Beyond Development: Fostering a Culture of Learning

3 min read
Aug 5, 2015

Beyond Development: Fostering a Culture of LearningThere’s no denying the importance of employee development. A 2014 study published in the Harvard Business Review found that high-performing employees value regular feedback, learning, and development. And if they do not receive it, they are more likely to look for it elsewhere.

This trend will likely only increase as the newer generation, with its low tolerance for stagnation, takes over the workforce. Deloitte’s 2015 Human Capital Trends study found that employers recognize the growing importance of updated learning and development strategies for now and the future.

A Culture of Learning — Why?

Perhaps the key to success lies in moving beyond traditional learning and development programs to fostering a culture of learning – a place where learning is valued above knowing. A learning organization is a place where competencies, ideas, knowledge, and performance are continuously improving. It is an environment where employees are empowered and the organization itself is constantly looking for ways to transform, grow, and improve.

From the first introduction of the term by Peter Senge in the 1990s to more current work, the competitive advantages of organizations fostering a learning culture have been recognized by HR and business leaders and supported by research. For example, a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management found that learning organizations enjoy significant advantages in innovation, financial performance, and sustained competitive advantage over their more stagnant competitors.

A Culture of Learning — How?

One would expect that an organization with a learning culture would invest in effective learning and development programs, tools, and technologies to meet the varied needs of its workforce. But it goes far beyond that.

Let’s contrast some of the characteristics of learning organizations and what we’ll call “knowing” organizations. We’ll also look at some ideas on how to get started in creating a learning culture at your workplace.

#1. In an organization that values knowing, it is dangerous to make a mistake. Because focus is often on assigning blame, the organization is unable to quickly recover from errors or crises. Learning organizations, by contrast, use mistakes as learning laboratories, focusing on finding solutions and advancing understanding. 

Since learning organizations don’t react with severe punishment for mistakes, employees are more willing to surface issues and accept responsibility, making it less likely that crises will occur in the first place.

What you can do: Consider using pilot programs, role-playing, modeling, and gaming as laboratories for experimentation and learning from failure.

#2. The direction of idea flow in a knowing organization, where knowledge is power, tends to flow from the top of the organization, resulting in a culture with limited innovation. The organization with a strong learning culture, by contrast, understands the value of learning from multiple sources, including frontline employees who directly interact with products and customers. 

What you can do: Implement a suggestion program, inviting ideas and suggestions from all employees, with a commitment to consider every serious suggestion and reward those that are successfully implemented.

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#3. The organizational structure and style of a knowing organization is often hierarchical, with leadership flowing from top to bottom. Siloed departments may be unaware of how they interact with other parts of the organization, or actually compete with them. 

In learning organizations, reporting structure and work assignments are more fluid. Employees are assigned to projects based on an understanding of their strengths and skills, as well as their development needs and career aspirations. High-performing teams share responsibility for results among all team members, encouraging collaboration rather than competition.

What you can do: Use assessments to increase understanding of individual skills, strengths, favored working conditions, and interests among employees and teams. Encourage managers to use their findings when making work assignments, use projects as learning opportunities, and share team leadership as appropriate.

#4. In a learning culture, performance management is a continuous process, not a once-a-year activity. Managers who foster learning observe and encourage high performance and coach employees who are struggling. They help employees set performance goals and measures that are tied to organizational goals. They meet regularly to discuss progress and provide guidance, redirect, or remove barriers as needed.

In contrast, employees in a knowing organization may be left without a gauge of how they are doing or why it matters until an annual performance review.

What you can do: Train supervisors and managers in setting goals, observing critical performance criteria, and providing frequent, objective feedback. Hold leaders accountable not only for the results their department achieves but the leadership behaviors they use to achieve them.

In It For the Long Haul

A true learning culture permeates an organization from top to bottom, impacting the way work gets done, the way leaders lead and followers follow, how people are hired, evaluated, rewarded, and promoted. Obviously, it cannot exist without a high level of commitment from senior leadership and will not be built in a day. But implementing steps like those suggested above can make a difference and begin the journey toward a culture of learning.



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