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Factors of organizational climate influencing learning in companies

Zuzana Šimberová

Department of Educational Sciences, Faculty of Arts,
Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Ghent, 19-21 September 2007

Abstract: The paper presents the theoretical background of my Ph.D. project and the first outcomes of a pre-research dealing with factors influencing approach to learning in a company as they are perceived by employees, potential learners. These factors can be divided into internal (individual) and external factors. This paper concentrates on external factors, factors of organizational culture and climate, which can be modified by personnel strategy and influence learning in a positive way.

There is a lack of similar research in the Czech Republic. However, some inspiration comes from abroad, e. g. Evans et al., 2006, Ellström, Gill, Kock, 2006. Attention is paid to non-formal and informal learning, more frequent in companies than formal learning.

Introduction

The paper presents the outcomes of a pre-research that makes a part of a doctoral thesis, both dealing with learning in companies as a part of lifelong learning. While the latter is more complex, the former concentrates on factors of organizational culture and climate influencing learning in companies. These topics are rare in the Czech Republic and there is a lack of research and information for improvement in workplace learning and in-company training systems.

Workplace learning and in-company training present important elements of further education and lifelong learning. It is a topic often discussed in recent decades. Although learning and competence development in a workplace including its conditions is often explored abroad (e. g. Evans, 2006, Ellström, 2006, Garrick, 1998, Boud, Garrick, 1999), there are almost no resources and information about learning in companies in the Czech Republic.

The objective of the paper is to present theoretical background of my research which makes part of my Ph.D. project, information about the company where I have started my research (e. g. information about the training system and the organizational structure) and some of the preliminary outcomes based on my pre-research.

1. Factors influencing learning– theoretical background

The very simplified Figure 1 presenting main areas of factors influencing learning in companies is based on literature and shows the area standing in the centre of my research – the conditions (factors) as they are perceived by employees. There are four main domains – personality, circumstances, organizational culture and climate, and in-company training system. Personality (e. g. education, age, motivation, etc.) and circumstances (e. g. financial situation, family, health, etc.) are on the employee’s side and should not be omitted when speaking about learning and training in companies. But the company cannot change them. On the other hand, there is organizational culture and climate, which is very important not only for learning and training in companies, but also for work. It is difficult to separate culture and climate and I prefer using both of the terms together with emphasis on interpersonal relations. The last domain – in-company training system and its form – shows the importance that management attaches to training. This paper concentrates on one of the domains, and maybe the most important one – organizational culture and climate because it is the domain which can be changed and improved and, at the same time, plays a great role.

Figure 1: Factors influencing learning in companies

1.1. Workplace learning and in-company training system

In-company training can be described as a ‘learning process organized by a company’ (Palán, 1997, p. 86). It can have different forms and take place in different environments. In-company training can be as well a course outside of the company (external training) or a course taking place inside the company (internal training). And if it is inside the company, it can be off-the-job (outside of the workplace) training or on-the-job training (at the workplace, during work). And these forms relate to the distinction between formal, non-formal and informal learning. Probably, it is non-formal learning (as off-the-job training) and informal learning (as on-the-job training, mentoring, tutoring, often unconscious) that take place in companies more often than formal training (which is connected to educational system and certification).

Workplace learning includes learning in the workplace, through the workplace and for the workplace (Evans et al., 2006). It is an unusual conception in the Czech Republic but I find it useful as it covers all forms of learning (formal, non-formal, informal) as well as learning for the current work and for the future work, specific training or a further development.

According to several surveys in the Czech environment (Lidské zdroje, 1999, 2003, Podkladové, 2003, Alternativní, 1999), organizations and companies invest a lot of money into the training and development of their employees. However, besides some statistical data, there is no information which could help companies improve their training systems.

