Culture of Learning
Developing a culture of learning is an aim of many organizations. It is easy to see the appeal: employees that continually learn are constantly increasing their value to the organization. Groups of employees that continually learn ensure that the organization is evolving and staying competitive. An organization of employees that continually learn will often organically steer itself in directions that a leader could not have. Achieving this aim, though, is surprisingly difficult. Organizations that have an obvious culture of learning stand out because they are rare. So, if the benefits are so obvious, why do so few organizations achieve this?
The answer is hidden in the term itself. The words culture and learning are everyday, simple words (easy to say and use in conversation) and at the same time are deeply complex concepts to control, create, or operationalize.
Culture refers to a whole set of attitudes, values, goals, and practices shared by a group. The power of culture is in how deeply it is rooted in who we are. Culture is not just our thinking and behavior but rather what drives and affects our thinking and behavior. Culture is nearly impossible to find, see, and measure. As a culture underpins conscious thinking and behavior, it can have an impact that is much more prolific and consistent than changing individual thinking and behavior directly.
Fun Fact About Culture: In many ways, organizations don’t get to decide whether they have a culture or not. It is typically the organizations that have put effort into creating a unified culture are proud of that and make the extra effort to put their culture on display for the rest of us to see. This leads us to often think of these organizations as having a culture while others do not. However, a fractured, disorganized, or confusing culture is still a culture, nonetheless. All organizations have a culture, so why not take the reins and be a part of forming it for the good of the group?
Learning can be defined by the process of acquiring knowledge or skill, but a definition that is more relevant to this context is “the modification of a behavioral tendency by experience (such as exposure to conditioning).” Research shows that more than 70% of what someone needs to know to do their job is learned through informal exposure (on-the-job training). An organization can push knowledge and information, but the environment and the people around us are what condition us to behave in a certain way.
Fun Fact About Learning: If an organization’s formal messaging conflicts with its environmental conditioning, people will nearly always consciously or unconsciously prioritize the environmental conditioning. Why? We must intellectually process new information in some meaningful way before it can affect our thinking and behavior, but we are hardwired as humans to react to our environment and adapt to it at a deep instinctual level.
Creating a Culture of Learning:
Build trust so that the need to learn and grow can be embraced
Very few organizations would claim to discourage learning. What they fail to encourage is the first step: openly embracing the need to learn. A gap in knowledge or skills is a prerequisite to learning. It takes a good deal of trust for individuals to identify and embrace those gaps and openly work to fill them. It is very difficult for an individual to simultaneously pretend they don’t need to learn something and to learn that thing.
Respect both the journey and the destination
A person’s position and seniority need to be a source of both pride and humility. Being proud of the position we have achieved is an important part of self-respect and drives us toward growth. Remembering the journey to get there, though, should humble us. If we make respect and appreciation for arriving at a destination the sole reward, we may create a culture of performance but not learning. It is unnecessary to recognize only one phase—celebration of both can coexist. Showing respect and appreciation during the learning (journey) phase can make getting to the performance phase accessible and desirable to a broader group.
Focus on removing real barriers rather than building superficial bridges
Trying to insert something positive into a culture can be very well intended but is not always the first step to undoing something negative. Remember, a culture exists even if it isn’t the desired one, so an honest assessment of what is driving the wrong behaviors can often be a more productive first step than finding ways to incentivize the desired behaviors. Sure, incentives are a lot more fun to discuss and implement, but if real change is the goal, then be brave enough to find and address the hard truths.
The frustrating, satisfying, demoralizing, and amazing thing about being a part of building any culture is that the job is never done. It will always be as imperfect as the humans that carry it. It will be well suited for some challenges and a poor fit for others. With the speed at which markets, industries, and even work itself are changing in our modern world, more and more organizations will find that a culture of learning is a necessity to survive and thrive.