Creating a learning culture almost always involves a massive effort, and this is especially true if it's necessary to re-create the culture of an existing organization. If you decide to embark on the path of developing a learning culture, pay close attention to these potential stumbling blocks:
A BLOATED BUREAUCRACY. Nothing can slow an organization down faster than bureaucracy. Welch hated bureaucracy from the start, urging all managers to "fight it, kick it." Disdaining bureaucracy was one of the key GE values for years, and many of GE's key tactics and programs were aimed at eliminating unnecessary layers of management, needless approvals, and anything else that slowed the company down. Welch worked for years to replace GE's pervasive bureaucracy with trust, excitement, and informality.
AN ENTRENCHED CULTURE, MIRED IN THE PAST. How do most large companies get things done? The answer is: Our way. Transforming an organization almost always includes transforming the culture, which means changing the old mind-set. This is one of the most difficult aspects of leading any large-scale change in an organization. Welch was able to accomplish this through Work-Out, the GE values, eliminating nonperformers (the bottom 10 percent), and constantly communicating the message.
GETTING THE SEQUENCE WRONG. It would make little sense to attempt any large-scale change in a company that is about to be restructured or significantly downsized. An organization needs to be relatively stable before a learning infrastructure can be established. Otherwise, employees and managers alike will have a difficult time focusing on the task at hand, because they will be (correctly) absorbed with fixing the problems that are plaguing the corporation.
TRYING TO DO TOO MUCH, TOO SOON. The road to a learning organization involves many steps that are likely to require years, not months, to implement. In today's turbulent, short-term-oriented business environment, many business leaders may not have the time to do what Welch did. In today's corporate world, missing a quarterly profit goal by even a modest amount can send the company's stock plummeting by 20, 30, or even 40 percent. (It's an expectations game, as much as anything else.) Given that unforgiving reality, an impatient CEO may decide to move too quickly, skip steps, or assume that creating a few training courses is tantamount to creating a learning culture. While there is nothing inherently wrong with training—in fact, it is a vital part of the learning infrastructure—it is only a small part of the larger change effort.
LETTING DOWN YOUR GUARD. Managers who lead learning organizations cannot afford to get complacent or let down their guard. Learning must remain a top priority, and the message must be delivered consistently. Managers must send the message that learning is the key to the future, and that message must be backed up by the company's promotion and compensation systems.