Since MIT’s Peter Senge published his classic book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization in 1990, practices that create a culture of learning have become a widely accepted ideal in the evolution of successful organizational development. Many if not most businesses and corporations have embraced Senge’s theory of systems thinking which views a company as a vital integrated organism seeking to create a culture of learning by nurturing aspiration, engaging in reflective conversation, and embracing complexity. This ambition, however, often remains more a theory than a corporate reality. Yet the future belongs to those nimble learners who can react quickly to disruption, adapt to change, and harness a wealth of ideas and information.
Even as careers which employ a repetitive skill like telephone operators, mill workers, and file clerks vanish, the emerging positions that are shaping our future will require quick thinking, rapid response, high social, emotional and cultural intelligence, and creativity. These qualities require that learning be a daily experience and necessitate a corporate culture of learning.
In 2000, when the Sloan Digital Sky Survey was put into place, its telescope in New Mexico collected more data in its first month than had been catalogued in the entire history of astronomy. Walmart now collects more information in an hour than the content of all the books in the U.S. library of congress. The exponential rather than linear expansion of human knowledge is now a reality affecting every area of endeavor. While the rate of acceleration is different depending on your field, across the spectrum human knowledge is now doubling every 13 months and according to a model created by IBM will in the future double every 13 hours. Constant learning is essential in our time.
When it comes to the authentic creation of a culture of learning, however, there is often a disparity between the intention and the implementation. An evaluation by The Corporate Executive Board in London found that despite the claims of many organizations, only 1 in 10 had a true learning culture. They also discovered that only about 20% of employees actually demonstrate effective learning behaviors. This was despite the presence in most settings of formalized professional development programs often directed toward this goal. In U.S. companies in 2013, the cost of these programs was on average $1,208 per employee a year. The creation of an effective learning culture should therefore begin with an honest self-evaluation of those factors both corporate and individual which most commonly inhibit and derail its implementation:
- Is your organization under market pressures that have forced reductions in staff and anxiety about your competitive edge, profitability or survival? Has that reflexively caused your company to revert to reactive practices that have worked in the past rather than creatively seeking renewal?
- Is your corporate culture characterized by an aggregate of protocols and regulations that have accumulated over time to provide direction and limitation to your functions? Has this become prohibitive armor against learning?
- Are there corporate habits, unstated rules of relationship, stagnation in key leadership positions, or a comfortable inertia that discourages learning? Are you willing to change these?
- Individually, one of the greatest obstacles to a learning culture is ego and insecurity. There is a human inclination to defend, deny and deflect that obstructs interactive learning. Leaders are often tempted into the practice of mystery/mastery, which involves withholding key information in order to have the mastery in every situation by seeming to be indispensable. Learning requires humility as well as curiosity.
- Is there a fear factor? What if new ideas fail? What if risk results in embarrassment or worse?
- Is there a spirit of complacency in which employees are operating on automatic pilot and the anxiety of new ideas and the additional work required by change are unwelcome?
Having looked then in the mirror, what are some key actions to making a vision for a learning culture a dynamic actuality? Here are some:
- Development professionals have lost their monopoly on training. A recent study indicated that 79% of employees relied primarily on sources outside their company’s formal training and development functions. This was an 11% increase over the last 3 years and represented all generations of workers. Individual employees are accessing their significant information from internet resources, online courses, and social media. Forging a culture of learning in this environment means constant collaboration. Collaborative learning needs to have immediate integration with the presenting challenges of the work itself. An ancient proverb says, “As iron sharpens iron so one friend sharpens another.”
- A culture of learning is a mindset rather than a method in which top leaders must be as avid to learn from others as the newest employee. The keys to this mindset are careful listening, a passionate curiosity, an appetite for challenge, an aptitude for problem solving, and excitement about change. A learning culture mindset is always seeking to build a team in which key role players are equally as important as superstars and everyone has a signature on the success of the mission.
- A key component of nurturing a learning mindset is building trust. In the U.S. Army every mission has a debrief not only as a means of learning from the successes and short comings of the mission but as a means of deepening each person’s understanding of their role in relationship to others and their trust in one another as a team. The rhythm of mission and debrief is a valuable model.
- Learning must become a daily practice or discipline for all, modelled from the top. It must be every bit as important as the daily workout. What organizational practices and incentives will prompt everyone to be fully engaged in the discipline of learning as a daily exercise?
- Leadership that seeks to create this culture needs to make this a criteria when hiring new talent who will embody the qualities of the learning mindset.
- Finally, a learning team aggressively and intentionally engages in accumulating information on customers, competitors, economic and social trends, the high performers, innovations in your field, related fields and peripheral information that might prove useful. This practice of constant intuitive research combined with collaboration leads naturally to analysis, application, and refreshed vision. A culture of learning must allow opportunity for reflection and strategic engagement with new information which will give order and direction to your life together.