People Development Specialist Education & Skills Funding Agency
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How to create the right environment to grow a learning culture

Much like growing a plant, nurturing a learning culture takes time and effort – and the right environment to do it in. In the post-pandemic world, it will mark the difference between your organisation merely surviving and thriving.

27th Jul 2020
People Development Specialist Education & Skills Funding Agency
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The concept of a learning culture is nothing new – in fact the concept has been around for decades. It has fallen in and out of fashion over the years, yet remains somewhat of a holy grail for discerning L&D leaders. I first became aware of the notion of learning cultures a few years back as I slowly navigated my way out of the classroom and into more strategic L&D roles. I never really understood it, so I turned a blind eye, although I suspected it could be transformative.

You don't have a learning culture, you're always building one.
– Nigel Paine

I became enlightened only recently, when under the tutelage of Nigel Paine, I actually realised that building a learning culture was not just some aspiring L&D leaders' unachievable dream, but in fact it should be your strategy and something that everything else is built around. It is, in fact, all encompassing. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving in the post pandemic world.

Creating the right environment

The journey to a learning culture is not straightforward and takes time. This is not a quick or easy fix. It’s about change, and change seldom is easy. It requires commitment – you do it with your heart, soul and minds. You need to invest time and energy in building the framework for a learning culture to emerge. That's perhaps where many leaders steer away or presume it's an impossible dream. It shouldn’t just be a dream; it is achievable – and essential – in this climate of uncertainty. A learning culture needs the right environment to grow and if you try to build it in a toxic environment, where failure is frowned on, where dog-eat-dog trumps empowering people to learn and grow then forget it, focus on the organisational culture instead. Start from the right point.

If you put in place the conditions for learning, then learning will begin to self generate and solve challenges, and deal with disruptions before they escalate and do damage.
– Elliot Masie

People are smart and, if it’s presented in the right way they will get this at all levels. A learning culture is a win/win for everyone. People are key to the success of the entire organisational strategy. They have so much knowledge and experience stored in their heads, so much talent and so many skills. They are the great untapped resource in our organisations that you can't replicate with a bit of instructional design and filling classrooms, and nor should you want to. Leaders and managers are essential to provide the right permissions and to lead by example.

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Building resilience

A learning culture is about building the kind of organisation where people can thrive, and dismantling the inhibitors that prevent that process. Fundamentally, it’s about people and harnessing the collective power of people for the greater good and so everyone benefits. You've heard the saying 'knowledge walking out of the door', well not in a learning culture. It's all about growth – growth of individuals and organisational growth.

At its core, a learning culture is about unlocking and unblocking knowledge and skills, upskilling and reskilling, sharing, collaboration and empowerment. It's about people, building communities of practice, learning and growing together.

It's also about organisational resilience. For example, when the Covid-19 pandemic began, most organisations scrambled to create plans to ensure the right people with the necessary skills were in place or could be trained. Desk aides were frantically sketched out to ensure continuity. A learning culture acts as an organisational gyroscope against such threats and ensures knowledge and skills are already widely available and accessible to all. A learning culture is agile and iterative and able to change course.

diagram showing the elements of a learning culture
Nigel Paine/Michelle Ockers

An investment in the future

As a learning culture becomes everyone's responsibility, this effectively releases the shackles of learning from L&D professionals to focus on where we can add real value as expert business partners; solving problems, addressing critical points of failure and focusing on driving performance through learning. This shifting of mindsets means L&D can move beyond being a transactional function, serving up training to staff – this is not transformative or cost effective. (Read The Great Training Robbery for more on this).  

A learning culture is owned by everyone and built by everyone, it cannot be imposed.
– Naomi Lockwood

Coaching is fundamental to people development and therefore underpins a learning culture. What coaching does is unlock the door to change, to powerful coaching conversations in the flow of work, which leads to innovation, empowerment and to problem solving. Investment in coaching for all staff is therefore a must and a key ingredient in your future learning culture strategy.  

With an eye to the future, it is also worth noting the digital transformation our sector has undergone. Digital disruption has been accelerated by Covid-19 and in the case of L&D this has long been overdue.

Microsoft will be launching an app later this year that will allow employers to integrate world-class content from LinkedIn Learning, Microsoft Learn, a customer’s own content, and other content providers all in one place, ranging from instructor-led training to shorter, micro-learning content. The app will empower managers to assign and track learning progress and enable employees to have conversations around the content while also earning certifications and recognition for their new skills. Whether a new employee is onboarding, a manager is looking to sharpen a team’s skills, or a front-line worker is in the field needing immediate training, this new app will create, according to them, a ‘seamless experience for employees to learn in the flow of work’. This is just one example of the digital disruption ahead for corporate L&D.  

As an industry, we must be adaptable to change. Our strategies can’t be set in stone – it’s an iterative process. Measurement and evaluation shouldn’t just be something that happens at the end, it’s an ongoing thing and should be evidence based, using a range of qualitative and quantitative data. Pulse Surveys, People Surveys, focus groups, business performance KPIs, performance reviews, anecdotal feedback and behavioural change are just a few ways I measure success in this regard.

A learning culture isn’t something you can implement overnight. It takes time to build, but it’s an investment in the future – the future of your organisation and all the people within it.

I'd like to end this article by paying tribute and thanks to Nigel Paine and Jane Daly for their generosity, wisdom, support, coaching and inspiration in helping inspire and shape my views and for providing some constructive challenge along the way.

Interested in this topic? Read Four stages to embedding a self-determined learning culture.

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