Should we be talking about a learning culture or a business improvement culture?

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For L&D to truly have a transformative impact on learning culture, perhaps a shift in the language we use is needed.

It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m having a relaxed cuppa with a friend who also works in learning and development. We’re chatting about an upcoming gathering of fellow L&D professionals - the second meeting of a group we started earlier this year.

At our inaugural brunch the topic of conversation turned to an age-old question – how do we get organisations, managers and their teams to see the value of learning and development?

It would seem that this is still an issue for many of us, whether we are internal or external providers of L&D solutions, and we were chatting about what we might ask ourselves at our next meeting that could help move this debate forward.

As the tea and cake was consumed, our conversation progressed and we began to wonder whether we should stop separating ourselves from our organisations into specialist silos. This has led me to ponder on the following questions:

  1. Have we really learned to speak the language of our organisations?
  2. To what extent do we feel as if we are future-proofing our roles by maintaining an air of mystery about what we do?
  3. To what extent should we still be expending energy on proving return-on-investment rather than getting on and delivering results?
  4.  Should we stop talking about a learning culture and start talking about driving business improvements through knowledge, skill, behaviour and competence improvements?

I’m not sure I have answers to these questions, but I’d like to throw some thoughts into the debate.

The role of formal education

I often hear workshop participants saying, ‘this is the first bit of learning I’ve done for months’.

I’ve heard this from experienced employees, right through to new starters and first jobbers.

It concerns me that many of us don’t see that the expression ‘every day is a school day’ is true and that we should be learning all the time – and in fact we are learning all the time, it’s just that often we don’t spot it because it happens so naturally.

Many organisations are now offering mindfulness and meditation programmes to their staff, but I wonder if these are simply seen as wellbeing initiatives rather than business improvement initiatives?

I wonder if the perception that learning only takes place in a classroom environment comes from how education is still structured, even with flipped classrooms, forest schools and enrichment activities.

Is this something that those of us working with organisations and their employees could – and should – influence?

Informal learning versus formal learning at work

There’s been much talk about different modes of learning and models such as 70:20:10 have provided us with some really useful opportunities to discuss how much learning is naturally occurring, but has the message really sunk into the fabric of our organisations?

To what extent are we supporting and enabling social learning to take place in organisations?

To what extent are we valuing the results of such learning? To what extent are we assimilating the results of this type of learning into everyday practices in a way that is recognisable and repeatable?

Performance management

I’m often called upon to support organisations with different areas of performance management from setting expectations through to managing good performance and managing under-performance.

The conversations about these topics have clear and specific relevance to learning and development, but often feel removed from this.

Could it be time for learning and development to undergo a rebranding exercise that puts us firmly in the space of organisational improvement?

Discussions often take place in this realm about enabling individuals to make mistakes and learn from them, but then managers talk about their organisations operating with a culture that blames individuals for mistakes and encourages them to cover them up.

The business imperative for reflective practice

The continuous improvement cycles that are used by many organisations (e.g. plan-do-review or plan-do-check-act) are regularly applied to process improvements and quality management.

These cycles are clearly aligned with Kolb’s learning cycle of action-reflection-conceptualisation-experimentation and yet how much do we value time spent in reflection? To what extent do we enable all our employees to take time to stop and think?

Many organisations are now offering mindfulness and meditation programmes to their staff, but I wonder if these are simply seen as wellbeing initiatives rather than business improvement initiatives?

Could a change of language lead to a change of culture?

With all this in mind, could it be time for learning and development to undergo a rebranding exercise that puts us firmly in the space of organisational improvement?

Is it possible to create an organisation where we monitor competence levels in the same way as we monitor the financial health of our businesses, where this is something that is high on the agenda and seen as an essential foundation for organisational success?

There is much talk about the need to respond to the ever-changing operating environments of our organisations, the need to build resilience, the need to be agile and flexible and the need to be able to respond in the moment.

If we are going to be able to achieve these things, we cannot deny the need for a learning culture. The question for me is, how do we create this and how should we talk about it?

I’m looking forward to a long and productive afternoon tea with my L&D buddies to see what we come up with.

Please share your thoughts so that we can continue to evolve, grow, develop and, of course, LEARN!

Interested in this topic? Read How to steer your business towards a learning culture.

About Jackie Clifford

Jackie Clifford

Jackie has been working in learning and development since 1990. She has worked in the following sectors and industries: Sales Recruitment Retail Voluntary sector Further education Port industry Training consultancy Prison Service Non-departmental public body Since 2000 Jackie has co-authored three books, all published by Kogan Page. She works on a freelance and interim basis providing support for organisations in all areas of learning and development, including needs analysis, programme development, business skills training, coaching and strategy development. Jackie is passionate about learning and about helping people to recognise the potential for learning to take place - in the training room, the workplace and beyond. Her experience, skills and knowledge enable her to work with individuals and groups in a facilitative and practical way, helping to define specific learning outcomes and achieve them using approaches that are appropriate to each situation and organisational culture. As an Ambassador for Girlguiding (the largest youth organisation for girls and young women in the UK, with half a million members aged 4-25 and more than 65,000 adult leaders) she was the lead volunteer on a project to review and develop their learning and development strategy in 2010 and supported the group that was working to update the strategy in 2016. Jackie works with a number of Associates and will be happy to put together a team to meet the specific needs of your organisation.


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