Learning Culture: A Workplace Environment for Success (Part One)

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S. Gill
Dr. Stephen J. Gill— is a guest contributor. An Independent Consultant for Human

He publishes a blog at:


Why Your Organization Needs a Learning Culture

Do you want employees to care about their work and their customers and go the extra mile? Do you want employees to improve their ability to contribute to the organization? Do you want employees to be creative and innovative and think about new and better products and services? Do you want employees to be focused on achieving results? Do you want employees who openly discuss ways to improve performance?

If your answer is “yes” to these questions, then you need to develop an organizational culture that supports continuous learning by everyone from the CEO to the hourly employee. HR and training professionals, by themselves, cannot develop this kind of culture. If you’re like most businesses, you rely heavily on these professionals to deliver programs that provide employees with what they need to know to do their jobs, whether that is assembling products, running complex machines, managing teams, or running an entire organization. That model of learning was effective for most of the past century. However, that model does not work for the modern company. Today’s companies require a culture in which everyone is continuously learning as individuals, as teams, and as whole organizations.

There was a time when a static set of skills would last a career, when one kind of management (usually command-and-control) would get the job done throughout the life of a company. Not anymore. Today, information is so readily available, technology is changing so rapidly, the world is changing so dramatically, that the old methods of learning and performance improvement are no longer effective.

In a book by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson titled, “The Second Machine Age,” the authors describe the situation this way:

…as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead…there’s never been a better time to be a worker with special skills or the right education, because these people can use technology to create and capture value. However, there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only “ordinary” skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots, and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.

In “The Lifetime Learner”, a publication of Deloitte University Press, the authors argue that the demand for new forms of education and training is not being met by traditional post-secondary institutions and corporate training departments. They write:

Individuals are…challenged by an accelerating cycle of skill obsolescence in a period of unprecedented transition from skill set to skill set. The rapidly changing business landscape demands constant learning of new skills and domains, retraining, and applying existing capabilities in new contexts. It also demands a greater fluency in digital tools and comfort in virtual environments. It rewards those with greater capacity to seek and access resources and to build social capital through personal networks and participation in communities.

In this “rapidly changing business landscape”, we need individuals and organizations that know how to learn. Those institutions that can learn quickly and constantly will be competitive and will survive. It’s no longer about having the most creative training events; it’s about developing a culture that values and supports continuous learning. This must be evident in the actions of leaders, in the manager-learner relationship, in the allocation of resources, in the recognition and reward system, in the way people communicate with each other, and in how people are held and hold themselves accountable.

We need agility in learners and in learning interventions. Employees need to take responsibility for their own learning. They need to learn fast and learn just-in-time and managers need to find different ways to facilitate that learning. Organizations need to create opportunities for individuals, teams, and the entire enterprise to learn how to learn fast and effectively.

We are not able to predict all of the skills and abilities workers will need even just a few months from now. It seems like every day there is a disruptive innovation that is dramatically changing the way work is done and what people need to know. The only way to face this future is to be agile learners. For example, in the past five years, Uber, the poster child for a “shared economy”, has grown from a smartphone app for requesting a taxi ride to a private-ride company valued at $40 billion that is disrupting the taxi business in cities around the world and changing people’s patterns of transportation. In its short history, Uber employees have had to learn how to use new technology and how to keep their customers happy (drivers and travelers). The organization has had to learn how to grow quickly while adapting to local laws, regulations, and customs, and, at the same time, staying competitive. The CEO and other company leaders have had to learn to manage their own missteps and public scrutiny that comes with being big, powerful, and having access to the personal data of millions of people.

But Uber is just one of many examples. Healthcare, manufacturing, mass media, hospitality, banking and finance, shipping, construction, communications, education…practically every sector of our society is changing at unprecedented speed. Guests can now check themselves into their hotel rooms with their smart phones. Doctors can make “house calls” via the Web. Patients can review their medical records and test results online. First-run movies can be streamed at home. Clothes shopping can be done without going to a brick-and-mortar store. Banking can be done entirely online. In each case, old jobs are being replaced by new jobs and those new jobs require much more knowledge and skill.

