The second in our series on learning cultures, this article looks at building a learning culture and why it involves the whole organization, not just individuals.

A learning culture versus a culture of learning: These two terms may sound interchangeable, but for learning and leadership expert Dr. Nigel Paine, the two cultures are fundamentally different. Paine, who wrote the book, “Workplace Learning: How to Build a Culture of Continuous Employee Development,” says that a learning culture focuses on organizational learning, while a culture of learning focuses on individual learning. “With a learning culture, learning is used to focus on organizational problems,” he says. “It’s about shared learning, the shared generation of knowledge and shared problem solving. It’s a focus away from the individual through to connections, connectivity and organizational excellence. It doesn’t mean that individuals aren’t important, but it’s a collective intelligence that people draw on.”

A culture of learning, on the other hand, is lots of individuals doing lots of individual bits of learning. And while Paine is quick to say that individual learning is a good thing, he says it produces different results to the collective learning found in a learning culture.

When an organization has a learning culture, not only do employees learn from and with each other, they also extend their reach further, they bring in learning from outside the organization. And that learning benefits their employer in many ways. “It’s about bringing insights in from outside that are then spun around the organization,” Paine says. “This allows an organization to make adjustments to its trajectory, given the information, data and insights emerging. A learning organization is what I call a ‘tuned up’ organization. It’s really sharp and ready to act.’”

This mindset and ability to bring external perspectives in enables employees to see what could be fixed or improved in their organization. And because they are trusted to get on with their work and to try things out, even when mistakes happen, employees feel emboldened to act and take the initiative.

There has been much talk and research about cultures of learning over the years, and about helping learners access the learning they need. There has been less focus on learning cultures or, this collective learning that helps solve organizational problems.

Organizations that have a culture of learning are less likely to have a workforce that spots challenges, or that looks for answers to problems. Why? Because they are waiting to be told what needs fixing, where improvements need to be made and how.

“Organizations without a learning culture have a lot more difficulty understanding what is going on out there, and they find it hard to galvanize everybody to work out problems,” Paine says. “A non-learning culture is where people sit around and wait for someone to tell them what to do. These organizations tend to be top down: the message comes from the top and your job is to do it.”

A Deloitte research article titled “Fostering a Learning Culture: Why It Matters Now,” says, “Our multiple High-Impact Learning studies reveal that high-performing organizations value, embrace and cultivate conditions that allow for individual and collective organizational growth through the work itself. In other words, organizations with strong norms related to knowledge-sharing, reflection, and good risk-taking – to name a few – realized better business outcomes.”

Knowledge-sharing, reflection, risk-taking: These are all important characteristics of a learning culture. Curiosity is another one. In a learning culture, people learn because they are curious about learning, rather than just to achieve something. But, for curiosity to flourish on an individual level, curiosity needs to be feature of the overall culture.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Josh Bersin and organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic discuss curiosity, and the need to reward continuous learning. They write, “Note that rewarding curiosity is not just about praising and promoting those who display an effort to learn and develop; it’s also about creating a climate that nurtures critical thinking, where challenging authority and speaking up are encouraged, even if it means creating discord. This is particularly important if you want your team to produce something innovative.”

Four elements need to be in place for a learning culture to flourish: Empowerment, trust, engagement and leadership, Paine says.

Empowerment

Empowerment is when people feel able to make decisions and perform in their role without asking for permission. They know they can try new things out and that it’s OK to make mistakes.

Trust

Empowerment and trust go hand in hand. When trust levels are high, there’s lots of knowledge sharing, collaboration and communication. A high-trust work environment is likely to be a happy, healthy one.

The reverse can be said of organizations where trust is low. “Lack of trust is when you wouldn’t tell your manager anything because it would be used against you,” Paine says. “Lack of trust is when you have a great idea but don’t share it because it could be stolen from you. Lack of trust creates toxic environments and horrible places to work. So many people live for so many years in lack of trust environments. They get used to it, and they learn to behave in that way.”

Engagement

When employees are engaged, they care about their contributions and about business outcomes. They give discretionary effort. Unfortunately, numerous surveys say the same thing – there’s an engagement problem. According to Gallup, global engagement levels hover around the 35% mark, with 15% of the workforce being actively disengaged.

Leadership

A learning culture has leaders that are committed to learning and are ready to listen to their employees. They realize that they don’t have all the answers, and that innovation and problem solving can come from all levels of the organization. They also encourage employees to challenge the status quo and to challenge their authority, as Bersin and Chamorro-Premuzic said in their Harvard Business Review article.

COVID-19 shone a very bright spotlight on company cultures: The businesses that were able to respond rapidly to change tended to be those that had a strong learning culture. Those were the businesses where employees saw challenges and took the initiative and made decisions to solve them. Those businesses were able to pivot quickly, and that was partly because employees felt empowered to effect the changes that needed to happen.

The next post in this series on learning cultures will look at engagement and the employee experience.

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