Create a Learning Culture

Companies that value learning outperform those that don’t. A study by independent research firm McBassi & Company shows that it pays to invest in people-focused practices including building learning capacity, knowledge accessibility, and professional development. Institutions that demonstrate the greatest commitment to their human capital seem to enjoy the greatest financial rewards.

Begin by asking yourself, “How can I dramatically increase my organization’s ability to learn?” Don’t discharge your duty to the training department or the people in HR. An organization’s culture stands between your intentions and the organization’s results. Education is as much your responsibility as anyone else’s. Your orientation to learning sets the context for how those around you behave and prioritize.

Get clear.
Your personal feelings about how much you value learning will show in how you talk about knowledge, information, and change. Ask yourself, “What new concepts and principles am I using now that I wasn’t using a year ago?” “How many nonfiction books have I read, not skimmed, recently?” “How often do I ask myself, ‘What do I want to learn this week?’ “Do I actively consider what I’m doing or take a more passive sponge-like approach?” If you appreciate what you’re learning, you’ll influence others to do the same.

Get informed.
Gauge your organization’s current temperature by conducting a learning culture audit. A simple diagnostic can help you assess your organization and your leadership team’s orientation to learning. An assessment describes the characteristics of cultures that encourage learning and those that block learning. By taking your organization through this exercise, you begin to demonstrate that you’re willing to ask tough questions and want to hear honest answers rather than reassuring reminders.

Get started.
There won’t be a point when the stars align and you’ll know it’s time to begin. Learning presents itself as messy, indeterminate situations. Even if you don’t have a concrete plan, do something now. If you examine your own learning habits and try new approaches, you’ll find your way and set an example that will generate momentum. Learn out front, in public, for everyone to see. Listen to your peers, your employees, and your customers. Take small actions and explore.

Get together.
Foster relationships among people in your organization. If you try to automate learning by replacing human interaction with technological solutions, you forgo the associations that develop when people learn from one another. The Chinese have institutionalized this concept in guanxi, one’s personal network. 85% of managers get information critical to project success from their networks of relationships — and the strongest predictors of effective learning from a network includes knowing another person’s expertise and when to turn to him or her.

Get perspective.
Learning for adults is less about taking in new information than it is about connecting with people who help put that information in context and suggest new ways of understanding it. We each learn and adjust our approaches not just by getting facts but also by getting relevant information in situ with all the nonverbal cues that candid stories afford. We see patterns emerge and discover new ideas worth trying. Make an intentional effort to offer and gain a new perspective so that everyone can see situations in fresh new ways.

Get talking.
If you publicly espouse one thing and model another, your actions will speak louder than your words. You’ll create confusion and sap your organization’s energy. Close the gap between your talk and you behavior so that people don’t need to spend their time negotiating the distance between what’s said and what’s done. Encourage everyone to ask questions and share stories about successes, failures, and what they’ve learned.

Get consistent.
Suppose that you have assessed the learning climate in your organization and your own energy for learning more, and you’ve committed to getting started — however messy that may be — and you’ve begun to do some of the things truly successful companies do. At some point, you’ll want to spark a more profound cultural transformation in order to achieve the advantages that learning offers.

That requires a day-in and day-out shift in attention and practice. As long as your organization views learning as the latest fad you’re introducing, your culture won’t become a learning one. To cement the elements of learning into your organization’s culture, ensure that new ways of asking questions, running meetings, conducting performance reviews (asking “what did you learn last year?” for instance) become your organization’s new routine.

When you consistently and energetically reinforce the value of learning, it serves as the reactor core of an organization in which people learn. With that energy source — your commitment to learning and to creating a learning culture — your organization will come to know that this is “just the way we do things around here.” That is when learning will have become a part of your culture.

Originally published in Fast Company’s Learn At All Levels column by Marcia Conner (June 2005).

[Photo credit: Public Affairs,  Jeremy Wilburn via Flickr]

Create a Learning Culture