Developing a Learning Culture

What is a Learning Culture?


The aspiration to create and embed a learning culture in organisations has been present over the last 20 years or so, but it has come to the fore in the current digital era of accelerated change, climate crisis and the widespread recognition that inequality is holding back cohesion in organisations and society at large. The term of the day tends to be “learning culture” rather than “learning organisation”: this reflects a more nuanced understanding of the challenges involved. The need to develop what the CIPD (UK) pragmatically calls an “environment for learning” is widely acknowledged. In fact, Building an Organisational Learning Culture is currently No.1 in the Learning and Performance Institute’s (LPI’s) Top 5 Challenges.

The LPI defines a learning culture thus: “a digital-literate culture of knowledge and shared learning that supports the mission and goals of the organisation”. This is accurate because the linkage with organisational mission is key, and the digital aspect is self-explanatory, for if the organisational culture developed is non digitally literate, and core competencies don’t include digital competencies (both “hard” and “soft”), then the organisation will struggle to do business.

Let me go a little deeper and offer a slightly fuller definition, with more emphasis on the word “culture”. We can describe an organisational learning culture as: a set of organisational attitudes, values and behaviours, practised by leaders, individual staff and teams (in diverse ways), characterised by a deep and strategic commitment to continuous improvement, staff development, and learning from experience.

Defining Characteristics

For learning to become a culture, it needs to be a guiding principle, put into practice by leaders and all staff until it becomes habitual or customary, to be based on core shared values and commitments, and explicitly and implicitly reflected in the organisation’s strategic objectives. For a learning culture to be sustained, it requires ongoing commitment to learning and staff development, supported by effective knowledge exchange and data management and a shared belief in the benefits of the investment in learning (whether via time, innovative methods or finance).

Ensuring the delivery and accessibility of learning opportunities to staff is an important step, and already a significant investment, but does not equate to having a learning culture. A commitment to merely supporting learning about different topics or technologies is not sufficient; for learning to become culturally embedded, a commitment to the actual practice of learning to learn is essential, including learning from others, from oneself and from mistakes.

We can call learning to learn “learning agility”- a vital competency, closely related to adaptive learning. We will explore the question “why a learning culture” in the next section, but for now we can say that a key purpose of this commitment to and practice of learning culture is to achieve a better understanding of the evolving context in which the organisation operates, and thereby become more adaptive, agile and sustainable.

Inseparability of learning culture and sustainability

The final point to consider in the “what is it?” question is that learning cultures are inseparable from the issue of sustainability. A learning organisation is likely to be a sustainable organisation. Sustainability – which we will explore in another blog post soon – is a threefold issue: environmental, economic and social sustainability. This is known as the “triple bottom line” and is probably the most crucial issue facing all organisations in the 21st century. The triple bottom line is interwoven inextricably with the traditional bottom line, i.e., the financial health of the organisation. A failure to be socially (e.g., inequitable work practices) or environmentally sustainable (e.g., environmental damage due to the creation or disposal of a product) will have a significant impact on the financial well-being of the organisation, as highlighted on page 9 or the GRI Foundation 2021 Sustainability Standards.

One of the primary reasons we learn as individuals, all the way through our lives, is to sustain ourselves and our place in the world. This ranges from physically learning how to get sustenance from the mother as a baby, to learning how to earn money in a complex, competitive, fast-changing world as a young person, to learning that burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale is damaging the planet as an informed and responsible adult. So, we already deploy our learning abilities for sustainability throughout our lives. As Dehaene says, “learning is the greatest talent of the brain”, but he also makes it clear that there is interdependence between culture and the brain (and its neurological responses), and therefore learning and interpretation is influenced by the culture of the organisation or society we are part of.

An organisation that normalises unsustainable practices, whether environmental, economic or social, cannot be considered a learning organisation. There are some examples of this below when we look at the question of “why develop a learning culture”. Organisations, whether private or public sector, or hybrid, are integral components of society, so it goes without saying that they have social and environmental responsibilities, whether to ensure equality and diversity or to pay taxes or to use fair employment practices.

There is, of course, often the pressure to satisfy shareholders, where they have invested in the company. In this case, and if the organisation makes significant efforts to develop and practice a learning culture but the key decisions are taken primarily to satisfy shareholders that are not motivated to help the organisation achieve a learning culture, then those efforts risk being undermined or in vain. The learning culture needs to pervade all aspects of the business to be effective and sustainable.

Why develop a learning culture?

