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ATD Blog

Learning Culture: Structure, Strategy, and Practices

Tuesday, August 22, 2023
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In a recent Forum blog about building a learning culture, we provided findings from a short survey with our members. Because of the high interest, we took this topic a step further and held a virtual roundtable discussion to further benchmark. Based on the results of the original survey, two members were asked to share specifics on their tactics. Additionally, the roundtable format provided the opportunity for everyone to ask questions and share their ideas.

The session started with several definitions of a learning culture:

  • From ATD: A culture of learning, or learning culture, is one in which employees continuously seek, share, and apply new knowledge and skills to improve individual and organizational performance.
  • From Training Industry: A learning culture is a collection of organizational conventions, values, practices, and processes. These conventions encourage employees and organizations to develop knowledge and competence. An organization with a learning culture encourages continuous learning and believes that systems influence each other.

While there were variations to the definitions, there were several common threads running through them. These included the focus on gaining new skills and knowledge, improving organizational performance, and the need to view wholistically how all the systems and parts interact.

Practices for building a culture are both strategic and tactical. One strategic component is the structure of the learning function itself. What is the best way to organize since we typically think in terms of either a centralized or a decentralized model? In another Forum survey, most respondents indicated a hybrid structure, and many referred to it as a federated model. For example, learning related to leadership and compliance might be centralized while functional learning is decentralized.

Whatever the learning function structure is, it is critical to have a governance system in place to provide a formal framework for stakeholders to manage decisions about how learning, talent development, and performance improvement work. An effective governance system also increases transparency related to investments and actual practices. More importantly, it engages senior leaders who then gain awareness of all aspects of the learning strategy. This increases the chances for greater buy-in and being strong champions for talent development.

Another high-level component is a well-designed learning strategy to clearly lay out the direction for all stakeholders. In Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, Lafley and Martin suggest making the important decisions related to direction using this question: “Where will we play and how will we win?” This direction needs to be aligned to the organization’s vision, mission, and values. At the Forum’s discussion, one member shared how the values of trust, respect, accountability, and feedback spilled over into all facets of the organization. Another posited the value of promoting a growth mindset and another the role of curiosity in promoting a culture where learning is happening every day, every place, and for every employee.

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As with the survey, the members listed a large array of learning practices provided in a variety of formats. These range from the required compliance training to options for certifications and badges to increase mobility within the organization. It includes formal training, coaching and mentoring programs, munch and learns, educational assistance, rotational assignments, and informal opportunities such as teaming and watercooler discussions—both of which can be either in person or virtual.

While providing a wide range of learning assets and opportunities is critical, a bigger task for the learning function is providing constructs and supports for enabling and encouraging self-directed learning. As more content is on-demand and by individual choice, learning how to learn to improve both effectiveness and efficiencies is mandatory for a systemic learning culture. Part of this includes having individuals setting development goals, documenting them in development action plans, and consistently discussing progress with managers. Another part includes having the learning function provide frameworks and resources.

Undergirding the learning culture is a technology system designed with many purposes. This system should be able to support awareness via marketing, delivery options, connections, collaborations, assessments, evaluations, data analyses, and even knowledge management.

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The Forum Roundtable session ended with everyone contributing ideas for ways to “kill a learning culture.” First and foremost on the list was lack of support from leaders, which can be interpreted as not recognizing the value-added opportunities learning provides. Some expressed this with this statement: “As the leader goes, so goes the followers.” Other comments included:

  • Leaders not modeling learning and striving personally for a growth mindset
  • Leaders not engaging with the internal learning team and understanding how the offerings are—or should be—aligned with business objectives, not participating in offerings themselves, and not talking about the benefits of the learning publicly
  • Leaders at any level in the organization who are not coaches for their teams and working with them to practice any required skills and behaviors. Prior to employees “going to training,” there should be a conversation with their managers about what the expectations are for the experience. When the training is over, there should be follow-up conversations on how the new ideas might be used.

There were also suggestions related to the positioning of the learning. Some of the comments included:

  • Having learning opportunities coming from the L&D team only versus from throughout organization
  • Viewing the learning function solely as a cost center
  • Looking at learning in a vacuum without connecting it to the work, aligning it with the organizational objectives, and linking it to opportunities for employee advancement

And finally, there were comments on the design and quality of the learning itself. Comments such as:

  • Not making access to learning assets easy
  • Providing too much content, with little organization or curation
  • Not linking content to specific needs
  • Telling people what they need to learn versus creating learning paths to help guide their thinking and, ultimately, letting them make the decisions
  • Providing training without adequate practice opportunities
  • Offering content with outdated materials
  • Using ineffective facilitators and presenters who ramble and read slides

The big takeaway was the realization that organizations can never move beyond “pockets of a learning culture” to a systematic one until all the many parts are fully operational, integrated, engaged, and working together for a common mission and with a shared vision. It means creating the best structures, strategies, and practices for the entire organization to thrive.

The adage, “start where you are” is wise counsel. Having many pockets is a positive place to be. Benchmarking other organizations and leveraging their practices and lesson learned can help close gaps faster. Having a systematic learning culture is an admirable—and attainable goal. Just go for it!

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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