Seven major aspects of these dramatic changes are compelling us to make learning an essential value of our corporate cultures:

  1. Pace of Change. Change is happening faster than ever primarily due to technology and the young entrepreneurs who apply technology in new ways and who don’t feel bound to the way prior generations did things. No one should assume that the knowledge and skills that got them their jobs will be enough to keep those jobs. Everyone must embrace the learning paradigm if they wish to remain employed and continue to be effective contributors to their organizations.
  2. Competition is Cheap. Competition can come from anywhere in the world with minimal investment. To stay competitive, people have to be more knowledgeable, more skilled, and better able to apply new knowledge and skills effectively. And they must recognize it when it presents itself. Those early adopters are as much a competitive threat as are the initial inventors. Organizations need to stay creative and innovative, but they also need to learn how to respond to new ways of working, new ways of leading, and new ways of managing.
  3. Demands of a New Generation of Workers. For many organizations, an autocratic, command-and-control style of managing will not (and probably never did) motivate the newest generations of employees to contribute at their highest levels, Workers today want to participate in the governance of their organizations and they want to contribute in meaningful ways. They want to develop competencies to be effective in their current organizations and to be attractive in a shifting marketplace. They want and need to learn!
  4. Ineffectiveness of Event-Based Training.  Classroom, workshop, and seminar experiences do not have the desired impact on organizational performance.  Most estimates put the rate of formal training transfer to the workplace at less than 20% of participants. There is no question that formal training, by itself, is a tremendous waste of resources: the cost of developing and delivering training that isn’t used, the cost of employees being away from the job to attend these training events, and most importantly, the large percentage of employees not applying what they’ve learned. Instead of pushing information at employees, employees should be able to pull the information they need, when and where they need it. Just-in-time, relevant learning is more effective than classroom training that is removed in time and is not immediately applicable to the task.
  5. Need for Innovation.  Today, innovation is at the core of any organization’s competitiveness. By “innovation” I mean developing and applying a new idea, product, or process or using a product or process in a new way. This can be for the benefit of customers, stakeholders, or for better organizational functioning. Innovation does not happen without learning – workers need to learn how to learn from previous experience and experiments, innovators need to learn how to develop new products and services, users of the innovation need to learn how to apply the new technology or process to solve problems, and, most importantly, leaders need to learn how to support a culture of learning and innovation.
  6. Pressure for Results. CEOs are under pressure from investors and from activist Boards. They hear the footsteps of competitors who can disrupt markets easily and cheaply due to the global economy and advances in communication technology. Company leaders feel the need to respond by shortening the product development cycle, being responsive to shifting demands of the marketplace, and producing products and services that are better and lower cost than anyone else. Organizations need to learn how to compete in this environment, to use market research effectively and efficiently, and to be responsive to customer demands.
  7. Success Depends on Shared Information. Useful knowledge resides with many people, no matter what their position or role in the organization. No one person has all the information needed to be successful. So much information is coming at us in so many different ways that we need each other to make sense of it all.  HR and training departments cannot possibly keep up. And employees can’t afford to wait for a learning event; they have to develop and apply new skills immediately to a job that is constantly changing. It has always been that most learning occurs on-the-job and from co-workers. Now we have to be more intentional about this learning and ensure that it is the right information at the right time and delivered in the right way.

For all of these reasons, companies need a culture that supports continuous learning and performance improvement. Instead of trying to anticipate the training that will be needed in companies, we should recognize that workers want and need to learn and, therefore, we need to create organizations that support continual learning and change. We need workers who can utilize learning opportunities that are presented to them, whether formal or informal, self-directed or social, desktop or mobile, and we need organizational cultures that value and reward learning. We need leaders and managers who lead by example, embracing and modeling continuous learning themselves. In that way these leaders and managers will earn the respect they need to help workers learn and apply that learning in organizations.



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