Learning culture has become a big deal. From being a phrase barely mentioned for over 20 years, it seems to be on the lips of everyone involved in talent development and learning. This is very gratifying. Seeing that trend emerging was one of the motivations for writing my book on learning culture called: Workplace Learning: How to Build a Culture of Continuous Employee Development. That doesn’t mean, though, that it is all plain sailing from now on. I have heard a number of people make statements that make me anxious.
Statement one: we are building corporate university. That will be the embodiment of our learning culture.
Statement two: we are quite an unsophisticated L and D operation right now, so even thinking about building learning culture at this stage is far too early. This is aspirational and a long way off.
Statement three: I keep saying that we need a learning culture in our organization and that means, obviously, increasing my budget please!
Each one of these statements incorporates a fundamental misunderstanding of what a learning culture is. If you accept my definition which is, that a learning culture emerges when learning is taken brought in from outside, rapidly shared throughout the organization and turned into action. For me, a learning culture is the organizational gyroscope which keeps the business on an even keel. This is critical for navigation during times of turbulence and during disruptive environments. It enables those running the organization to see where the horizon is at any given moment. It plays the same role as a gyroscope in an aeroplane. It tells the pilot which way is up!
Statement one equates something formal and structured with the achievement of something nebulous and unstructured. The corporate university is not a learning culture, although it can make a strong contribution to building that kind of culture depending on how it is executed. We need a mindset change to decouple more learning, or new learning models, as the direct correlatives of a learning culture. If you read my book, you will see that many of the components which go towards building a learning culture, such as widespread trust through an organization, have little to do directly with learning, but everything to do with creating an environment where people want to learn, want to share and want to help their organization thrive through disruption and turbulence.
Statement two is in a sense even more worrying. The assumption behind this statement is that only an incredibly sophisticated, existing learning environment can possibly act as the diving board into a learning culture. The point I would strongly argue is that, regardless of where you begin, thinking deeply about the elements of a learning culture, gives you an agenda for action going forward to improve and invigorate your learning organization and make it more effective. The truth is, that a model of learning culture is a fantastic framework for beginning to analyse where you are now, and where you need to be. To put off that conversation is to postpone innovation, and hamper necessary changes across the organization as a whole.
The third statement is very common. The idea that any kind of move towards a learning culture must be preceded by a rapid increase in the learning and development budget kills the conversation for a number of reasons. What this implies is that building a learning culture is the sole function of a well-funded learning department. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is about engaging the entire organization, particularly those heavily involved in day-to-day operations, and talking extensively to staff about the kind of cultural changes needed to make them feel that learning is worthwhile, and that it will to a better work environment, together with a more effective business. The entire organization benefits and therefore the conversation is with the entire organization. This is about discussing what people want and defining the ideas going forward. It is not purely about budget. You are much better doing the analysis, working out what you can do, and building partnerships across the organization to achieve those aims. This is one area where careful thought and analysis, trumps throwing money at the problem.
If building a learning culture is an idea whose time has, once again, come then it should be approached as a complex holistic model which engages with the organization as a whole, and which defines a kind of workplace environment that allows the learning to emerge. The concept will never take root if you try to impose learning on the organization, or see it as a task dedicated and exclusive to those involved in talent or human resources. Every single learning culture that I looked at my book and beyond, pointed to that organizational ownership rather than a lone crusade taken on by small part of the organization as a whole.
Therefore, get stuck in. Whatever your stage of development, the conversation around a learning culture is going to be one of the best and most important conversations that you ever have had and could define your learning strategy and approach for many years to come.
Nigel Paine and Michelle Ockers are running Building Learning Culture Workshops in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland during August. More details at bit.ly/blcaunz
Nigel Paine’s book: Workplace Learning: How to Build a Culture of Continuous Employee Development was published by Kogan Page early this year. More details are available at: