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Anita Douglas

Leading Results

Founder and director

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Why building a learning culture should start from the bottom up


Today’s ‘always on’ digital environment presents more opportunities than ever before for organisations to involve their employees in facilitating change in their learning culture.

Traditionally, developing a learning culture would be treated like any other boardroom project - pushed down from the top with everything delivered as part of a formal framework with clear boundaries.

Only now are we starting to see organisations recognise this challenge as one that can and should be driven by their employees if it is to become embedded and part of the fabric of the organisation.

The appetite for knowledge is growing

Our world is changing, and fast. Whereas those entering the world of work in the 1960s may have thought about a ‘job for life’, today the opposite is true.

A working life with multiple career changes is becoming increasingly common and these changing priorities of the workforce are driving a change in how people think about learning and personal development.

Different careers mean learning different skills, so personal education is becoming an ongoing activity rather than a means or route to a particular role or promotion.

At the same time, the physical barriers to learning that used to exist are gone. Our potential is no longer limited to where we can travel to or the hours we work. The digital world puts a wealth of information at our fingertips, providing an immediate response to our questions at a time that suits us.

The most important aspect of this change management process is to make your employees part of it.

It should come as no surprise that these factors are having an impact in the workplace. What level of impact really depends on the organisation. Embracing a culture of learning is definitely more a case of ‘when’ than ‘if’, so if you’re not ready for it, that could be a problem.

Why informal learning should be embraced

Today’s learning solutions must reflect the way we live in 2018 if they are to be effective for today’s learner.

From doing our grocery shop from our phones, to subscription viewing services like Netflix, we have the choice of ‘when, how and what’ we do in so many other parts of our life it seems obvious that our preference for a more ‘on demand’ approach to learning will grow.

Some organisations refuse to accept that informal learning sources such as webinars, You Tube videos and blogs can offer any additional benefit over their traditional curriculum content. Some take the view that these unvetted sources pose a risk in terms of the quality and accuracy of their content.

Conversely, forward-thinking organisations understand that to ignore its presence and insist on business as usual is a clear way to disengage those employees who favour its use.

Instead, they acknowledge the change that their employees are asking for and are finding ways to harness this thirst for knowledge.

They recognise that placing value on learning of any sort is a great step towards developing an organisational culture with learning at its core.

Accept that this is a significant cultural change programme

Changing the culture of an organisation is a larger task than rolling out a new IT system or a new ordering process, so approaching it in the same way simply will not work.

After all, you are not just asking people to do things differently, but to think and feel differently and change their habits and behaviours at work and outside of work too.

In my opinion, the most important aspect of this change management process is to make your employees part of it. This has to be led by them. The best way to kill any cultural change is to present it to your employees as a done deal without explanation or consultation.

A learning culture should manifest itself not just in how individuals behave, but also in the organisation as a whole. 

Help them to understand what you are trying to achieve, listen to their concerns and find out what they need from you. What role do they want to play? What do they need from you? What does a learning culture mean to them?

You’ll also need to prepare for the commercial impact that will be felt, both during the change period and in the new environment you create.

Working groups, briefings and the like will all take resource away from your core business activity for a while, so make sure you understand what the impact will be and plan for it. Don’t make it a problem for your employees to deal with.

Engagement at all levels of the organisation is the key to success

If you want to embed a true learning culture within an organisation it’s going to take the efforts of everyone to make it fly.

The role of the leadership team is not to approve the programme, set the budget and receive a monthly progress report. You need to engage your teams to take responsibility and ownership and show that you as leaders are committed to the cause.

Perhaps one of the hardest skills as a leader is that moment where you have to step aside and let your teams take the reins. 

They want to see you acting as a role model in a way that is authentic and transparent. If you’re not, they’ll be the first to call you out.

Find ways to demonstrate the value you place on learning. Most leaders have invested heavily in themselves to develop the skills, knowledge and behaviour they need to be effective, so bring those attributes to the fore.

You need to remember that a learning culture should manifest itself not just in how individuals behave, but also in the organisation as a whole. Show your employees how you’re taking steps to improve the business and how it will behave in the future.

Think about how, with this kind of learning culture in place, your business will react to success and failure in a way that constantly improves the health of the business.

What you’ll get in return is a workforce that engages. The team will begin to take steps of their own to change the way they approach learning that will benefit your organisation and their personal development.

Supported from the top, led from the bottom

Perhaps one of the hardest skills as a leader is that moment where you have to step aside and let your teams take the reins. In any cultural change initiative, it’s possibly the most important leadership attribute to have.

Your job is not to fight it but facilitate it, use the enthusiasm and passion your employees bring to the process and remove the challenges that lie in their path.

The result will be a learning culture that not only fits in today’s world but is fit for the future and led by a team of motivated and engaged employees.

Want to learn more about this topic? Read Employee development: how upskilling employees can offer a competitive advantage.

Author Profile Picture
Anita Douglas

Founder and director

Read more from Anita Douglas

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