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Stephanie Morgan

Bray Leino Learning

Former Director of Learning Solutions

Read more from Stephanie Morgan

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Why it’s time to put culture before learning


Successfully building a learning organisation is likely to be high on the wish list for many L&D professionals. Is the secret to focus on nurturing a company culture, and see learning naturally follow?

The term ‘learning culture’ is well used within learning and development. As a reader of this article, you may even be one of the learning professionals striving to create one. After all, the rewards are obvious for L&D teams that have done this: their organisations enjoy on average three times the growth, productivity and profitability of those without a successful learning culture.

So why is it that only the top 10% of organisations – the ‘new learning organisations’ that make up Towards Maturity’s ‘Top Deck’ – have managed to truly establish a culture of learning?

The reasons for this usually include a combination of L&D lacking resources and capabilities, managers lacking time to get behind learning, and low learner engagement

But I think there’s something else we could be doing in L&D to encourage learning cultures, and it’s all about getting to grips with the organisational culture.

The truth is that learning cultures can’t simply be created out of thin air. They need to be incorporated into the wider organisational culture that already exists to stand any chance of success. 

In other words, a learning culture doesn’t exist as a tangible, separate entity to the rest of the business, but is instead embedded within the existing set of values that make up the organisational culture. 

What I’m suggesting is thinking about ‘culture’ before we think about learning. 

Culture: behaviours over values

When we think of corporate cultures, ‘values’ can be the first thing that comes to mind. Often based around principles like accountability, honesty and respect, values are an essential aspect of any workplace culture. 

But they can be difficult to define tangibly; in reality, they are driven by the attitudes, habits, and behaviours that come together to give employees a shared set of beliefs. 

Or, to borrow culture guru Patty McCord’s definition, an organisational culture is:

‘…the stories people tell. It’s the way people operate when no one’s looking. It’s the values that you hold dear, that you know your colleagues do [as well]. It’s the expectations of how people are going to behave, and what gets punished and what gets rewarded.’

At the heart of this is behaviour: the daily choices and actions people take. 

Learning readiness

To truly grasp your organisation’s culture, and the place of learning within it, you need to understand these behaviours before working out what needs to be done to integrate learning.  

You can gain real insights from tangible measurements such as employee surveys or exit interview data. But you can also glean informal observational insights simply by listening to conversations and observing everyday behaviours. 

This could be anything from people regularly turning up to meetings a few minutes late, to leaving a few minutes early at the end of the day, instead of staying late to meet deadlines. 

It’s in these subconscious day-to-day moments that you can truly get to know the individual behaviours that shape the culture, and sense what people feel strongly about in your organisation – both positive and negative.

While observing negative feelings will tell you about the cultural barriers that are holding your organisation back, it’s the positive behaviours that you can learn most from. 

How invested in your company are your people? What drives them to work for you? What behaviours do the most successful people display that can be encouraged more widely? 

Learning behaviours 

Focus on the behaviours you want to encourage among your people, and work with stakeholders to put together a plan for how you can influence them.  

There’s no winning formula when it comes to behaviours, as every organisation is different. 

Ultimately, what you want is people who are curious, committed and aware of how their role fits into the bigger picture of your company. A positive workforce that feels empowered to embrace learning will be the end result.

This is exactly what Netflix managed to achieve over several years of cultural change.

The result was an unusually open culture that balanced freedom and responsibility to value open communication, trust, leading by example, and high performance.  

By closely tying individual performance with organisational performance, employees were empowered to be the best they could be as they knew a) how their own role created value for customers and the company and b) how they would be rewarded for meeting (and exceeding) expectations.

Revealingly, ‘learning’ is not explicitly mentioned in Netflix’s culture slide deck, because it is an implicit part of the broader culture. It’s something people simply do continuously as part of their daily roles, by asking questions and proactively working together to resolve challenges. 

Thinking counterintuitively 

This approach may seem like a bit of a step change. We are so used to talking about ‘creating’ learning cultures that to think otherwise is a bit of a shock to the system. 

But this is exactly what adopting a counterintuitive mindset is all about. Rather than plough on with the desire to create learning cultures, we need to be bold by letting go of the same approach and adopting a new strategy. One that takes a broader view of culture, beyond learning.

So, it’s time to get a handle on our organisational cultures before thinking about integrating learning within them. 

Why it matters now

According to PwC’s recent Annual Global CEO survey, the majority of business leaders are eager to upskill their current and future workforce, and to cultivate soft skills like creativity, empathy and problem solving in their corporate culture.

They know that, if they can do this, their business will be in a far stronger position to navigate our unpredictable, rapidly evolving business climate. 

Fail to do so, and they risk turning their people away as they look for organisations that will look after them by preparing them for the future world of work. 

The good news for L&D teams is that learning can play a critical role in cultivating these skills. This is, therefore, a huge opportunity for L&D professionals to show their worth to the business by integrating learning into the organisational culture. 

In this era of transformation, where learning is becoming embedded within the flow of work, formal divisions between learning and work are being eroded. That’s why this alternative approach to culture could be just what L&D needs.  


Author Profile Picture
Stephanie Morgan

Former Director of Learning Solutions

Read more from Stephanie Morgan

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