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Nigel Paine

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Learning culture: the wake up call we all need


Developing what Towards Maturity refer to as the ‘high-performance learning culture’ is a long way off for most organisations. How can learning professionals take those first steps towards meaningful change while continuing with their day-to-day responsibilities?

I tried to argue in my recent book ‘Workplace Learning: How to Build a Culture of Continuous Employee Development’ that the only possible way organisations can navigate the complexities and the disruptions of the current environment is to build a workforce that is confident in its ability to learn, wants to learn, and is proud of its agility and resilience.

You would not be surprised to learn that this process does not exist in a vacuum. Toxic organisations are guaranteed to bully their staff (and often their customers). They are places where no one ever confesses to having made a mistake, and the last thing anyone would consider doing is to share anything with a colleague at the next desk, let alone someone working in a different department or building.

These organisations have a mountain to climb in terms of building any kind of learning culture. Learning cultures flourish in happy workplaces, built around happy staff who are constantly sharing knowledge and insights, and listen to the opinions of their colleagues.

I am well aware that the majority of learning professionals face daunting problems with supplying just the very basic learning provision.

They often work in a hostile environment where it is hard to argue for a budget, and the idea of a learning culture seems to be pie in the sky and jam tomorrow. Having to strive to be able to provide, even meagre, jam today is not necessarily the best place to focus on building a new and better workplace.

How can transactional L&D feasibly transition towards a high-performing learning culture?

Towards Maturity produced a fascinating report last year (The Transformation Curve – 2018 Benchmark Research) that tracked the four distinct stages of maturity in learning organisations.

This started with transactional L&D and culminated in a high-performing learning culture. The report argues that this is not a linear progression, but a series of inflection points. So, for example, to move from transactional L&D at the bottom level to performing L&D – their second level – requires huge effort and fundamental questioning about the purpose of learning inside an organisation.

Strong endorsement from the leadership team allows a simple pause, and the beginnings of a commitment to change.

Even when you have a proactive talent and performance strategy (the third stage) it is still a huge leap to move towards that high-performing learning culture. No wonder the notion of a learning culture appears lost in the clouds when sitting in a transactional L&D operation. It is glimpsed occasionally, but more often than not is completely invisible.

So where do you start? How do you move forward, even if you are sitting at that transactional L&D table?

Four key staging points to help you on your journey

There are four key staging points that you can accomplish without stopping everything else on your plate. These stages will get you some way along the path towards a learning culture. This will be far enough along to be able to shape and define the next stage for your organisation, and begin a more profound and transformational journey.

This is an absolutely critical pathway to survival in the current complex and disruptive world.

Stage one: What is reality?

Confronting reality is one of Stephen Covey’s 15 behaviours, but I want to single it out as a valuable starting point as you move towards a learning culture.

The experience of getting out from behind closed doors and talking to the organisation about what day-to-day work is really like, and exploring the blockages that stop high performance, will reveal all the factors that build resentment, disempower and destroy performance.

You need a clear picture of what the organisation needs to do in order to move towards high performance. This is very important for your leadership team, as much as it is important for the L&D operation.

That reality is a starting point that will define the outcomes you need to achieve, as you begin the journey of  transformation. If you let the staff speak for themselves, and share case studies of working life inside your organisation, the resulting shock can create a massive impetus for change.

This is not about being ‘nice’, it is about performance. When everybody has a sense of the percentage points that can be gained in efficiency and effectiveness, you would need to be shortsighted or belligerent to not get the point. This is your starting point.

Stage two: How to build trust

Stephen M R Covey published his influential book ‘The Speed of Trust’ in 2006. It marks, for me, a watershed as it highlights the impact that a high trust or low trust culture makes on the effectiveness of an organisation.

In Covey’s words: “High trust speeds up transactions and processes and lowers cost. Low trust increases cost and slows down effective action”.

Covey notes 13 behaviours that are critical for a high trust organisation. He believes that  demonstrating those behaviours from top to bottom in an organisation are the building blocks for trust. You can judge your own organisation by examining these behaviours; regardless of how well you score, they will form a framework that you can use to both extend trust and begin a debate about the level of trust in your workplace.

There is no learning culture that I have ever experienced that is controlled and directed by the L&D team. This is virtually a contradiction in terms.

I want to highlight six behaviours that are fundamental to a high trust organisation, and therefore the first point of development as you move towards a culture of continuous learning.

The first behaviour is to demonstrate respect. If you show you do not care, or that you only respect those with more power than you, or those that can do something for you, no one will share knowledge or offer help without demanding something in return. In a learning culture, selfless sharing of expertise, knowledge and insight are fundamental and non-negotiable components.

The second behaviour is to show loyalty. This means correcting a culture of badmouthing people behind their backs; taking credit for others achievements or selling people out. Loyalty builds trust, disloyalty destroys it.

The third is to create transparency. Information should not be withheld, and there should not be a culture of secrets and deception in the organisation. Everybody should know where they stand, and everybody should know how the organisation is doing.

The fourth behaviour is admitting mistakes. If you cover up mistakes, try to blame other people and spend your time ensuring that nothing sticks to you, you have a full-time job of spreading deep mistrust and suspicion.

The fifth behaviour, related to the fourth, is developing a culture of accountability. People own issues, take responsibility and hold others accountable. “I’ve got that” means you do not have to worry, as that task will be actioned. In a low accountability organisation those words are meaningless.

The final behaviour is to listen first. Organisations are full of people who simply don’t listen. They do not want to know, and impose their own views and values. High trust organisations listen before they speak, and listen to gain understanding.

There is a whole programme based around these behaviours. You have to begin a debate about them, and then extend those behaviours from exhortations to becoming quite simply ‘the way we do things around here’. In other words, embedded in the organisational culture.

Stage three: Getting the leadership right

There is no excuse or exclusion from demonstrating these behaviours from the top of the organisation to the bottom. They form a good basis for an excellent discussion with the leadership team.

The commitment to demonstrating these behaviours is a critical underpinning for the whole organisation. The difficult conversation has to be had. There is no learning culture without trust. There is no organisational trust without trusting and trusted leadership.

Strong endorsement from the leadership team allows a simple pause, and the beginnings of a commitment to change. This is the moment to begin a process that will change the organisation for the better. There are building blocks that you can put in place without that endorsement, but there is a moment when you need it, in order to make further progress.

Stage four: Shifting the focus of learning and empowering staff

The last stage is possibly the most difficult for the learning team. The message is quite simple: it has to get out of the way. Its job is to enable and empower and, therefore, largely hand over responsibility to both individuals and their operational units.

There is no learning culture that I have ever experienced that is controlled and directed by the L&D team. This is virtually a contradiction in terms. A learning culture is self-fulfilling and self generating. It needs managing and tweaking constantly, but it doesn’t need, and cannot ever be, controlled.

How you achieve this depends on the stage that L&D has reached inside your organisation. But one critical component is good, honest debate; frank and fair discussion; and agreement among the team about the direction they are headed and the critical staging points on the way.

You first need a plan. And then you need to implement that plan!


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