Learning is critical to individual, team and organizational success. Yet it’s not as simple as setting up some employee training sessions and waiting for the results to roll in. According to a famous study by Josh Bersin, “the single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture.”
The concept of a learning culture or learning organization is nothing new, but as many have pointed out, the early discussions on the topic tended to be idealistic, without much attention to what it means or how to make it a reality. D2L customer success specialists Jenna Lauren and Julie Lewis tackled these topics in our recent webinar Adopting a Learning Culture at Your Organization. Here are some of their takeaways.
What Is a Learning Culture?
Organizational culture is generally understood as the shared values, expectations and practices that guide the decisions and behaviors of the organization’s members. A learning culture is one in which learning is valued at all levels of the organization and employees in every department are encouraged and empowered to continuously seek and share knowledge and skills by:
fostering a growth mindset throughout the organization
- supporting independent learning
- encouraging team members to reflect and share
- enabling learning to shape team and organizational strategy
A learning culture reinforces itself because learning itself is a skill—the more we learn, the better we are at it. In addition, true learning organizations embed learning as part of the business strategy and use learning to adapt and grow over time.
What Are the Key Components of a Learning Culture?
While a learning culture looks different for each organization, there are some attitudes and behaviors that form the foundation necessary to support a true learning culture.
1. A Supportive Learning Environment
Learning requires taking risks, making mistakes and even failing. Sharing new ideas and challenging existing ones is essential for a culture of learning. That won’t happen when there’s fear of ridicule or punishment. As Amy C. Edmonson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, says in her book “The Fearless Organization”:
People must be allowed to voice half-finished thoughts, ask questions from left field, and brainstorm out loud; it creates a culture in which a minor flub or momentary lapse is no big deal, and where actual mistakes are owned and corrected, and where the next left-field idea could be the next big thing.”
Fostering the psychological safety that’s necessary for a learning culture is complex and takes commitment from the top down. For example, the organization must measure and reward the behaviors it wants to encourage, such as experimentation, rather than just the results achieved. Senior leaders must model the culture by demonstrating a growth mindset, being open to questions and ideas, and admitting their own errors. While the other three points we’ll discuss are required for a learning culture, a supportive learning environment is a prerequisite.
2. Better Conversations and Feedback
In a learning organization, individuals and teams constantly engage in discussions and dialogue. These two concepts are related yet distinct in that:
- discussion involves presenting and defending various viewpoints, which is necessary for seeing the whole picture and making decisions
- dialogue is about presenting various viewpoints in the spirit of discovery to provide rich, often diverging perspectives to understand complex issues
Learning requires teams and organizations to be able to have both types of conversations. The ability to engage in dialogue takes discussion to a whole new level because, as Peter M. Senge puts it in “The Fifth Discipline,” dialogue requires us to put our assumptions on hold and to be willing to reflect on our own worldviews. When teams can do that, he says, they build trust and empathy for alternate viewpoints, even when they disagree. This enables them to engage in discussions “more gracefully and with less rigidity, that is without putting ‘winning’ as a first priority.” When teams can have discussions that are about making good decisions rather than winning, it clears the way for openness and innovation.
Another important type of conversation that happens continuously at learning organizations is the feedback conversation. We all need both positive and developmental feedback to learn and grow, but it needs to be delivered effectively. Incorporating feedback as part of everyday conversations makes it an expected part of the job rather than a “big deal” that always makes people feel like they’re in trouble. Plus, feedback goes both ways in learning organizations, so leaders learn from their teams as well as the other way around.
3. Prioritize Learning Throughout the Organization
In a learning culture, the quest for knowledge is a priority across the organization, not just for specific employees. Learning organizations also find ways to build it into the flow of work whenever possible. This might include:
- offering regular professional development sessions
- actively encouraging employees to share knowledge
making learning convenient with a mobile-friendly learning management system
- offering work time for formal learning opportunities
- enabling regular development conversations (more on that below)
- including learning as part of annual goal setting with appropriate rewards and recognition
4. Attract and Develop Agile Learners
Nurturing a learning culture also requires attracting and developing agile learners throughout the organization. Fortunately, survey after survey continue to find that learning is a sought-after benefit. For example, Deloitte reports that 48% of U.S. employees would change jobs to get skills training opportunities, and LinkedIn found that 94% of employees would stay at their company longer if it invested in their career development.
Investing in employees’ career development isn’t difficult, but it does require deliberate effort. This involves:
- regular development conversations between employees and their leaders to normalize goal setting and support internal mobility
- providing opportunities to explore different areas of the organization through stretch projects, job shadowing, mentoring and secondments
giving employees the autonomy to learn the skills they want to develop to pursue paths they are excited about
When an organization is full of people who are eager to learn, happy to share and excited to grow, they will help reinforce the culture of learning.
Build Your Organization’s Learning Culture
Building a learning culture at an organization isn’t easy. Much like fitness or a beautiful garden, it’s not a destination but an ongoing process that requires planning and continuous work.
Karen Karnis has a BA in sociology from the University of Guelph. She has worked in social services, higher education, communications and journalism. Karen is currently working toward a Master of Education in Sustainability, Creativity and Innovation through Cape Breton University.
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