Creating a learning culture

Why is it that some organisations evolve and others don’t? How is it that some adapt to and thrive in new environments and circumstances, whilst others stutter, flatline or (at worse) go under?

Perhaps one of the things that separate the ‘thrivers’ from the ‘barely survivors’ is the element of learning. By this, I don’t mean something as simplistic as “Does it have a training team?” or “Does it have an L&D budget?” – but rather, is learning embedded in the very fabric and DNA of the organisation? And if not, what are some of the simple things that can be done to move towards the much healthier model of a learning culture.

Although the two words are often used interchangeably (and so challenging this language can appear to be semantics), there is a huge difference. The dictionary definitions for them are quite different and give us a big clue about how an organisation can respond accordingly:

Training – Organised activity aimed at imparting information and/or instructions to improve the recipient’s performance, or to help him or her attain a required level of knowledge or skill.

Learning – Measurable and relatively permanent change in behaviour through experience, instruction, or study. Many organisations talk about a training function. People go on training. There is a training room. Some of the issues with this are the pre-conditioned mindsets:

  • I’ve been here before – regardless of the new content, I have been in this room, with this person being trained before. I, therefore, have expectations of how this will be and a system in place to filter what I hear/see/do in order to confirm my original thoughts!
  • It is up to the trainer – if you are training me, then the action and responsibility is on you. I can be passive and wait for you to impart knowledge.
  • This feels like school – sure, rows of chairs (or even a horseshoe), staring at a screen may have worked for the information-download style of teaching that many experienced in formal education, but this is not what business and organisational learning are about. When the learner enters the room, subconsciously they recognise a school environment and start to drop into their inner childlike state.

As you can see, using the word training too often (and not using learning at all) predisposes an organisation to passive learning, that is the role of a handful of people – and learning opportunities are missed.

The counterpoint to this is helping everyone in the organisation to see learning opportunities exist all the time – every day. And there are a few things that can help to make this transition.

1. Everyone can learn

As soon as people see that they can learn and don’t have all the answers, a breakthrough has been made. Companies cannot evolve, grow or innovate if there are people who ‘already know’. The fact is that they probably don’t know, but are not open-minded enough, self-aware enough or brave enough to admit it.

When leaders and staff alike are able to say, ‘I don’t know’ then they start answer seeking and problem-solving and in doing so, take the first steps to being a learning culture.

2. Everyone can teach

This doesn’t need to be a formal process, but instead, a learning organisation will make the most of the fact that we all have different perspectives, experiences and ideas. Even though we see a problem, or process, or customers a certain way, is there a different perspective and approach? Often, tracking down those with a ‘healthy frustration’ – the disruptors in your organisation – is a way to tap into a huge number of ideas and depths of creativity. An open-minded approach to conversations, meetings and plans, on the assumption that everyone can offer something, helps the organisation to continually learn.

3. Failing doesn’t make you a failure

Most learning comes from our mistakes. As children, we probably had a few wobbles before we stood and a few falls before we walked, but these were invaluable. If we had these opportunities removed from us then we would probably still be relying on someone to carry us.

Similarly, in organisations – those who allow failure to happen and make it a learning point will thrive. The mistake is where the learning happens and the people involved grow and develop as a result. If people are too fearful of making mistakes then they will not try anything new. No new ideas, no brave suggestions and no innovation – and so the organisation stagnates, with the mantra ‘This is how we always do it.’

4. The destination is decided…the steps are not

If I am set a task by a manager or I set one for my team, they will learn through deciding how to do it. They will realise what works and what does not. They will quickly understand that there is a best way, and a way that should be avoided – and they will be continually learning as they go. Learning is choked in organisations where every part of the process is defined and then micro-managed. Rather like giving someone a crossword to complete, then telling them the answers, as you instruct them which answer to complete next…with the pen, you have chosen for them. Quickly the learner is stifled, curiosity is quenched and thinking is decoupled from the task.

Contrary to this is allowing people to plot their own route, making mistakes (perhaps) on the way, but getting to the end of the journey stronger and more equipped than when they began.

5. No silly questions

In a learning organisation, I can ask questions. People have time to answer and explain and there is no judgement. The issue that can come with both tenure and seniority in an organisation is the belief (often a self-belief linked to esteem) that ‘I should know this.’ As soon as that thought takes hold, I stop asking questions. I fear that I will be caught out and so I hide from environments in which I don’t have all the answers…and so I stop learning. The additional danger of this scenario is that if I am a manager, I might be giving wrong information or setting a precedent that managers and leaders need to (or pretend to) know everything.

Vulnerability is one of the key traits of a great leader – and so to hide this and be ‘bulletproof’ and knowing all, actually diminishes the credibility and effectiveness of a leader. It also sets the tone in a department or team that people should know the answers – and therefore stops learning from happening.

Conversely, asking questions, admitting not to know, seeking help are all signs of a healthy leader and an organisation with a learning culture.So where can you start embedding a learning culture into your organisation? Learning Pool’s e-learning catalogues provide a great start and offer a fully flexible and future-proofed learning solution.

About the author

Having worked in L&OD for over a decade, Nathan Dring has experience in sales, service, SME and retail. Whilst at Asda, Nathan set up and led the learning and development function for the global contact centre estate and it was during this time he was very involved in the Top 50. He was also a judge at the European Contact Centre and Customer Service awards, delivered keynote messages at both Top 50 events and the Contact Centre Expo and helped to develop the BSC in Managing the Customer Contact now run at Ulster University.

Nathan was Head of Global Organisational Development at thebigword, before setting up Nathan Dring and Associates Limited in 2018.


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