Changing Corporate Learning Culture One Small Step at a Time

This year I have been taking a fresh interest in an age-old challenge for workplace learning – learning culture, or rather the lack of it! Increasingly I hear poor learning culture being blamed for the stilted progress in our corporate L&D ambitions.

Those that know me well, know that curiosity is my middle name. So, when think about learning culture, I’m interested in the what, the why, the how and the when.

What is a learning culture?

When I ask how do you define a good learning culture in conferences and webinars, participants typically have a mixed view ranging from ‘our staff are self-directed learners, ‘our managers make time’, ‘we get the budget we need’. Many of these definitions are personal and unique to the experience and frustrations of the contributor.

When it comes to shedding more light on a definitive definition, our traditional go-to sources of insight (google and Wikipedia – naturally!) are uncharacteristically quiet.  They can help us define culture and learning. They help us with ideas on how to build, how to influence how to create learning culture but they struggle to provide us with a clear definition of what we are trying to shift in the first place!

Digging deeper there are a few definitions hidden away from those who have researched it more fully:

  1. “A learning culture is where learning and work have become completely intertwined: where staff take it on themselves not just to learn but to share and respond and turn learning into action” – Nigel Paine [1]
  2. A learning [Culture] is characterised by exploration, expansiveness and creativity. Work environments are inventive and open-minded spaces where people spark new ideas and explore alternatives. Employees are united by curiosity, leader’s emphasis innovation, knowledge and adventure. – Groysbrg et al. [2]

What the opinions, anecdote and definitions share is a focus on the collective responsibility of everyone – the individuals, the leaders and the people professionals. A good learning culture is one when everyone in an organisation understands their responsibility and how they can contribute to the common goal of enhancing their capability to do the job today, and tomorrow.

Why is learning culture such a hot topic now?

For learning leaders, learning culture is hot because of our frustration! When exploring the data for this year’s Towards Maturity industry benchmark report we saw that 3 in 5 in five L&D leaders believe their managers are reluctant to encourage new ways of learning and that users don’t have the skills to manage their own learning[3].

The same study also showed why a high performing learning culture with demonstrable shared responsibility SHOULD be a priority. We found, not for the first time in the span of this 15-year-old programme, that those organisations who were making the shift to shared responsibility for building capability were seeing a tenfold improvement in productivity, revenue and agility compared to those colleagues at the earliest stage of their journey. These goals in theory should bring business leaders, employees and people professionals together but culture change is not that simple.

How do we influence culture?

Any culture is about shared assumptions, values and behaviours – that means that a single executive cannot create a learning – or any other- culture, neither can a single learning leader.

But as learning leaders, we do have a traditional remit for encouraging and building new behaviours within an organisation and I would argue that we therefore have as good a shot as any at influencing change.

We also know that culture change is a slow and complex process that can take between 2 – 3 years, and that is when all the ducks are in a row. One of the challenges that learning professionals face is that we believe we must wait for our business leaders to take responsibility. When 59% of learning leaders believe that the traditional L&D expectations of business leaders are difficult to challenge – we might be in for a long wait!

Rather than wait for everyone else to change, L&D professionals might take heart from the message of Walker and Soul, that culture change is a movement not a mandate[4] . They state that movements ‘begin with a group of passionate enthusiasts who deliver a few modest wins’ which are then shared more widely to influence change.

Now, I am a great believer in the wisdom of the crowds and look to harness it at every opportunity. The last workshop that I facilitated with Towards Maturity was at the OEB’s sister event – Learning Technologies in London where we explored how learning professionals can take a proactive in influencing culture – one tiny step at a time.

Changing workplace culture is not a quick process – it takes time, something that few of us have. So, this year I decided in a very small way to give some time back to the 80 participants in the workshop and provided them with an environment to reflect, to challenge their thinking, to question their own assumptions and to provide permission to consider how they can start to make a difference. This time and space not only generated several creative ideas but also energy to take them forward.

Figure 1 below outlines a summary of the participants pragmatic suggestions that they believed would start to make a really difference in their own organisation.

Interestingly nearly 25% of the group felt that they could best influence change by modelling it themselves. They provided suggestions such ‘Share my own enthusiasm and passion’, ‘I need to remind my own learning teams of the need for change’, ‘I need to walk the talk – lead by example’, ‘I can create an environment of trust and sharing within my own team first and take it from there’.

The second most popular suggestion was to listen more closely to the front line with recommendations to ‘Go to the grass roots’, ‘find out how our staff are already learning and support them at their point of need’.

All of suggestions were identified as specific responses to the unique challenges of the individual. As a result, one will not be more effective than another – the context and opportunity is and critical to success. Interestingly although was only raised by one person in the sample, the idea of having and implementing a plan is probably one of the most powerful suggestions that can be applied to everyone.

When can learning leaders start to influence learning culture?

When it comes to the how of changing the culture of learning, L&D leaders potentially have a choice of kick starting the change or becoming victims of the status quo.

Do we wait for the timing to be right, the LMS to be upgraded, the CEO to say ‘Go!’, the staff to be pulling down all your latest content without even being asked?

NO!

It’s easy to blame the current culture of an organisation to stop us from being proactive in our unique sphere of influence. As learning leaders, we are not just victims of the prevailing culture, we have a remit to influence behaviour which means in small ways, we can start today to influence learning culture and create a movement of change.

Written by Laura Overton, Author, Facilitator and founder of Towards Maturity


[1] Nigel Paine, author of Workplace Learning How to build a culture of continuous employee development

[2] Groysbrg et al., authors of ‘The leaders guide to Corporate Cultures Harvard Business Review Jan-Feb 2018

[3] The Transformation Journey – Towards Maturity February 2019

[4] Walker and Soul 2017 – authors of Changing company culture requires a movement not a mandate.

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