Is a learning culture more important than learning? On the surface, this question sounds ridiculous. How can a learning culture be more important than learning? But I’m making a very simple point: Learning itself needs a strong culture in which to grow and flourish, rather like bacteria in a petri dish.

Edward Deming was the father of quality systems. He worked in Japan after World War II, where he transformed industry. He was acknowledged in the 1980s in the U.S. and Europe and became, in his later years, a bit of a guru. He is indelibly linked to quality manufacture, but reading his work, what strikes me above all is Deming’s passionate belief in building the right kind of culture, in order to create the right kind of manufacturing outcomes. All of all of his work centered around employee engagement and motivation based on continuous development, leading to trust and commitment.

In Deming’s world, employees should bring their brain to work rather than checking it in at the factory door. He believed in removing fear, abolishing targets and arbitrary numerical goals in favor of “getting it right,” and eliminating errors. Many years ago, Toyota bought a California General Motors plant, including its debts, for one dollar. It had been one of the poorest-performing Toyota manufacturing sites, and in two years, GM turned it into one of the most efficient and effective manufacturing sites in North America. When asked how this transformation was possible, given that the workforce was largely unchanged, the general manager said, “It was easy; we simply had to teach the workforce how to build cars.”

Deming summed up his philosophy in 14 laws in his 1982 book, “Out of the Crisis.” They included:

  • “Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.”
  • “Create consistency of purpose for improving products and services.”
  • “Drive out fear.”

Deming’s vision was of an engaged workforce that took pride in its workmanship and was trusted to do the best job it possibly could, in an environment where every process was constantly reviewed and improved. The consequence of implementing Deming’s vision is a culture where learning is expected, respected and turned into action.

A learning culture is like an organizational gyroscope. A plane’s gyroscope shows the pilot where the horizon is regardless of external visibility, and an organizational gyroscope allows the organization to understand where it is at any moment, so it can take corrective action when things are going wrong. Therefore, a learning culture is not simply about learning. It has three components:

  • Continuous learning as part of work for the entire workforce
  • The rapid sharing of knowledge and insights around the organization
  • The ability to pool knowledge from outside the organization rapidly, define the implications for the organization, share that knowledge and turn it into action (A learning culture that does not focus on action hardly deserves the name.)

A learning culture is especially important in our current climate, because it helps organizations be sensitive to changes in their external environment, be aware when there is disruption, and take action quickly across the whole organization to ensure survival or growth. There is no other way that organizations can keep track of the uncertain and unstable environment that we find ourselves in.

French president Emanuel Macron made a prescient statement at a conference in Paris recently. He said that the world has never been this uncertain and volatile, and yet it is the calmest it will ever be going forward. A learning culture is the essence of what is required to cope with a permanent state of uncertainty. It is not an imposition on an existing culture but, rather, the transformation of that culture and of the organization itself. It is impossible to visit a place that has an established learning culture and not feel that you are in a special place that is different from the norm. A learning culture is holistic, vital and energizing.

Learning professionals need to understand the bigger context in which they operate, which is why simply getting the learning right has far less impact than getting the culture right. Once the culture is right, ownership of learning will automatically shift to the workforce, and employees will be able to fix any issues that arise. Their job will be to maintain the culture, to enable successful learning and sharing across the organization, and to facilitate the means by which new knowledge and ideas are brought in from outside and rapidly disseminated and turned into action. Far from being marginal, the learning organization of the future will be absolutely central to building effective organizations.

There are four essential conditions that act as the core building blocks for a learning culture. They are a good place to start if you want to move in this direction.

1. Trust

Low-trust environments will never be part of a learning culture. Low trust is about cover-up, self-protection and dishonesty. It leads directly to the second building block…

2. Collaboration

Organizations must encourage collaboration across the organization, not just within teams, together with a sense of purpose that drives that collaboration. Informal as well as formal groups need to be able to come together rapidly to solve problems. This kind of collaboration is the bedrock for innovation, which leads to the third condition…

3. A Clear Sense of Purpose

Everyone in the organization must know what they are doing and why they are doing it. There must be clear values defining the organization and an overarching, significant purpose that drives everyone forward.

4. Formal and Informal Processes for Sharing and Facilitating Collaboration

There needs to be virtual and physical places where employees can work on ideas, solve problems and share insights. These spaces should be open to all.

Ironically, focusing away from learning can build the strongest and most impactful learning possible. Clearly, you have to pay attention to the access pathways, quality controls, content and validation, but there are bigger issues that drive success.