A widely shared aspiration for organisations and employees alike

But let’s not underestimate just how difficult it is to build, develop and embed a learning culture across a geographically dispersed organisation. It remains a major challenge for most organisations. A 2021 report by Hemsley Fraser in the UK found that 86% of respondents (L&D organisations) “said that creating an agile learning culture was high on the agenda”, but noted that “…just 25% of respondents told us that they were in the process of implementing, or had already implemented, an agile learning culture.” Similarly, in its report Professionalising Learning and Development, the CIPD found that while “98% of learning and development (L&D) practitioners wish to develop a positive culture for learning, but only 36% feel like they’ve developed one”. So, there is a significant gap between the aspirations and the reality for learning cultures. Let’s look at some of the reasons for putting that aspiration into practice and developing a learning culture. What concrete advantages can it bring, and how?

To enhance organisational agility

The most pressing reason for organisations to develop a learning is so that they can develop agility: the ability to adapt in the rapidly evolving context of uncertainty and change. Failure to do so will jeopardise the sustainability and survival of the organisation amid market and workforce changes, and could result in expensive errors of judgement, loss of market share, loss of talent and staff, loss of relevance, stagnation and failure. Hence, most organisations see the value in creating and embedding a learning culture, or at least an environment conducive to learning.

Unfortunately, running a business today, whether an SME or a multinational, is extremely challenging and often a balancing act, especially in the Europe and the UK. After the context of change and volatility referred to above, arguably the most challenging aspect is the cost of paying staff, given the very wide range of expertise required by responsible organisations in a technology-driven, information-contested, climate-critical context. This is especially challenging if they pay all their staff a decent wage – and not just the Board of Directors – and have fair (rather than zero hours) contracts on which employees can depend to pay their bills.

To help navigate major challenges such as those posed by the Covid-19 pandemic

There is a proliferation of examples of organisations that have struggled to adapt post-pandemic and, for UK-related trade, post-Brexit. However, the reasons are not necessarily entirely to be found in those two highly disruptive events, though they have had long-term impacts. Before the pandemic, remote working was becoming increasingly common, digitalisation was very much in progress and peaks and troughs of customer demand were nothing new to most businesses, especially those whose business is by definition subject to seasonal variations, like transport and hospitality. Hospitality was among the sectors worst hit by the pandemic, and the impact on livelihoods in that sector worldwide has been severe.

Transport has been disrupted and many players have had to reconfigure their business operations, but it can be argued that the inevitable peaks and troughs have been poorly managed by some companies accustomed to dispensing with staff when no longer needed (and therefore too expensive) and simply recruiting more when demand increases again.  This approach aims to save money both on salaries and with the time lapse. Obviously, the wider culture and applicable employment law have a central role in the way supply and demand of labour is managed. Mass redundancies by video, announced with no forewarning are presumed acceptable on in certain types of business and certain cultures. Two recent examples that come to mind are the P&O Ferries mass redundancies and

Improving communications, knowledge sharing and coherence

In a learning culture, empathy and highly developed communications skills are core competencies for the leaders and leadership team, but these were evidently lacking in both the above-mentioned cases, as has been recognised by the leaders themselves. The “fire and hire” model is not new and, while it is inadvisable and incompatible with an open learning culture, many companies have used it without a public relations disaster. It happened when the bubble burst in the early 2000s, then again in the 2008 crash and most recently amid the tremendous disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the assumption – and short-term maths – that recruitment is easy and cheaper than retaining current staff is a dangerous one. Post-covid, when demand rose again and business grew again, many companies, especially airlines, found that they are unable to recruit the right people at the required speed – also because of key other externalities like Brexit – causing them to cancel up to 50% of their service provision (in the case of British Airways). Many other airlines were affected by cancellations and delays, but some took a different approach, partly because employment legislation also differs across regions, for example within the European Union as compared to within the UK, or within the United States.

Would these problems have been ameliorated by a more developed learning culture? While a developed learning culture is unlikely to have prevented these problems, it would have helped manage them in a more effective, sensitive and thoughtful way, and thereby mitigate the impact – and the likelihood of it happening again. The golden rule of a learning culture is learning from mistakes – and everybody makes mistakes. Certainly, it is likely that the companies would have been better equipped to foresee the drop and then rapid rise in demand, having learnt from these experiences before and having developed the learning agility which helps them to be proactive in perceiving and managing an emerging problem.

An embedded learning culture also acts as a cohesive force within an organisation, improving communication, knowledge sharing and coherence in responding to challenges. An embedded learning culture can enable an organisation to undertake a more nuanced, gradual adjustment of staff numbers in response to observed and projected market changes. If staff had been retained in the airlines’ cases, albeit at a reduced temporary holding salary, the organisation would probably still have the capacity to deliver the majority of their services as before.