1.2. Organizational culture and climate

The concept of organizational climate has been assessed by various authors and there are different definitions. We can describe it as an individual perception of the work environment and of the characteristics of the enterprise (so-called organizational culture, ex. strategies, rules, values, management, etc.). This research has been inspired by several researches of learning environment (Ellström, 2005, Evans et al., 2006, Rainbird et al., 2004) and it concentrates on deep and detailed analysis of organizational climate in a large-sized enterprise in relation with in-company training.

In this research, organizational climate corresponds to the feelings of employees at work, their perception of the enterprise, and also to their identification with the enterprise. The organizational climate includes several factors which may influence the employees’ attitude towards learning in different ways. Authors (Šigut, 2004) usually understand in-company learning as a way to change organizational climate and culture. This research supposes also inverse influence – organizational climate can change (facilitate or hinder) learning in a company.

Organizational climate or environment in the enterprise is based on the perception of the enterprise by employees. It is characterized by the ‘relationships between people and organization and relations of superordination and subordination. They are determined by mutual influence of targets, formal structures, processes and behaviour of people’ (Lukášová, 2004, s. 269). The feelings that an employee has at work, his perception of values, rules, patterns of behaviour, ways of management, etc. (these characteristics of a company are called organizational culture), influence his behaviour and conduct and also his attitude to learning and in-company training (Šigut, 2004).

Although surveys in this field are still missing in the Czech Republic, we can be inspired abroad, e.g. in the UK (Evans, Hodkinson, Rainbird, Unwin, 2006, research of expansive and restrictive learning environment (learning culture)) or in Sweden (Ellström, Gill, Kock, 2006, who inquire the relationship between learning at work and some characteristics of the company, e. g. work organization, company management, etc.). Thanks to these surveys we know some factors (among them many are covered by the term organizational culture and climate), which play a role in learning and training in companies, e. g. work in teams, interdisciplinary communication, manager as facilitator, support of formal qualification development, opportunities to learn, delegated responsibility, etc.

1.3. Personality and circumstances

Besides the factors stated above which are created by the company, there are also factors brought to the company by individual employees. Their personal characteristics, education, experience (at work or anywhere else) as well as their values, cultural background and social competences influence their attitude to learning and training in the company and their participation. What is more, these characteristics influence also organizational culture and climate in the company (Evans, 2006).

In the similar way as personal and biographical conditions also external circumstances influence employee’s approach towards learning and training at work. They also present a group of factors or conditions which may be unknown to the company and the company cannot influence them while tending to improve employees’ approach to learning and training. Evans (2006) states three areas influencing a person – financial, family and health conditions.

These conditions can be analysed in another paper because I do not want to underestimate them. In this paper, I would like to concentrate on the area of organizational culture and climate.

2. Factors of organizational climate influencing learning – empirical evidence

2.1. Methodology

For the empirical part of my Ph.D. thesis I have chosen a design of qualitative research – a case study. The main methods are documentary analysis (directive ‘employees’ training’, annual reports with organizational structure) and two types of interviews – semi-structured interview and ‘interview with the double’ –, completed by observation.

I find qualitative methodology useful considering the topic. I am interested in the conditions, factors and circumstances which employees perceive as important for their learning in their company. And for this paper, I concentrate on organizational culture and climate and their factors. Then my research question is: What factors of organizational climate influence employees’ approach to learning in the company? What are the differences between factors stated by employees at different positions (director, manager, employee)? What are the differences between factors influencing non-formal and informal learning?

The combination of these two types of interview allows me to get relevant data not only about non-formal learning, which is easier to reflect, but also about informal learning during work which is often unconscious. A semi-structured interview is a well-known technique. On the other hand, an ‘'interview with the double’ is not used frequently even if it can bring many interesting findings.

