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.
Your organization needs this kind of culture in order to thrive and survive in the world today. There was a time when a static set of skills would last a career, when one kind of management (usually command-and-control) would be sufficient over the life of a company. Not anymore. Today, information is coming at us so fast, technology is changing so rapidly, the world is changing so dramatically, that the old methods of learning and performance improvement do not work any longer…if they ever did.
For example, in the past five years, Uber, the poster child for a “shared economy”, has grown from a smartphone app for requesting a taxi ride to a private-ride company valued at $40 billion that is disrupting the taxi business in cities around the world and changing people’s patterns of transportation. In its short history, Uber employees have had to learn how to use new technology and how to work with their customers. The organization has had to learn how to grow quickly while adapting to local laws, regulations, and customs. The CEO and other company leaders have had to learn to manage the media scrutiny that comes with being big, powerful, and having access to the personal data of millions of people.
Uber is just one of many examples. Healthcare, manufacturing, media, hospitality, banking and finance, shipping, construction, communications, education…practically every sector of our society is changing before our eyes at unprecedented speed. Seven major aspects of this change are compelling us to make learning an essential value of our corporate cultures:
- Pace of Change. Change is happening faster and faster primarily due to technology and a mindset among young entrepreneurs who do not feel bound by the way prior generations did things. Knowledge and skills are not as static as they once were. You should assume that the knowledge and skills that got you your job will not be what you need to keep your job.
- Competition is Cheap. Competition can come from anywhere in the world with little investment on the part of the competitor. To stay competitive, people have to be more knowledgeable, more skilled, and better able to apply new knowledge and skills effectively. Our organizations need to learn how to respond to new ways of working, new ways of leading, and new ways of managing.
- Demands of Workers. For many organizations, an autocratic, command-and-control style of managing will not (and probably never did) get the most from employees. Workers want to participate in the governance of their organizations. They want to contribute in a meaningful way. They want to develop competencies to be effective in their current organizations and to be attractive in a shifting marketplace. They want to learn!
- Ineffectiveness of Event-Based Training. Classroom, workshop, and seminar experiences do not have the desired impact on organizational performance. Most estimates put the rate of formal training transfer to the workplace at less than 20% of participants. This represents a tremendous waste of resources: cost of developing and delivering training that isn’t used and number of employees that don’t apply what they’ve learned. Instead of pushing information at employees, employees should be able to pull the information they need when and where they need it.
- Need for Innovation. At the core of any organization’s competitiveness today is innovation. That is, developing and applying a new idea, product, or process. It can be for customers, stakeholders, or for better organizational functioning. Innovation cannot happen without learning – workers need to learn how to learn from previous experience and experiments, innovators need to learn how to develop new products and services, and users of the innovation need to learn how to apply the new technology or process to solve problems.
- Pressure for Results. CEOs are under pressure from investors and from activist Boards. They hear the footsteps of competitors who can disrupt markets easily and cheaply due to the global economy and advances in communication technology. Company leaders feel the need to respond by shortening the product development cycle, being responsive to shifting demands of the marketplace, and producing products and services that are better and lower cost than anyone else. The organization needs to learn how to compete in this environment, to use market research effectively and efficiently, and to be responsive to customer demands.
- Success Depends on Shared Information. Useful knowledge resides with many people. No one person has all the information needed to be successful. So much information is coming at us in so many different ways that we need each other to make sense of it all. HR and training departments cannot possibly keep up. And employees can’t afford to wait for a learning event; they have to develop and apply new skills immediately to a job that is constantly changing. It has always been that most of what people learn occurs on-the-job and from co-workers. Now we have to be more intentional about this learning and ensure that it is the right information at the right time and delivered in the right way.
For all of these reasons, companies need a culture that supports continuous learning and performance improvement. It’s not a matter of whether or not you should develop a learning culture; it’s a matter of how.
Creating a learning culture takes conscious effort on the part of leaders. It will take time and patience and perseverance. You will run into resistance because a learning culture represents a dramatic change in the values and behaviors of many organizations. As with any transformational change, people will find reasons why this can’t and shouldn’t be done. However, the success of your organization is at stake so you need to communicate the message, build support, and begin the process.
For more on this topic, attend my online course: Essentials of Developing an Organizational Learning Culture, offered through ATD.