Pop quiz: Is your organization a culture of learning, or a culture of nonlearning? The answer to this question is likely aligned with how successfully you feel your company is performing at any given time.
What is a learning culture?
A learning culture is one in which everyone:
- feels encouraged to expand their knowledge and skill set,
- can adapt quickly to changing circumstances by learning new methods, and
- has opportunities to participate in professional development.
Many organizations consider themselves a learning culture because they offer in-house training or allow employees to seek professional development outside the company. But cultivating a learning culture in an organization is more than simply offering more opportunities for training—it requires a real investigation of company values and processes.
“A learning culture exists when an organization makes reflection, feedback, and sharing of knowledge part of the way it functions on a day-to-day basis,” says Steven J. Gill in his book Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations.
Organizational change theorist Peter Vaill describes three types of learning: know-how (developing skills to do something), know-what (understanding a subject), and know-why (seeing meaning and value). A successful learning culture, argues Gill, must support all three. Not only that, but everyone in the organization should be “continuously organizing, storing, retrieving, interpreting, and applying information.”
What does a nonlearning culture look like?
Nonlearning cultures are a barrier to creating dynamic and innovative organizations, says Gill. “An organization that has a culture that, in effect, closes off communication as well as stifles honest feedback and reflection does not allow for organizational learning to occur.”
Do any of these qualities sound familiar?
- Rewarding individual effort, but not team collaborations
- Not allowing employees to take time to develop skills via trainings and seminars
- Punishing individuals (even indirectly) for trying new strategies
- Not following up on employee satisfaction surveys
If so, you might be functioning in a nonlearning culture—and it’s time to turn things around.
What are the benefits of a learning culture?
Plenty. Employees are better able to handle the inevitable change that comes with any professional endeavor, they feel more engaged with their work, and they expand their skill set regularly. These more subtle gains result in the kind of bottom-line statistics that sound even catchier: higher profits, more productivity, more satisfied customers, decreased employee turnover. Need numbers? Data shows that every hour of information technology training results in almost 6 hours of increased capacity.
How does an organization cultivate a learning culture?
The first, and most crucial step, is to start with leadership. Organizational leaders establish company culture, so the attitudes, priorities, and goals of an organization’s top management need to be aligned with learning. Passive leaders, argues Gills, are the first barrier to high-impact learning organizations. “Even the best-intentioned manager will create controls, ways of communicating, styles of leadership, and mental models that become roadblocks to sharing information…the first step in lowering these barriers is awareness.” He recommends open and regular discussions among leadership about learning needs.
A 2015 report in TQM Magazine focuses on the role of mentoring. An effective mentorship program, they argue, starts with a matching tool that pairs appropriate mentors with mentees, values a two-way exchange of knowledge, and supports journaling as a method of reflective learning. The best way to start is to have a specific task or objective for the mentorship; for example, a new employee who wants to learn company policies from someone who’s been around for awhile.
Of course, offering training opportunities is a clear-cut way to enhance the skills and knowledge of an organization. But they should be intentionally crafted to suit the needs of the company and its employees, designed with specific objectives in mind, and followed up with detailed evaluations to assess impact. Making sure that learners are supported to bring their new knowledge into the workplace is key—otherwise most of what they absorb during the training will be lost when they return to work.
In short, a learning culture is necessary for increasing employee engagement and productivity. It starts with leadership, is cultivated with employee mentorship, and should offer ample opportunities for growth.