Last month when I attended Dreamforce, the annual conference of Salesforce, I was completely blown away by the insights shared by the business and technology luminaries on the 4th industrial revolution–which is evolving at an exponential pace and disrupting almost every industry in every country. The organizations are now poised to change faster than ever to stay relevant. Human capital–which arguably is the biggest asset in any organization–is expected to be smarter, more agile, and more innovative than ever. An organization’s competitive advantage will be in the application of its collective knowledge and expertise. This means that organizations need to develop a culture that fosters learning. Being part of an organization, which is making a concerted effort to augment a nascent learning culture, deep realizations around some of the underpinnings have been truly rewarding for me. Here are some of my thoughts that I’d like to share with you.

What is a learning culture?

“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. According to the Corporate Executive Board, it is defined as a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization. This creates an environment where individuals:

Is learning culture different than training culture?

In a sharp contrast to the training culture, where responsibility for employee development resides with a dedicated L&D team, in a learning culture, responsibility for learning resides with employees and teams. In a learning culture, it’s assumed that learning happens all the time, at events but also on the job, through coaches and mentors, and from taking risks and experimenting with new processes.

In a learning culture:

What behaviors enable a sustainable learning culture?

Well, there are many tactical approaches that are usually adopted to cultivate a learning culture with varied degree of success. In my opinion, learning culture is more than just adopting a particular framework or tools, it is rather a mindset. So, a broad strategic approach to nurture that mindset has the potential to move the needle in a more meaningful way in fostering a sustainable learning culture. Following are some of those:

Instilling “growth mindset.” Learning is always pre-conditioned by a feeling of deficiency. A “growth mindset,” as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls it, is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a tendency to believe that you can grow. a growth mindset thrives on challenge and sees failure “not as evidence of lack of intelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.” Humbly confronting the limits of our own knowledge or capability forces growth mindset thinking and creates a powerful habit of seeking new learning all the time.

Support risk-taking and “failing forward.” Dr. Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly illustrates that when companies encourage risk-taking and invite the valuable lessons that come from failure, creativity and innovation soar. In other words, they allow learning to occur. As long as people are taking acceptable risks, learning cultures support them, even when they fail. “You can’t learn when you’re too comfortable and without the possibility of failure,” explains Kim Ruyle, notable talent management expert. “If you fear repercussions from failure, you will become risk-averse.”

Instituting behavioral hiring strategy. As we hire new employees, it’s important to evaluate candidates’ drive for learning. This can be accomplished using structured interviews, assessments, and behavioral interviews. Chief Learning Officer of SAP Jennifer Dearborn says, “Ask behavioral questions like ‘Do you seek and welcome demanding tasks?’, ‘Are you willing to take calculated risks?’ Look for people who are intrinsically driven, who want to figure out what needs to be done, find a way to do it and do it before you even know about it.”

Enable self directed learning. Research shows that learning is enhanced with self-selection and if that’s available just-in-time, it creates immediate value. When employees are allowed to choose their own learning paths, they’ll have the chance to gravitate towards self-directed training that helps them learn skills they are genuinely interested in. With a higher interest, there is a higher chance they will develop new skills, thus improving their value. Providing access to just-in-time and self-directed learning platforms, e.g. Udemy for Business (adopted by my organization) perceptibly enables a sustainable learning culture.

Enable knowledge sharing behavior. It’s fun to learn from each other and in a work environment. The collective knowledge of an organization is most productive when it’s actively shared and encouraged to be shared. A strong knowledge sharing culture is accomplished by making sure that structures and activities of the organization are aligned with sharing information among teams and business units. Creating an inclusive environment where people can collaborate seamlessly, seek feedback, and provide suggestions goes a long way in enabling a sustainable learning culture.

Each of us has the ability to put our unique human potential into action and to acquire a desired result. But the one thing that determines the level of our potential, that produces the intensity of our activity, and that predicts the quality of the result we receive, is our learning attitude which is the foundational element of growth. “Once you stop learning, you start dying,” as famously quoted by Albert Einstein, is a great reminder about the importance of being a life-long learner, which helps us keep living and growing and experiencing all the new things in life.

These are just some of my insights based on my broad understanding of well-established theories on learning culture development and my experience working closely with a cross-functional team driving that initiative in my organization. Thanks for spending your valuable time in reading this through the end.

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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