You can’t touch it, or smell it, or taste it. But you know it’s there.
It’s like a feeling, an energy, something that moves you to act without predetermination or intention.
And no, it’s not your favorite Beatles song, making you tap your foot to the rhythm like a puppet on a string. We’re talking about something far more powerful, and slightly more constructive.
We’re talking, of course, about organizational culture.
Initially sidelined as a ‘wishy-washy HR concept’, organizational culture has earned its recognition as one of the most influential assets an organization can possess today.
A unique, immeasurable combination of the shared intellect, informal habits, attitudes and knowledge that shape how you do business. Like an invisible perfume scenting every team, process, and task.
And because it’s intangible, organizational culture is one of the few assets that are inimitable. Unlike technologies, ideas, and skills, which are frequently copied by the competition, this asset remains unique to the business in which it lives. A key competitive advantage.
Sounds great, doesn’t it?
But there’s just one problem. The shape and substance of a culture can both make or break the organization. Because cultures come in different forms.
A culture that approves of conflict and destructive criticism, or encourages team members to participate in corporate “Hunger Games”, will hold the organization back, or end it altogether. Likewise, a culture that fails to push for constant change, development, and growth will leave an organization stagnant and vulnerable in waters where the competition is fierce.
What organizations should be striving for is a positive organizational culture. One that encourages growth, continuous learning and collaboration. This is where the real advantage lies.
Learning for growth: Benefits of a learning organization
An organizational culture that promotes the ongoing development of staff, healthy collaboration between teams, and constructive feedback loops – this is the definition of a learning culture.
This type of culture fosters an environment of mutual gain, where the staff is challenged to learn and develop whilst simultaneously providing the organization with the talent and knowledge it needs to adapt and grow in a constantly changing environment.
The organization helps its people grow, and in turn, the people help grow the organization.
As the internal skills, systems, and structures change with learning, so the learning organization becomes agile and responsive to its environment. While organizational strategy evolves with customer needs, so the ability to innovate new products, improve service delivery, or penetrate a niche market evolves too.
This means that a learning culture is a strategic tool for organizational growth and advancement. But a learning culture rarely emerges on its own. More often, organizations need to adopt intentional strategies to create an environment of continuous learning.
Strategies for building a learning organization
The characteristics of a successful learning culture are closely linked to the ongoing strategies employed by the organization to motivate learning.
Depending on the size and age of organization, developing a learning culture in the workplace can be a grueling task, one to be achieved over time, or something ingrained in the organization from its very inception. Either way, time and energy focused on implementing strategies to promote a learning culture will serve as an investment in a valuable asset.
Here are the first steps to creating a learning organization:
1. Unlearn old habits
We’ve all seen it. In ourselves, in our parents, and of course, in our pets. Old habits die hard. People walk the same route to work every Monday to Friday, sit in the same seat every day for dinner, and search for the same old coffee mug despite the twenty different options in the front of the kitchen cabinet.
People are creatures of habit. And people make an organization.
So, the very first strategic step toward creating a learning organization is to undo all of the informal and formal processes, systems, attitudes and communications that don’t promote continuous learning.
Is the functional division of staff stunting collaboration? Scrap it. Or heavy reporting blocking innovation? Scrap that too. You’re looking for a fresh canvas to paint with learning habits. Something to be wary of at this initial stage is discomfort with change. It’s very likely that staff will be uncomfortable with letting go of past habits.
A clever way to approach this, and to create buy-in, would be to get input from as many people in the organization as possible. Their first-hand experience and insights are a resource for identifying habits that prevent learning, so leverage it.
2. Learn new habits
Out with the old, in with the new.
The next strategic move is to create new habits, attitudes, and behaviors that will encourage continuous growth and learning, open communication and feedback, collaboration and constructive criticism.
At this stage, performance management often needs to be redesigned to recognize learning as its own performance measure. This includes performance objectives that challenge employees and teams beyond project metrics and toward learning milestones.
Mistakes? No problem. These are emphasized as an acceptable hurdle on the path to self-development, rather than something to fear.
Incentives are based on collaborative learning rather than competition, and diversity of opinion is highlighted as a source of learning and new ideas.
Tools and resources for knowledge sharing, creative thinking, and individual and group learning should be made readily available. This can be something as simple as a dedicated space in the workplace for reading books, watching videos, or researching ideas, or a ‘war room’ for collaboration and innovation.
Other resources for establishing a culture for learning could include monthly time-off for employees to focus on learning objectives linked to their performance targets or facilitated workshops around a specific learning outcome.
3. Reinforce learning
Once those habits, processes, and tools for a learning culture are set, the final and ongoing step is to reinforce that culture every single day.
Staff should be able to live their learnings in the workplace, to practice new skills and share new knowledge. This enables them to see the positive business outcomes of their own self-development.
Have employees recently participated in teamwork training? Then give them more opportunities to work as a team. Did middle management complete a course in project planning? Then allow them to use this new knowledge to plan the next project in their own way. Assess its success, and learn again.
Embracing and encouraging continuous learning takes strong leaders who exhibit a passion and energy for learning in themselves, can inspire others, and reinforce a culture of learning. So make sure that your top level is aligned.
4. Digital support for a learning culture
When last did you enter a library and take out a book? Or even read a book?
Today, the majority of information is sourced digitally. eBooks, wiki’s and ‘how-to’ videos are consulted daily. Many people even catch up with the latest news online.
Similarly, a large percentage of jobs include an online component. Emails, collaborative platforms, design programs, project tracking software, the list goes on.
This makes digital learning one of the most relatable and relevant ways for employees to learn. From flexible, self-paced courses, to facilitated workshops and team collaboration exercises, digital learning is accessible and easy to modify.
By incorporating strategically aligned digital learning systems and tools as a constantly present resource for learning, staff may be inclined to learn more frequently, thereby enhancing the organization’s learning culture.
So, take the plunge and start cultivating your organizational learning culture. That unique asset that makes you, you, and enables the growth of your business. And if you’d like to incorporate a digital component to reinforce learning, let us know how we can help.