Why nurturing a love of learning will future-proof your organisation

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Can continuous learning help future-proof your organisation, and how important are the leaders in creating a culture of learning?

Today’s digital accelerating, politically unstable climate creates novel opportunities for business but also raises the threat of obsolescence across products, services and entire sectors.

The organisations that succeed in this environment are those that can be agile, identifying new opportunities quickly and making the most of them. They’re also better at spotting problems and overcoming them.  

The importance of a learning culture

If we want to be more agile, we need to keep learning and developing. It’s important that learning becomes ingrained in day-to-day working life and isn’t seen as a separate, distinct activity.

When thinking about how best to create a culture of learning, consider where in your own organisation this would best accelerate innovation and improvement. By focusing first on an area where you are likely to see swift results, you can help to create a hub of learning which can influence the rest of the business.

What is learning agility?

Research from Columbia University in 2016 describes learning agility as ‘a mind-set and corresponding collection of practices that allow leaders to continually develop, grow, and utilise new strategies that will equip them for the increasingly complex problems they face in their organisations.’

The quicker and more effectively we learn from experiences, the more agile we can be as the circumstances around us change. We need to create time and space to reflect, to make sense of what is happening to us, what we are experiencing, and to gain insight into where the most significant opportunities and threats are.

It is an old adage that ‘feedback is a gift’, but it is true, and will be increasingly important as the flow of feedback in the digital age increases exponentially.

Being agile is most useful in conditions where the old ways won’t work, where the rules have changed and where survival and success depend on adapting quickly.

Learning agility encompasses not only our curiosity and our ability to make sense of our experience, but also to convert that insight into helpful actions that increase our performance.

How to spark a learning culture

To develop a learning culture, encourage colleagues across your organisation to seek more opportunities to learn from experience.

Expose people to different ideas and ways of working beyond their current roles. Create space and time for making sense of this learning, so colleagues can relate it to performance.

This can be through reflection, with time to make notes or create a presentation to share with others. It can be through discussion with colleagues, a partner or a coach, as talking through an experience helps make sense of it in your own mind. Encourage everyone to seek more feedback.

Feedback and learning

Feedback can drive improvement. When we share feedback after a significant meeting, presentation or project, it helps us to improve next time. If we’re going to learn from feedback, it does of course help if it is delivered in a positive way.

As humans we have two responses to feedback. If we perceive it to be negative feedback that feels like a threat, we want to get away from it and do not like to hear it. If we perceive it as positive feedback, we see it as a reward, it releases dopamine in the brain, and we move towards it. To give and receive feedback well requires us to be receptive, to seek the information to improve, and to be able to distance ourselves from any sense of defensive reaction.

We need to be able to process the information in a balanced way, seeking to understand what we can learn from it rather than seeking to justify why we are doing something.

To learn, we need to be willing to explore and try things out, yet the culture of our organisations too often causes us to avoid such exploration, as it is too risky. 

If you have, or can establish, in your organisation a culture whereby feedback is sought, valued, and acted upon as a matter of routine, you will have a powerful tool to drive performance improvement.

It is an old adage that ‘feedback is a gift’, but it is true, and will be increasingly important as the flow of feedback in the digital age increases exponentially.

The role of senior leaders

Senior leaders are key to whether the people you lead will embrace agile ways of working and play their part in building an intelligent learning culture.

Encourage your senior leaders to look at their mindsets, behaviours, communication styles, and approaches to decision-making. Leaders are the catalysts that can create a culture of learning and a more agile organisation.

Here are a couple of questions that may be helpful for your senior leaders to think about:

  1. How open to learning are you every moment of every day?
  2. What shadow do you cast at work, and what does it cause others to do (or not do)?

The danger of risk aversion

A love of learning is something we normally have as children, as an instinct so we can learn to survive and thrive as human beings. This love of learning does not always survive into adult employment fully intact.

At work, too often the same learning from experience that taught us as children teaches some of us that making mistakes leads to disapproval and punishment. We learn to reduce our acceptance of risk, and we learn to conform rather than challenge the assumptions of managers about how to compete successfully.

To learn, we need to be willing to explore and try things out, yet the culture of our organisations too often causes us to avoid such exploration, as it is too risky. This risk aversion leads to the paralysis of analysis or approval, which slows down how we work and how the organisation operates.

Do you recognise any of this in your own organisation? If agility is about speeding up the organisation to deliver innovation and improvement, we need to shed this constraint of risk aversion.

Clearly you need to remain legal and compliant with relevant regulations in your market, so you do not want to shed all risk management, but you do need to challenge the state of learning in your business and check that it is flourishing, rather than held back by the fear of failure.

Would your colleagues and customers say that your culture is personified by the ‘love of learning’? If so, you’re in an exceptionally positive place. If not, think about how you can create an organisational culture where learning is front and centre, and there is a constant desire for improvement.

For the latest thinking, practical tips and expert advice on fostering a learning culture in your organisation, check out the TrainingZone.co.uk learning culture hub

About Dr Simon Hayward

Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus

My first book, Connected Leadership: How to build a more agile and customer driven business was published by FT Publishing in 2015 and was shortlisted for CMI Business Book of the Year. My second book, The Agile Leader: How to create an agile business in the digital age, is published by Kogan Page in 2018.  

I am the founder and CEO of Cirrus, where we create leadership, talent and engagement experiences that build reputation and deliver results. We partner with ambitious, international organisations across a range of sectors who need to accelerate and sustain change. 

I am also a regular media commentator and conference speaker.

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