To improve staff retention

Furthermore, there is some evidence that having a well-developed learning culture can improve staff retention. This 2018 report found that “94% of employees would stay longer with a  company if it invested in their career”. Meanwhile in the UK, according to the CIPD, “fewer than half (47%) of UK employees agree that their job offers good opportunities to develop their skills”. In addition, a 2017 Deloitte report found that “42% of millennials are likely to leave their organisations because they’re not learning fast enough” – this is significant when you consider millennials are likely to comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025.

We have all been in the position of either managing or undergoing a staff performance appraisal meeting; most of us would agree that often the most constructive and positive part of the meeting is when the learning and development (or training) objectives are discussed. This is usually a win-win from both perspectives as, if properly defined, it enables the manager to have a more effective employee in the role and helps the employee to develop their career prospects, advance within the organisation and bring more variety and stimulation to their job.

Identify the learning muscles and keep them exercised

A professional development plan in a mature learning organisation would include provision to monitor and improve the employees “learning muscles”, i.e., learning agility, and would have defined this competency as core and distinctive, over and above learning specific things for specific purposes. Learning agility has been described as: “willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions” (Lombardo and Eichinger, 2000). It is indispensable within a learning culture, since as De Meuse, Dai, Hallenbeck (2010) noted: “People who are highly learning agile continuously seek out new challenges, actively seek feedback from others to grow and develop, tend to self-reflect, and evaluate their experiences and draw practical conclusions.”

Learning and development opportunities are typically viewed positively by employees, though people don’t always recognise that challenges and mistakes bring the richest opportunities for learning.
In an organisation with an embedded learning culture, learning is not confined to separate, ring-fenced L&D activities, but is integrated into the flow of work, so that steps for knowledge sharing, knowledge testing, skill practice and development, feedback and critical thinking are built into daily operational work processes and timescales. To achieve this, adaptive learning is a key method, and innovative mobile digital solutions can empower this flexible, bespoke learning approach, via curated, employee progress-responsive content and engagement.

There are a number of other key competencies and qualities that underpin a successful learning culture. These include critical and independent thinking, for the ability to perceive problems before they happen and see through mis/disinformation; curiosity and asking questions, attitudes that are conducive to learning; self-knowledge (both at individual and organisational level), to understand oneself in context.
With regard to methods, no learning culture would be sustainable without effective knowledge management and knowledge sharing, which is greatly facilitated by digital solutions. Similarly, open innovation as a means of ensuring the organisation learns from externals (and vice-versa) is a powerful enabler. Finally, flexible HR approaches such as reverse mentoring, shadowing, mentoring, coaching and self-coaching can be very effective for embedding learning behaviours – and supportive attitudes – across the organisation.

To strengthen employee engagement

Defining, developing and improving learning agility and the competencies and methods described above can in turn stimulate staff professional development and the desire to improve, so it becomes a virtuous circle. Employee engagement is thereby naturally enhanced, without the need for hit-and-miss internal marketing initiatives, but rather by stimulating, collaborative, integrated learning activities.

If embedded in a learning culture, L&D initiatives don’t become add-ons that you have to persuade people to do and may not even need to be called “L&D initiatives”. However, though L&D becomes more integrated, L&D management skills and capacity become more critical than ever. As we have said above, developing a learning culture is a challenging and nuanced. The radically changing demographics both within organisations (as compared with 40-50 years ago for example) and within their markets are a further reason to strive for a learning culture, to prioritise the learning competencies highlighted above and deploy some of the facilitating methods. Different generations, ethnicities and genders need to be able to collaborate effectively, and the organisation needs to understand its stakeholders in the widest sense of the word, if it to continue to have a positive impact on them.

A culture of learning embeds continuous improvement

At the core of most organisations’ visions or values is the commitment to continuous improvement.  What was good enough yesterday is not likely to suffice today in ever more competitive globalised marketplaces, dominated by big multinationals and driven by digital marketing. Organisations strive to become better at what they do and to do more with less (though the latter can bring diminishing returns). A well-developed learning culture is a way of ensuring that continuous improvement is embedded in the organisation and not just an aspirational vision statement, since the learning behaviours and practices prioritised across the organisation continuously question, provide feedback and enhance methods and results. Well-designed digital solutions can help formalise, spread and embed these learning practices.

It is no exaggeration to say that a culture of learning is becoming the lifeblood of successful organisations today; without it, they would struggle to adapt and survive. And in addition to its lifeblood, the organisational “body” needs hormones such as learning agility and critical thinking, especially in challenging situations.

written by: Simon Whittemore , 20 September 2022

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