of their personal growth.

Inquiry and Dialogue: The exchange between employees is used appropriately to promote the learning of both the collective and the individual.

Team Learning: The collaboration is structured in such a way that the collective learns together or that what has been learned can be collectively activated.

Embedded Systems: The organisation uses tools and instruments to promote individual and collective learning.

Empowerment: Employees can contribute to the attainment of the vision by giving them the freedom to make decisions and act.

Systems Connection: The organization is viewed holistically and as a social system in both individual and collective action.

Strategic Leadership: By acting, managers enable all employees to contribute to the vision through their operational actions as well as through individual and collective learning.

For all seven design dimensions Watkins/Marsick (1999) have developed several question items that are easy to find online (see Bibliography). It is interesting in the more detailed examination of the instrument that the constructs „trust culture“ and „culture of permanent questioning“, which were raised at the beginning and found to be too abstract, can be found in DLOQ as components and therefore do not have to be abandoned when using them.

7) Cultural development from an understandable description

Since we have committed ourselves to the dynamic cultural approach, it is of course important to relativize that these seven design dimensions of Marsick/Watkins (2003) are not the final and only solution to define the collectivized patterns of action and perception of an agile or learning organization (i. e.“agile culture“). Nor does it correspond to the chosen understanding of culture that these dimensions can be defined as the seven variables, which can now be designed as desired. Rather, the dimensions help to shine like a spotlight on those things in organisational complexity where there is increased success potential to achieve the mission statement of an agile organization. The development of the „agile culture“ must, however, develop in the dynamic approach of an understandable description (Jenert/Gebhardt 2010, p. 11), which is why the DLOQ of Marsick/Watkins (2003) should be supplemented with qualitative instruments in order to enable organization-specific cultural development. As shown in more detail in an earlier article, the DLOQ provides an orientation which can then be worked on with other instruments in an organisation-specific way (Krapf 2017).

Conclusive Summary

At the beginning, the question was raised as to what kind of culture characterizes an agile organization. Existing answers such as „culture of trust“ or „culture of permanent questioning“ were not negated, but declared as (too) abstract. A deepening of the dominant culture in an agile organization was achieved by the fact that a theoretical derivation could clearly show that the agile organization is a synonym for the learning organization, which opened up a broad fund of knowledge from existing research. This allowed it to be established that the core of the learning (or agile) organisation consists of permanently adapting the collectivised patterns of action and perception to the requirements. Since the paradigm of the dynamic cultural approach understands collectivized patterns of action and perception as an organizational culture, the question arose to what extent learning organizations possess a culture at all. This could be affirmed to the extent that the learning culture (i. e. the collectivized patterns of action and perception with regard to learning) represent the dominant cultural constant in a learning (or agile) organization. This prescriptive learning culture was then concretized through the use of the DLOQ by Marsick/Watkins (2003), with only marginal room for critical appraisal of the instrument and its pros and cons. This is due to the fact that at this point the derivation of this was in the foreground, which is why DLOQ is worth using as a starting point for the culture of an agile organization. The research methodological questions are thus not irrelevant, but are reserved for another contribution.


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