Peter Senge wrote his classic: "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization" in 1990. Underlined also by Senge, we have known for a long time that the organizations with systems intelligence and abilities to adapt and learn are the ones that thrive in the future. Companies that focus on developing their people do better at attracting talent, keeping them, and creating better business results.
Businesses expect their people generally to learn and continuously improve their capabilities, which is understandable. Enhancing and creating best in class employee experience continues to be a focus area for many organizations. Building a strong learning culture is your main task as a learning leader to maximize people's potential and get the best input, not to mention creativity and innovation from them. Looking at performance, we usually have people (15-20%) eagerly searching for new ways to improve their work and capabilities. You could say that it is difficult to spoil them; they find their ways, no matter what you do. The critical question is to ensure that people in the middle part of that spread (bell curve) move their learning to their actual behaviors and finally perform to their best potential.
Culture of learning takes work and effort, and it's always intentionally built along time.
One thing is for sure, it is tough to copy and builds us to last better than any products or services alone. There are many definitions of a learning culture, but there are common traits found in the best ones. When you enter a learning culture, you see people who trust each other as human beings and everyone's capabilities. They see potential around them, share and apply new learnings and knowledge as a community to improve each member's performance. I do not feel responsible for reporting my learnings to my manager in an authentic learning culture but instead to my colleagues and team members, my community. That makes learning a collective and social initiative, rather than ticking boxes for organizational reasons. Due to these collaboration reasons, we see a real boom in organizations re-designing their office environments to match better the real reasons people gather there in the future, learning and sharing being of the major ones.
It would be almost too easy to focus purely on building digital learning assets and processes and connecting AI to guide the learners on their learning journeys, and that is the future we can live already. However, the benefit and ROI of all these great efforts seem to stay very low if the culture is not leaning towards constant learning and development. Being a frontrunner in this field requires us to integrate learning to all people processes starting from the early recruitment and onboarding and external relationships. When you make your people feel ownership in their learning as a community, you have an excellent base to embed learning in everything. It is helpful to understand learning more as an ecosystem than an internal set of interventions. Nurture a culture where people keep their minds and eyes open to everything outside your organization and integrate learning wherever it happens. Practically this means client&vendor relationships, and other stakeholders, since we all know best ideas and innovations do not always occur in-house.
What behaviors are then the engine of learning? In an environment of learning, psychological safety and trust become the foundation for everything - without them, you have no learning. Building this kind of environment looks easy on paper, but several biases and behaviors can block most learning and make people even leave the companies. To enable learning, we need collaboration and authentic encounters between people willing to share all their best ideas and have a proper dialogue to seek mutual understanding. We know that feeling safe helps to tolerate failures since those are seen as a natural part of learning. We also know that when people feed each other´s curiosity, it helps to learn. Curiosity reflects then novelty seeking and the need to develop things for the better. These are all essential elements of a growth mindset, which seems to be a driving force of learning.
People often ask what practical things could they do as leaders or individual contributors to encourage people around us and support the growth of learning culture. Here are a few (regardless of channel):
- Power of example - Tell what you are practicing and trying to learn as a leader/manager.
- When you fail, share it and tell the learnings from it to others.
- Bridge the needed learnings with the strategy to underline the importance of constant learning.
- Be very concrete in defining the wished behaviors in your organization and on a team level.
- Have regular discussion points with your team and ask them what have you/they learned and what has changed.
- Always ask what the main learnings and takeaways from meetings, projects, customer sessions, etc are.
- Lift success stories and social proof of everyone's capabilities to change.
- Talk a lot about these aspects related to learning. Make it a top-of-mind thing.
Social learning and internal reinforcement structures
We have also recognized that for those who are re-building many people development efforts, it is a great moment to consider what reinforcement structures are needed to drive the learning and apply the learnings for the business's success. One of the central ideas in behavioral sciences is how people learn by observing others in different social contexts. Social cognitive theory has played a role in corporate learning for decades, but today's technology and applications allow L&D teams to take social learning to the next level.
We always encourage learners to have structures for encounters and reflections as part of all their learning interventions. Now, when many efforts are virtual, this makes connecting even more scalable and possible. The ones who utilize this moment to build an excellent foundation for collaborative future learning will most likely thrive. The biggest challenge for organizations is to change the behaviors at scale and make the change a crucial social initiative, more than anything else.
The idea of sprints and quick daily checkpoints and learning interventions has been seen as something mainly those agile and modern companies do. In our experience, however, this seems to be one crucial shift in the way learning is organized in organizations. Since time and money are the two most significant bottlenecks for creating these opportunities (like our survey shows), we need to hack the idea of ways to affect learning and make it part of the daily flow.
Most modern knowledge workers say that sharing insights with their team is critical for their learning. Peer-to-peer learning is increasingly gaining popularity because it makes it a mutual thing between our colleagues and us. Due to this, L&D leaders must design and implement interventions that support informal learning, like coaching, mentoring, apprenticeships, shadowing, action-based learning, basically, everything where people can have informal connections and where “happy coincidences” can happen. Also good to be mindful that people expect the technology choices companies make to help them learn, share, and network - also asynchronously. Experiential (learning by/while doing) and social learning combined with the best tools&content and organizational reinforcement structures is a powerful combination. We can promise you that.
If this got you interested in more, be sure to follow the other topics with deeper insights in the coming weeks:
Week 19: Part 1/4: Transform your culture of learning. Social learning and internal reinforcement structures.
Week 21: Part 3/4: Individualized Learning Experiences & Different modalities in the flow of work
Week 22: Part 4/4: New technologies to expand L&D opportunities + conclusions.