The ‘interview with the double’ was developed by Sylvia Gherardi (Gherardi, 1995) as a projective technique used in ethnographic studies. It is a kind of role play between the researcher and the respondent. The interviewee is asked to describe his work in detail, so that the researcher could do the same work next day and none of the colleagues would notice the change. So the description should include not only work description, but also information about behaviour at work, relationships and feelings. In this way, talking about his everyday work, cooperation with colleagues and relationships, he can uncover conditions for learning in the workplace (informal learning) which is often difficult to notice. The respondent can talk more openly and can feel more relaxed because he does not talk about himself, his work, his problems, but he instructs a person, tells him what to do in his place. The ‘interview with the double’ helps to discover the relationships in the workplace – that means organizational culture and climate.

For my research, I have chosen a large-sized company (about 1000 employees) operating in power industry in the Czech Republic which was willing to cooperate. After a documentary analysis (employees’ training directive, annual reports including organizational structure, information about employees), I have chosen (in cooperation with the personnel clerk) five departments with six sections and 14 employees of these sections (Figure 2). As I want to compare the perception of conditions of employees at different levels in organizational hierarchy, I plan interviews with the director of the department, the manager of the section and then with the employees. I will do 25 interviews together.

This paper presents information about the company based on documentary analysis and interviews with the personnel clerk responsible for training and preliminary outcomes based on two (extreme, different) interviews with employees during my pre-research.

2.2. The company’s training system

The company is very interested in learning, training and further development of employees. According to annual reports in the last three years, emphasis is put on obligatory courses prescribed by the legislation, then on languages, management skills and IT skills.

The company has elaborated a directive of employees’ training effective from May 2007. It describes the training system which is based on the strategy of the company and personnel department. The aim is to ensure employees’ competences to work efficiently. The purpose of the directive is to:

  • optimize and describe the process of training and development provision,

  • define the conditions of participation in activities,

  • define the duties of the participants.

  • The directive describes the training cycle in four steps:

  • training needs analysis,

  • planning of training and development,

  • realization of training activities,

  • evaluation of training activities.

  • It is important to mention that many companies omit the last phase because they do not realize its importance for the next cycle. The company applies evaluation at the end of a training activity but it also plans to evaluate the changes of behaviour at work several months after the training activity.

    The training needs analysis is based on annual evaluating interview with the chief. They plan training activities for the next year together according to their needs and wishes.

    Then the personnel department elaborates a plan of training activities for the whole company and informs the employees about agreed activities via intranet.

    In the directive, there are also areas of training activities offered to employees:

  • studies at universities,

  • obligatory courses,

  • languages,

  • information and communication technologies,

  • marketing skills,

  • vocational training,

  • project training activities – outdoor activities,

  • conferences,

  • management skills,

  • Perspectives.

  • Besides these activities, the company prepares ‘Minimum of a new employee’ which will help newcomers in an easier and faster adaptation to new conditions.

    The two years’ programme Perspectives allows chosen employees to grow in accordance with the new trends in young managers’ education. It is intended for employees who work on a non-managerial position at least for 1 year and can speak English. They pass an assessment centre and the chosen ones can join the program.

    In 2006, the training and development in the company was also supported by the European social fund through the project Lower and middle management academy, which consisted of 8 modules (work in teams and effective communication, stress and conflict management, power engineering and its specifics, leadership and coaching, Labour and Commercial code and the EU, finance a controlling, presentation skills and meeting of participants).

    2.3. Organizational structure

    When thinking about my potential respondents, I had to analyze organizational structure of the company as well. Because the objective of my research is – inter alia – to find out the differences in attitudes and approaches of employees at different levels, I have chosen three important levels in a very complicated structure.

    For my research, I plan interviews with 25 respondents. They cover 5 departments (5 directors), 6 sections (6 managers) in these departments, and 14 employees from these sections.

    Figure 2: Organizational structure and sampling

    2.4. What factors of organizational climate influence learning and training in companies?

    From my pre-research, I have chosen two employees at the same level in the organizational structure with different characteristics. They perceive the conditions in the company in a different way. They have not only different personal characteristics, which play an important role in their attitude to learning, but they perceive the organizational climate differently.

