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What is learning culture and can we change it?

What defines culture is the visible behaviours that occur within an organisation. Many organisations claim to have a ‘learning culture’, but there’s often a gap between what they want to happen and how people conduct themselves day-to-day.

Some organisations seem to be more amenable to their team members developing their skills than others.

Despite the diversity of organisational outlook and the range of support to build new skills, improve capability and change performance, lots of organisations tell people (especially potential recruits) that they have a learning culture - but what is that?

A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking on this very subject at an event in Stockholm, Sweden. I believe that if you reframe the visible and available behaviours that surround people at work, you potentially reframe or re-set the culture in which they work.

In other words, if you want to change the way we do things around here, you need to understand the way things are done and then change it.

Rather than seeing culture as one large and difficult to define entity, it helps from a learning and organisational development perspective to see the culture as a collection of behaviours – a series of small things that only become a big and imposing ‘culture’ when they’re viewed as an undifferentiated mass.

The sum of individual behaviours

My colleagues and I at Huthwaite International have been working for some time on understanding the different cultures.

In part we do this to improve how we help organisations to change when it comes to adopting high performance behaviours in the areas of sales, negotiations and communications.

It’s also to begin the process of positively influencing the culture in those teams and organisations.

Values are only powerful in building culture when they are reflected in behaviours and beliefs.

My specific focus at the conference was learning culture. A learning culture is the sum of individual behaviours and factors that individually make up the environment in which people work and strive to improve.

It is an environment that either facilitates or hinders individuals and teams in building their capability. My first task, therefore, was to understand what those individual features were.

The ten key features of a learning culture

Based on conversations with others, desk research, large clients I had worked with where things went and well, and some where the prevailing culture was not especially conducive to learning, I drew up a list of ten features that appeared regularly in any discussion about what it means to have a learning culture.

I then asked a group of L&D folks to rank these ten factors. Those ranked highly were very important in creating a learning culture, while those ranked further down were less important.

If a respondent didn’t think a particular factor was important, they didn’t give it a ranking at all.

There was a good spread of responses, and the difference between the highest rank and the lowest rank wasn’t that great, but there were three distinct groups – which I labelled as most important, important and less important.

Those that made the most important category were – to borrow Edgar Schein’s terminology when he wrote about organisational culture – ‘espoused values’.

These were the things (e.g. development plans, senior manager endorsement and team leader coaching) that constitute the ‘right’ answers to the question: what is a learning culture?

The trouble is, I’m not sure that they’re that important. On their own, espoused values are only powerful in building culture when they are reflected in behaviours and beliefs.

Finding evidence of these factors at work

In the case of team leader coaching, there seem to be so many different activities that individuals might consider to be ‘coaching’ that it’s difficult to see how it impacts a learning culture.

What’s more, these respondents said that it sounds right, but there’s not a lot of evidence of it going on in practice.

I know this because I also asked the survey respondents to tell me how prevalent these individual components of a learning culture were in their organisations and they groups with whom they worked.

Against each of the ten factors, I asked them to tell me if this was evident throughout their organisation, evident in many places, evident in relatively few places or not evident at all. There was also an ‘I don’t know option’.

Only about four in ten respondents said these ten components of a learning culture were evident throughout or in many places.

There seem to be some gaps between what we might want to happen (and what we claim is happening in some cases) and the reality on the ground.

In around 50% of cases, respondents said the behaviours, features and activities were only evident in a few places, or not evident at all.

When I looked at the more behavioural elements (for example staff sharing their knowledge and expertise with colleagues, and having some kind of widely used mechanism to do so, managers being recognised and rewarded for supporting team member development, team leaders providing actionable feedback and mistakes being used as learning opportunities), these were even less likely to be evident.

In the case of managers being recognised and rewarded for supporting team members development, this was rarely evident or not evident in over two thirds of cases.

This was the first item on the list to be considered not evident at all for more than half of respondents.

Bridging the gap

It would appear that we have some work to do to build learning cultures in the organisations represented here.

There seem to be some gaps between what we might want to happen (and what we claim is happening in some cases) and the reality on the ground.

If a culture really is the sum of available and visible behaviours, then some of these behaviours need to become more widespread before organisations can claim to have a learning culture - at least in the opinion of the people who responded to my survey.

Notice the words I used there, ‘in the opinion of’. I make no great claims for this research. In four days, I collected the views of around 50 people.

It is illustrative of sentiment (and possibly prejudice) of a specific group from around the around the world, but all interested in specific areas of L&D activity, and therefore it is not a significant research project.

That said, its more robust than many of the so-called research articles published by organisations in the L&D world – usually prefaced by words such as ‘ground breaking’ or – even worse – ‘meaningful’.

However, I do think it provides some interesting pointers to areas we might want to investigate further.

Related download

Value is one of the biggest contributors to business success. This global research report, in association with the ISM, focuses on how organisations can create it for themselves and their customers for more profitable business.

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Further reading

Challenging change and culture
By Robin Hoyle | June 4, 2018

Resolving to change behaviour and why culture matters
By Robin Hoyle | January 26, 2016

Coaching for business performance improvement
By Huthwaite International | November 23, 2014