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Is Your Organization Ready for a Culture of Learning?

Consider the following questions: 

  • Are the jobs in your company changing rapidly due to disruptive technology?
  • Are some jobs becoming more complex and challenging while many simpler jobs are becoming automated?
  • Are employees constantly looking for more opportunities to learn and grow both in your company and in other organizations?
  • Has it been difficult to attract and retain the talent your company needs to succeed?
  • Is competition in your marketplace accelerating and making it difficult to develop new products and services fast enough?
  • Are you not getting the impact on organizational performance that you would like from current training programs?
  • Is the multi-generational and multi-cultural nature of your workforce a challenge to increasing the engagement and productivity of employees?
  • Are project teams as effective as they need to be at planning, decision-making, problem-solving, collaborating, and getting results?
  • Is your organization as effective as it needs to be at planning, decision-making, communicating, leading, and innovating? 

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you would benefit from learning how to create and sustain a learning culture in your organization. This is not to be confused with having a culture that supports training. 

Training Culture vs. Learning Culture 

What’s the difference between a training culture and a learning culture? A great deal, actually. In a training culture, responsibility for employee learning resides with instructors and training managers. In that kind of culture, the assumption is that trainers, under the direction of a chief learning officer (CLO), drive learning. In a learning culture, however, responsibility for learning resides with each employee and each team. In this type of culture, employees are expected to seek out the knowledge and skills they need, when and where that knowledge and those skills are needed. 

In a training culture, the assumption is that the most important learning happens in events, such as workshops, courses, e-learning programs, and conferences. In a learning culture, it’s assumed that learning happens ALL THE TIME—during events but also on-the-job, via coaches and mentors, through action learning, on smartphones and tablets, socially, and even from experiments. 

In a training culture, the training and development function is centralized. The CLO, HR leaders, or the L&D department controls the resources for learning. Employees and their managers assume that if new competencies are required, they should rely on this centralized function. In a learning culture, everyone is responsible for learning. The entire organization is engaged in facilitating and supporting learning, in the workplace and outside the workplace. 

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In a training culture, departmental units in the organization compete for information. Each unit wants to know more and control more than the other units. This competition can result in short-term gains for those units and even for the organization as a whole (for example, drug development in pharmaceutical companies). In a learning culture, knowledge and skills are shared freely among units. Everyone is working to help everyone else learn from the successes and failures across the organization. This creates a more sustainable and adaptable organization. 

In a training culture, the learning and development function is evaluated on the basis of delivery of programs and materials. Typically, what matters to management is the courses that were offered and how many people attended. In a learning culture, what matters is the knowledge and skills acquired and applied in the workplace and impact on achieving the organization’s strategic goals. It’s less about output and more about the difference that learning makes for individuals, teams, and the entire organization.  

16 Signs of a Learning Culture 

How do you know your organization has a learning culture? What do you see people doing? How are people learning? While a learning culture is an environment that’s always in development, certain signs indicate that you are making progress. 

  1. Leaders are communicating the importance of learning (acquiring new knowledge, skills, and capabilities) and holding managers accountable for learning and applying that learning to making a difference for the organization.
  2. Managers are helping direct reports create an individualized learning plan linked to strategic goals of organization. They are monitoring learning progress and providing feedback, structuring opportunities to apply learning on the job, and holding direct reports accountable for results.
  3. Managers are coaching. They are partnering with direct reports to develop their capacity to achieve organizational goals.
  4. Leaders are mentoring. They are using their experience to advise new and less experienced employees on how to fulfill the functions of their jobs.
  5. Learning will play a part in the recruitment, hiring, and onboarding of new employees. Learning is conveyed as a value of the organization, and expectations for employee learning and development are discussed during recruitment phase.
  6. Employees can see how their learning aligns with the strategic goals of the organization. They understand how acquiring certain knowledge and skills will help the organization be successful; the direct link from learning to results is made clear.
  7. A wide range of formal and informal, hi-tech and hi-touch methods are being used to facilitate learning; the method used is determined by the intended outcomes for the organization.
  8. Expectations for employee learning are discussed with employees. Employees know what they need to learn and why they need to learn it, as well as what criteria will be used to monitor progress and assess results. High expectations are communicated.
  9. Learning is applied throughout the organization to continuously improve performance and achieve strategic goals.
  10. Employees and their managers are held accountable for learning; measures for evaluating impact of learning on the organization are used and the data is used to make improvements in learning methods and processes.
  11. Each learner and learning team in the organization is recognized and rewarded when the application of learning results in solving problems and achieving goals.
  12. Learning is integral to decision making. Before any significant decision, information is gathered to inform that decision and team members are learning how to make effective decisions and apply that ability to a workplace problem.
  13. Employees are encouraged to take risks as a way of learning. They are applying action learning methods to try out solutions and assessing the effectiveness of those solutions for their teams and the organization. If an action is not successful, the focus is on learning, not blame.
  14. Employees are constantly experimenting with new ideas and programs for the purpose of finding out what works and what doesn’t and learning what they need to do to be successful. Experimentation is valued by leadership.
  15. Explicit knowledge is documented in a way that makes knowledge easily accessible throughout the organization. Tacit knowledge is surfaced through facilitated experiences with employees; knowledge (experiments, best practices, new information) is openly shared among organizational units, departments, and divisions.
  16. Stories that make up the lore of the organization are about successes and failures that resulted in individual, team, and whole organization learning. These stories communicate the value that the organization places on risk taking and experimentation. 

Like road signs that tell you if you are on the right highway, these signs of a learning culture tell you if your organization is headed in the right direction. Remember, though, that you never arrive. There is always more to do on the journey to creating a learning culture. 

Editor’s Note: This blog is adapted from content on The Performance Improvement Blog. 

To learn more about how to develop a learning culture, join me for my online workshop, Essentials of Developing an Organizational Learning Culture.

About the Author
Stephen is the co-owner of www.Learning2BGreat.com, a marketplace for organizational learning tools, and also owner and principal of Stephen J. Gill Consulting. Steve's expertise is in creating learning cultures in organizations and measuring the impact of learning and performance improvement interventions. He has done this work for more than 25 years, since leaving the faculty of the University of Michigan, School of Education. He has written extensively about these topics. His most recent books are Getting More From Your Investment in Training: The 5As Framework, published by RealTime Performance in 2009, Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations, published by Sage Publications in 2010, and Communication in High Performance Organizations: Principles and Best Practices, published as Kindle ebook in 2011. Steve also posts regularly on The Performance Improvement Blog. He serves his community as an elected trustee of Washtenaw Community College.  
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