    Jana – woman, 4 years before retirement, working in the company for 11 years, secondary school

    Pavel – man, his first job, working in the company for 2.5 years, university

    2.4.1. Factors connected to informal learning during work

    Relationships with colleagues

    Pavel is enthusiastic. He describes their relationships as very close, he meets his colleagues also in the evenings, e. g. for sports, dinner, etc. He shares his office with four colleagues and they ask each other if they have some difficulties. If they do not know the answer, he can call colleagues from other regions. He has friends also among the colleagues from the department in the same corridor. ‘We go to a restaurant, play squash...’

    Jana describes her relationship with colleagues as formal and strictly linked to work because they are young and have nothing in common with her.

    ‘I would never have a cup of coffee with my colleagues...’

    Work in teams

    Pavel is in a team with his boss and two colleagues who do the same job. Each of them have their own piece of work but they consult it together.

    ‘We are three doing the same job... we share the work and if someone has a problem he asks.’

    Jana has her own work and a big part of it is administration when she works on her own. If she needs help, she asks colleagues from another department.

    ‘...and then I put the data into computer... it is an administrative work.’

    Manager as facilitator

    Pavel is in a team with his chief and when they get new duties they share them. Pavel says he still has to learn.

    ‘I always ask my chief before I do something and he usually says ‘ok, do it...’ or ‘no, find another way.’

    Jana works alone and has to find a solution herself. If she asks her chief, he just says ‘find a solution, I know you will succeed’. Several years ago, Jana did a lot of work in a project herself and the chief knows he can trust her.

    ‘...he just says ‘find a solution, I know you will succeed.’

    2.4.2. Factors connected to non-formal learning in courses organized by the company

    Support and appreciation of training

    Pavel says he can join chosen courses and his chief has nothing against it. If he completes a course, there is no reward, and almost no possibility of promotion. ‘If I want to attend a course he has nothing against it... he also attends some...’

    Jana is not asked to attend courses. She has to know what is necessary for her job. She has no ambition but ‘young colleagues have a possibility to be promoted.

    Awareness of training possibilities

    Pavel sometimes gets an offer from the personnel department but he looks for interesting courses himself. He knows where he can find useful courses and he knows how to apply for them.

    ‘A colleague from the personnel department sends us the offers and she has made a new notice board on the corridor recently.’

    Jana does not know about any courses and her chief does not want her to attend any. She is not interested in the courses. She attends only courses necessary for her job.

    ‘I think I had to learn a lot...in my age... with the computer...if there is something very new and important we have a course organised.’

    Future career

    Pavel has attended or still attends many courses and he is happy that the company allows him all courses he chooses. He likes attending the courses even if it is not necessary for his current job.

    ‘I do not use it now but it can be useful in the future.’

    Jana prefers having her free time spent with her grand-children. She is going to retire in several years. ‘I think I will stay here until my retirement.’ She is not afraid of losing her job because her chief trusts her and ‘he entrusted a lot to me when we started in this department... and he comes and asks me if he has a problem.’

    Conclusion

    It is clear that there are many factors and conditions influencing and determining employees’ approach towards learning and training in companies. It is not only the personality and biographies of individuals with their own external circumstances, which the company cannot change, but also conditions created by the company which can be improved, as in-company training system and organizational culture and climate.

    This paper concentrates on the last domain of conditions – organizational culture and climate. Only the basic factors gained from just two interviews show that they are different for non-formal and informal learning, and that it is important to work on both fields to improve the conditions for employees. People in one (such a large) company can have different points of view based on their personal characteristics too. The outcomes reflect also the approach of the company to individual employees, e. g. employees before retirement do not get information about any courses and are not asked by the managers to follow any of them.

    Although this example of outcomes is very short, it supports the idea that there are many factors of organizational culture and climate influencing learning and training in companies and they are perceived as important ones. Next interviews will show more...

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    This document was added to the Education-Line database on 31 October 2007