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How to: Develop a culture of learning


John Pope tells the community how businesses can embed a culture of learning in the workplace. Read on...
A lot is written about training and ways of increasing its effectiveness. And I, in common with many others who have run training programmes, have wondered how much of what I have presented really sticks, how seriously those I am trying to help will take it in, and how many will use and value it. I am sure that a good deal is wasted, some from lack of opportunity, some because it was ineffective, some because it seemed irrelevant to the work to be done, or the progress of the individual, and some because there was no strong learning culture in the organisation.

Why bother with a culture of learning?

Why don't we just leave it to individuals to decide what and when to learn? The answer is simple: an organisation which does not have a strong healthy attitude to learning will be overtaken and left behind by those that do; it will be difficult to retain its best people and it will regularly have to bring in people from outside. It will lose its knowledgeable and more ambitious people to competitors and it will fall behind the competition and ultimately collapse.

The key steps

It can be a long journey, especially if the organisation has never put much effort into learning and has usually brought in people who were already well trained. There are many steps to develop a culture of learning, though they are not in a strict sequence except for the first.

Start at the top

Of course. The chief executive and the top management team must show that they are committed to continuous learning. They must be ready to back it with the funds that are needed, and more importantly with personal support by explaining its importance and by asking the regular and sometimes difficult questions: "What have we learnt from..?"; "Are we really well enough prepared for the future?"; "Are we up to date?" They must also show that they too are devoting time and effort to their own and their team's learning.

Examine successes critically

A success is fine at any level in an organisation but it can lead to complacency and the remark, "we are doing all right as it is". There is always something that can be learned from a success and the critical questions are "how could we have done it better, faster, more cheaply?" in which the underlying principles should be extracted so that that successful teams can answer the question "where else could we apply the principles which we have learnt from it?" Most organisations examine failures during which plenty of the members present excuses or try to disassociate themselves from what went wrong. Post-mortems, though necessary, are demotivating. Investigating successes is more motivating and more likely to lead to further improvement.

Involve managers and specialists in giving training

Training and development is too important to be handed over completely to the training function. Managers, at all levels, must contribute strongly to training and take responsibility for aspects of it rather than just supporting the professional trainers. There is a double benefit: successful managers get more respect for their views. They can illustrate how and what they have learnt had helped them to that success; such managers learn more about their own skills and knowledge. It is only when you can explain something well that you really understand it; the questions from those attending a session given by a manager can force that manager to clarify or even change views.

Develop managers as coaches and mentors

Yes, I know that good managers are always busy, but every member of staff should be able to get real help from a line manager. It transfers knowledge and changes the way in which managers are seen by their people.

Foster professional qualification

Identify professional qualifications which are relevant to both the organisation and the individual. Encourage people to gain qualifications which are directly relevant in their work for the organisation, or which develop individuals so that their contribution can be stronger. You should want to increase the employability of your people: they can take on more; they can reduce your dependence on expensive external professionals. Yes, they might also leave you if you cannot use their talents, but that would be your responsibility for stagnating or not developing new business opportunities.

John Pope has been a management consultant for over 40 years. He has thrived through four major recessions and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. To know more about John's work and service please visit his website. His book 'Winning Consultancy Business' was published in 2009 and is available through his website. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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