What is a Learning Culture?

I wrote an article for a client company recently on learning culture and business change, I thought I’d reshare it here as it ties in quite nicely as an intro to a sequence of work I’ve been ruminating on around culture, learning organisations and the overall organisational culture landscape, which I’ll release more on in later issues.

What is a learning culture and what’s it got to do with business change?

Change as the new norm requires organisational agility, an ability to capitalise on opportunities, deal with challenges, and disrupt rather than be disrupted….

This is what we talk about in the business change world in terms of internal capability and change readiness.

More than simply having agile processes and strategic methodologies in place, it’s about people. Do people feel enabled, nurtured, empowered, challenged, secure and listened to? If they don’t then an organisation simply isn’t change ready.  As Peter Drucker once famously quoted: Culture eats strategy for breakfast!

Much in the same way countries are recognising GDP isn’t a good enough measure of a nation,  businesses are realising it’s not just about shareholders and the bottom line any more.

So what do we mean when we talk about a learning culture?

At a broad view, a culture is what we as humans ‘do’ as part of our survival mechanism, it’s what gives us an edge as a group. In the same way animal instinct allows us to respond to our environment. But think about that for a moment. Instincts aren’t always to be relied on! Our flight-fight mechanism gives us the ability to escape from harm, but likewise is a liability when trapped in an office with nowhere to go. In the same way our culture can fool us, lead us astray and yes, it can affect business results.

A learning culture is one that allows us to respond appropriately to the environment around us. But whereas individuals can go for a run when they are stressed, culture is a lot more difficult to change as it involves groups, often large groups, of humanity.

“A person is smart. People are dumb panicky animals and you know it” (Tommy Lee Jones – Men in Black)

So, what can businesses do to create a learning culture?

When it comes to learning culture, things can start getting very intangible very quickly. Businesses typically aren’t great at managing intangible elements, but its something they’ll need to get better at!

First it’s important to define that a learning culture can’t be enforced or pushed. Rather it is like a delicate flower in your garden that must be nurtured to allow it to grow.

Here are some tips to get you started:

Tie learning to organisational goals

Share the organisations’ vision – its picture and story of the future, and make sure it’s authentic and genuine (shared not only in terms of dissemination, but also in terms of a collective understanding). Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline states: ‘When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-to-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to.’ As Simon Sinek points out – Start with the ‘why’!

Plug in to intrinsic and extrinsic factors

People only learn if they see the purpose. This is different from sharing an organisational vision which is higher level, and instead zeroes in on the reason someone may have to learn something. A baker isn’t going to want to do training in ironmongery, unless he or she is looking for a career change! Bear in mind that your people will 9 times out of 10 not be 100% aligned with the organisational vision. This isn’t to say they’re not dedicated, professional and willing, of course they are, but check the reality – what are the intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors that underpin, or run alongside their work life?

Examine your learning processes

People are natural learners, it’s in our DNA, it’s also an organic and longitudinal process. Unfortunately the view of ‘learning’ in organisations kills this natural tendency, making it dogmatic, and process-oriented. This is because it is forced upon people as part of a compliance exercise. Of course some of this is unavoidable, but examine the processes you are using. What’s the balance of ‘push’ vs. ‘pull’ learning in your organisation? How much is developed by a top down methodology vs. a bottom up, grass roots approach?

Do not view learning as a single event.

Ok- this one is a personal bugbear!  

Learning happens over time. It seems obvious to say it, but it’s amazing how few organisations apply this in their learning practice. This is because we’re entrenched in a Victorian model of classroom education being didactically ‘transferred’.

We are not computers, and you can’t lift-drop a ‘file’ of learning from one human to another and expect it to be effective. All learning must be gradually released and reinforced over time, if this isn’t allowed for then learning will fail to be effective in the vast majority of stakeholder groups.

Encourage workplace reflection 

We all make mistakes, it’s what happens every day. But how often do you have the chance to reflect on how things went? How often is that shared? Do you learn from your mistakes? Build in more opportunity for these kinds of discussions, this is part of an on-the-job workplace learning exercise.

Provide the ecosystem for knowledge sharing, lessons learned and broader collaboration

Not only are people natural learners, they’re natural socialisers and givers too!

That’s part of the joy of it! Nothing says “I’ve done my job well today”  more than knowing you’ve solved a problem that many others will benefit from.

Unfortunately organisations lack the learning ecosystem for this to happen on an organic and peer-to-peer basis.

This may be a technical solution, but more likely it will need to run alongside some more intrinsic socio-cultural components. Remember people, process and technology, culture is a people thing.

So, what does this have to do with business change?

Ultimately having a learning culture allows you to respond as a group to challenges of the outside environment and overcome barriers.

Much of the cultural piece is an intangible element – it’s something that is felt more than measured, but feelings matter too!

According to the 2018 Towards Maturity Report commissioned by the CIPD, top deck learning organisations showed a 24% increase in productivity. That’s a lot!

Certainly, there’s a lot more to this than just a ‘cultural’ element, but a strong learning culture sets the water mark for what good looks like.  

Feed your learning culture and your learning culture will reward you with the results and the competitive edge that organisations need.


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