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

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S. GillDr. Stephen J. Gill– is a guest contributor. An Independent Consultant for Human Performance; He is co-founder of Learning2BGreat.com, a resource for creating and sustaining a learning culture in organizations. He publishes a blog at:

 What a learning culture looks like in action

A learning culture is a community of workers continuously and collectively seeking performance improvement through new knowledge, new skills, and new applications of knowledge and skills to achieve the goals of the organization. A learning culture is a culture of inquiry; an environment in which employees feel safe challenging the status quo and taking risks to enhance the quality of what they do for customers, themselves, and other stakeholders. A learning culture is an environment in which learning how to learn is valued and accepted. In a learning culture, the pursuit of learning is woven into the fabric of organizational life

You will know a learning culture is taking shape when you see:

  • Executives setting an example for risk-taking and learning from failure
  • Managers helping employees set learning goals, apply learning, and then support the learning through follow-up and feedback
  • Project leaders using action learning to help their teams learn and improve team performance
  • Everyone sharing information among departments and everyone learning from each other

Other cues that a learning culture is developing are the instinctive reactions of leaders to various employee situations. Look for alignment between espoused values related to learning and the values evident in what leaders say and do. Here are four examples:

  • The espoused value says, “We want all employees to develop their skills and abilities.” An executive assistant asks her boss for permission to attend a series of workshops on financial management that is being offered by the company. She explains that this would help her understand the company better, be more helpful to him, and strengthen her career portfolio. Is the executive’s first reaction to say, “I appreciate your ambition, but I need you here right now. We can look at arranging something in the future. And, besides, I don’t have the budget for that.” Or, is the executive’s first reaction to say, “I appreciate your ambition. That would be useful knowledge for you to have. Thanks for bringing this request to my attention. Let’s talk about how we can make that happen as soon as possible.” Both reactions are reasonable, but one is indicative of a learning culture and the other is not.
  • The espoused value says, “We learn from our mistakes.” A project team member reluctantly admits to the team leader that due to some unforeseen factors their project will not come in on-time and within budget. Is the team leader’s first reaction to say, “I’m very disappointed in our team. Why weren’t these problems anticipated? Why wasn’t I told about this sooner?” Or, is the team leader’s first reaction to say, “Let’s get the team together and review what happened. I want us to learn from this experience so that we can do a better job of reaching our goals in the future.” Both reactions are reasonable, but one is indicative of a learning culture and the other is not.
  • The espoused value says, “We share information and have open and honest lines of communication.” The R&D department of a company has produced several prototypes of an exciting new product that has the potential to become a blockbuster for the company. Manufacturing helped with the prototype but has not learned enough about it yet to move it into production. The Marketing Department is telling potential customers about the new product and the Sales Department is taking orders and promising delivery. Is the CEO’s first reaction to say, “We have to fast-track this product with Manufacturing so that we can fill orders and keep customers happy.” Or, is the CEO’s first reaction to say, “Let’s get all of the departments heads together and find out what each of them needs to know from each other in order to make a successful launch of the new product.” Both reactions are reasonable, but one is indicative of a learning culture and the other is not.
  • The espoused value says, “We value creativity and innovation.” An employee had an idea for a new mobile app that seemed very promising and early feedback from customers was that it was something they would want. However, after a couple of months, the employee discovered that the app couldn’t have the intended functionality without being overly complicated and too expensive for customers. Is the first reaction of the employee’s boss to say, “What a waste; two months lost. Next time we have to make sure the product will be successful before we start on it. Now, how am I going to explain this to management?” Or, is the first reaction of the employee’s boss to say, “Good effort. What did you learn from trying to build the app? What did you learn about developing new products, about collaboration, and about yourself? Is there anything we could have done to help you achieve your goal?” Both reactions are reasonable, but one is indicative of a learning culture and the other is not.

How to Become a Learning Culture

Creating a learning culture takes conscious effort on the part of leaders and managers. It requires time and patience and perseverance. If your organization is like most, you can anticipate that you will encounter resistance because a learning culture represents a dramatic change in values. As with any transformational change, some people will find reasons why this can’t and shouldn’t be done. However, the success of your organization is at stake. You, as a leader, need to communicate the message, build support, and begin the process.

