Peruse most any business publication or take a look at survey data of industry executives and you’ll see that senior leaders cite innovation, agility, and adeptness at change management to be of paramount importance as their organizations seek a competitive advantage in today’s fast-paced economy. Of course the ability to innovate or navigate change doesn’t happen through osmosis or merely because it’s desired; it requires embedding the appropriate values and behaviors within the cultural DNA of the organization.
Organizational culture, as we know, is the living embodiment of all the behaviors, actions and beliefs that impact the success of the company. And culture is not the responsibility of just one person or one team; it is owned by all and it’s supported, nurtured, and imperceptibly changed by every employee. The foundational values of the culture, when in alignment with behaviors that are recognized and rewarded, are used to define expectations. Furthermore, when one of those values is learning, and the culture supports it, the capabilities of the entire organization can be advanced.
A company that values the acquisition and creation of knowledge, promotes the transfer of information, and understands that new knowledge or insight can change or modify behavior can be defined as having a culture of learning. This concept of a learning organization has been around for some time; it was first put forth by Peter Senge in his 1990 publication “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.” Yet, as this Harvard Business Review article (Garvin/Edmondson/Gino) pointed out, almost 20 years later many companies were still struggling with the concept.
Today, however, I think that’s changed.
In recent years we’ve developed a greater understanding of organizational culture and we also realize that learning is a catalyst for success in today’s ever-changing global landscape.
Instilling a culture of learning means much more than merely ensuring that knowledge is shared of course; it requires acceptance across the organization and support from senior leaders. Moving forward along the continuum of learning, HR and Learning & Development professionals play a primary role in nurturing a culture of learning by building trust, clearly articulating the value of learning, and ensuring employees have both the ability and the desire to learn.
Employees must believe their employer trusts them to spend time on learning in whatever ways (i.e., formal, informal, collaborative, etc.) meet their style. In some organizations that espouse a culture of learning and fully promote it there may still be legacy policies or unspoken norms that seemingly contradict that which is said. Trust can be built however when employees are allowed to learn when and where they deem fit, are given access to the necessary tools and technologies, and are allowed to freely ask questions or seek out additional resources, ideas and opinions.
The Value of Learning
HR and L&D professionals, working in conjunction with leaders and managers, should create the line-of-sight so that all employees can clearly see how individual performance is linked to organizational performance. When this occurs, strategic learning objectives are tied to business outcomes, employees are held accountable for attaining the knowledge they need to perform their jobs, and managers assist employees in developing learning plans that connect to business goals. Value is defined and, ultimately, measured.
Ability and Desire
Barriers, either due to ability or motivation, may exist that prevent individual employees from fully embracing the aims and objectives of a learning culture. It’s critical for leaders to fully assess existing cultural factors such as reviewing if the company rewards the hoarding of information or knowledge and evaluating if employees are able to find the information or people that can help them when a need arises. Ensuring that employees have both the ability – and the motivation – to learn is essential. Moving to a culture of learning entails teaching employees not just what to learn but also how to learn in order to advance the learning capabilities of the entire organization. It also requires that leaders craft compelling messages, clarify values and behaviors, and share the vision and objectives. As this research from the Executive Board reminds us: “a productive learning culture focuses on rightsizing opportunities, building learning capability, and fostering a shared learning environment.”