Five key steps toward creating a learning culture

Lady reading and learning
ueuaphoto/iStock
Mukund Raghunath
Senior Vice President
Mu Sigma
Share this content

Businesses have tendencies to develop and stick to ‘success formulas,’ processes and strategies that were carefully honed, and which have served their firms so well in the past, that executives are loath to change them regardless of the circumstances.

However, with the fast pace of today’s digital markets, this is no longer a viable approach. 

One high-profile example is the decline in sales at Abercrombie & Fitch, which experts have attributed to its formulaic look – once the very source of the brand’s success – falling out of favour with the brand’s youth target market.

The Guardian quotes a retail analyst as stating that, in the wake of the ‘Twilight’ series of books and films, ‘pale skinny hipsters, and not beefcake dudes’ were shaping how young people wanted to look, while branding and logos became less important.

Keeping abreast of change

Abercrombie, like so many other businesses, relied extensively on its experience and knowledge of markets and consumers to drive innovation and growth.

However, such a bank of knowledge and experience – no matter how vast – can no longer offer sufficient guidance when it comes to keeping pace with vacillating consumer trends and shortening innovation cycles.

What’s needed in order to keep abreast of – and more importantly, to capitalise on – change is the ability for an organisation to learn quickly, and apply these learnings in ever shorter cycles.

The problem with ‘success formulas’ is that they are the complete opposite of the type of culture needed now.

Doing so is not achieved simply by way of introducing more training, but by putting a learning culture right at the heart of the organisation. And the key to thriving, as scary as it sounds, is a complete company culture overhaul.

Transforming company culture is often easier said than done, however.

In the past, sticking to tried and tested methods has maximised near-term profits but the problem with ‘success formulas’ is that they are the complete opposite of the type of culture needed now.

To replace your company’s knowledge and expertise mindset with a pervasive learning culture, we’ve identified five areas to get started on now.  

1. Start with hiring

Companies often look for candidates with the right skillsets. A job specification is designed to find the skills needed to fulfil a specific role.

Just look at Apple and iTunes: it took a technology company to revolutionise the music industry.

Combined with a traditional mindset built on knowledge accumulation and experience, and ring-fenced Intellectual Property, this approach just perpetuates the old ‘formula’ which has run out of steam.

Doing things the same old way will lead to the same old results – nothing truly disruptive or innovative. Instead, switch your recruitment efforts to hiring people with a learning and growth mindset.

As opposed to people with a fixed mindset, those with a growth mindset believe in developing their innate abilities all the time and are also resilient to inevitable knockbacks.

This is the backbone which will enable the organisation to change and evolve continuously through learning and practice. 

2. A new era for IP

Once the organisation starts hiring for mindsets, and not just skillsets, the next step is to shake off the traditional ideas of Intellectual Property. Instead of ringfencing knowledge, the new era of IP involves taking an “interdisciplinary perspective”.

Proactively seeking out cross-functional, cross-industry insights and learnings means that you’re extracting the best from across a range of disciplines and creating a well-rounded perspective.

This approach helps to open up a state of consciousness in the business can help break down silos and drive more collaborative innovation. The idea behind this is that ideas from different origins complement each other, not compete with each other.

And this opening up does not have to stop at the company doors: it can also involve external contributors such as customers and even competitors.

Proactively seeking out cross-functional, cross-industry insights means that you’re extracting the best from across a range of disciplines.

For instance, there are a number of examples of customer-led innovation and product design, from cruise liners and aircraft to hotels and car hire. The perspective from one sector can disrupt and benefit another.

Just look at Apple and iTunes: it took a technology company to revolutionise the music industry. We’ve seen the same with Uber and Airbnb in their industries.

3. Stay in beta phase

For decades, businesses have been told that they should standardise and automate as much as they can to stay competitive.

The best way to overcome business problems is to experiment continuously and accept failure as an expected outcome that organisations can learn from.

Standardisation worked well for Henry Ford in a complex, yet narrowly-defined problem space. However, problems faced by businesses are not that clearly defined - meaning the solutions can’t be static.

The best way to overcome business problems is to experiment continuously and accept failure as an expected outcome that organisations can learn from.

Often we see employees are reluctant to admit they don’t know something and find ways to cover it up.

An acceptance of failure and vulnerability eliminates this reluctance and helps to identify problems earlier.

In the same way that technology companies continuously tweak their products during beta testing, a learning culture adapts based on the learnings from their failures.

Once a problem is solved, the knowledge is disseminated throughout the organisation so everyone can benefit.

4. Seek continuity, not discrete projects

A project mindset – complete with discrete start and end dates - has come to dominate problem-solving and decision-making in many businesses. First, leaders find issues to solve, set a desired outcome, assemble the team and project manager, and then track progress over the assigned period of the project.

Discrete projects like this can be counter-productive because they narrow the team’s focus. Instead, what needs to be encouraged is a non-timelined approach that turns experimentation and constant prototyping into a way of life in the organisation.

Feedback loops are an integral part of continuous experimentation and the learning process.

Because there are none of the time constraints typically associated with projects, it also encourages creative thinking and ‘looking over the horizon’ to see the bigger picture. This in turn will help bring to the fore latent needs and opportunities that would otherwise have remained hidden.

5. Inviting constructive feedback

Feedback loops are an integral part of continuous experimentation and the learning process. Evolution depends on seeking and acquiring high quality feedback.

If feedback is incorporated into business practices, organisations can expect to see more success. At the same time, the absence of feedback loops can result in a decline in performance because serious problems could go unnoticed for too long.

Team leaders need an ‘early warning system’ for potentially destructive behaviour that such a mix of personalities may entail.

All of these points lead to one overarching action item – the importance of a strong team. Bringing teams together from different backgrounds is one of the integral parts of creating a learning culture but can be a juggling act for managers.

To combat this, team leaders need an ‘early warning system’ for potentially destructive behaviour that such a mix of personalities may entail.

Whether it’s conflict or trust issues, there needs to be a feedback loop here for team leaders to nip issues in the bud and prevent them recurring.

Next steps

Transforming company culture is not an easy task, but to remain competitive, it’s essential.

Of course corporate culture won’t change overnight, but business leaders must make a conscious and strategic effort and show their commitment to and belief in the transformation in order to take the company along with them.

It is important that any steps taken are not just superficial. To make sure a learning culture is fully embraced, employees need to see that the feedback they provide is implemented, and that failure isn’t punished but welcomed.

Replies

Please login or register to join the discussion.

avatar
By SoniaB
06th Sep 2016 12:31

Excellent points; I particularly like "hiring for mindsets, and not just skillsets" and stop "ringfencing knowledge".

Thanks (1)