However, changing an organization’s culture doesn’t happen simply because of the pronouncements of the CEO, or a reorganization of business units, or by conducting an organizational pulse survey, or by hiring new managers. Culture is much too complex; it’s the how and why of what an organization does internally and externally. Culture is the collective beliefs, assumptions, and values of employees (and other stakeholders) and culture affects every aspect of organizational life. Changing culture takes strong leadership and a concerted effort by all stakeholders, in addition to new and repeated efforts over time.

In my online course for the Association for Talent Development (formerly known as ASTD) titled, Essentials of Developing an Organizational Learning Culture, participants want to know what they can do in the short term to create a learning culture. I’m reluctant to make specific suggestions at the risk of over-simplifying the work that needs to be done. On the other hand, some experts have offered ideas about actions that can be taken relatively quickly to enhance aspects of organizational learning. For example, Jane Hart has a five-point plan for increasing social learning. She writes:

  1. Create and support on demand, self-service content (courses, tutorials, guides, resources and job aids)
  2. Scaffold and guide social learning experiences (for the training room, online and continuously in learning flows)
  3. Help work teams, groups and communities share their knowledge and experiences to learn from one another
  4. Help individuals (create and) share their own resources to support one another
  5. Help individuals acquire the new modern learning skills (building their professional networks, locating appropriate resources, managing information overload, recording their learning, building a personal brand, learning out loud)

These are excellent recommendations that should help leaders be intentional about the social aspect of learning in their organizations. However, these actions alone will not overcome the barriers to learning that are part of the culture of many companies, such as: leaders who are afraid of risk-taking and experimentation; managers who don’t believe in change; an incentive and reward system that doesn’t recognize individual and team learning; and team leaders who do not ask the group to reflect on its actions. Implementing a plan to increase social learning is a step in the right direction but leaders also need to confront their organization’s underlying values beliefs and assumptions about learning.

Start with managers. We have learned from the Gallup Organization’s 20 year-long research project that the most significant relationships in any organization is between managers and their direct reports. Managers are the gatekeepers to individual and team learning. Managers play a pivotal role in creating and sustaining learning. They do not have to be instructors nor do they have to be expert in the knowledge and skills needed by their direct reports. However, they do have to believe that people can learn and change, they have to care about their own learning, and they have to value the development of the people they supervise. If they have these beliefs and values, then managers can contribute significantly to learning in their organizations.

The 5As Framework defines seven steps managers can take to facilitate and support learning of their direct reports:

STEP ONE: Discuss what the learner needs to learn in order to help your business unit achieve its objectives and the organization’s strategic goals.

STEP TWO: Agree on a set of learning objectives for the short-term and long-term.

STEP THREE: Agree on the indicators that will be used to determine progress toward those objectives and achievement of goals.

STEP FOUR: Decide together how the learner can get the most out of the learning intervention.

STEP FIVE: Arrange for the learner to get whatever resources he/she needs to apply the learning to your business unit.

STEP SIX: Plan regular meetings (they may be brief) to discuss progress toward objectives and goals and any changes that would help the learner’s progress.

STEP SEVEN: Make modifications in the learning intervention as needed.

Essentially, managers should work with learners to set goals, clarify expectations, provide opportunities for application, and hold them accountable for making a difference.

Training professionals can certainly help managers with these steps, but in today’s high performance organizations it is managers who are in best position to facilitate the day-to-day learning that is needed to be successful over the long term.

In summary, modern organizations need to develop a learning culture if they want to survive in the rapidly changing world in which we now live. A learning culture is a work environment that supports the constant acquisition of knowledge and skills for the purpose of improving the organization. In a learning culture, individuals are learning, teams are learning, and the whole organization is learning how to function more effectively. The key to developing this kind of culture is having managers who facilitate the learning and performance improvement of the people who report to them and the teams for which they are accountable. And it all begins with key executives establishing and reinforcing a learning culture through their own words and actions.

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