Invest in your learning culture so you can innovate
By Glenn Ball
Like the sound of a company where people share and critique ideas, are encouraged to take risks and learn quickly from flops, where people are encouraged to take ownership in developing new projects and share decision-making? A company that provides gourmet food and lava lamps, and that includes lots of communication and fun?
Yes you might be thinking “Google”, and you’d probably be right, but while I was writing this I realised that I was talking about my own company! Or at least, the company I co-founded with my colleagues Rob Balmer and Reyna Matthes. Admittedly the gourmet food part occurs when we go out for dinner after a Director’s meeting (frequent). Oh and we don't have lava lamps. But the rest is true, and it’s all about developing a learning culture.
We want an innovation culture!
So many of my organisational clients are focused on change and innovation, and rightly so, given the challenges in most contemporary operating environments. People talk about creating an innovation culture, however there is often an ingredient missing in the discussion. What’s missing is a learning culture.
What underlies the ability to change and innovate is the capacity to learn – as individuals, teams and organisations. The idea of learning organisations and learning cultures arose in the early ‘90’s with the work of Peter Senge. His book The Fifth Discipline was a hit, but what troubled people was that although the ideas were great, it was difficult to find examples of it working in practice. More on that shortly.
It’s all about learning
Senge saw the elements of a learning organisation, or let’s call it a learning culture, to be: systems thinking; personal mastery (individual learning); mental models (developing a culture of inquiry); shared vision; and team learning.
A learning culture is different to a training culture. Training is usually oriented towards performing current roles more efficiently and effectively: helping us better comply with policies and procedures. It’s important, and many companies are very good at it, especially in areas like WHS.
A learning culture is about being open to new ideas, developing thinking skills (systems, complexity, and critical thinking), and encouraging people to try out new ideas and learn (quickly) from failures.
What does a learning culture look like?
Some of the visible characteristics of a learning culture might include:
An atmosphere of trust and acceptance
People taking ownership of their learning
Senior managers and leaders walking the learning talk
Values and vision that people robustly debate, share and articulate
Rich communication and feedback loops
Collaboration between different silos and with external partners
Staff excited about their work and about belonging to the company
Learning evident at individual, team and organisational levels
Systems in place to support learning
Got any examples?
Sounds great huh? But where are those examples? Since the ‘90’s, when these ideas were developed by Senge and others such as Chris Argyris & Donald Schön with their single and double loop learning, we can track the progress of some enduring learning organisations. I think it would be safe to say that Google, Apple and Fuju Xerox display elements of learning organisations, and even Jack Welch of GE extolled the virtues of a learning culture.
“An organisation’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage”. Jack Welch
Learning culture and great wine
Closer to my home – Australia – I came across a great but little known collection of case studies of learning cultures, including Banrock Estate Winery (love those wines)! The authors of this report, Johnston & Hawke, made the point that a learning culture will look different in different contexts. What they’re saying is that there is no cookie-cutter template for a learning culture. Another important point was that in every case they looked at, the learning culture arose as a response to changes, aka threats in the operating environment. This is important because it wasn't just someone saying, “Oh, wouldn't it be lovely if we had a learning culture.” Rather it was about responding to pressures, internal or external.
With our company, developing a learning culture approach was in response to the market pressures in executive coaching industry, as well as our internal desire to really have some fun with what we do for a living.
To cope with a changing world, an entity must develop the capacity of shifting and changing – of developing new skills and attitudes; in short, the capability of learning. Arie de Gues, The Living Company.
How do you create a learning culture?
You’ll probably already know the answers here. Leadership is critical. In short the support for a learning culture needs to be top down, with leaders demonstrating their commitment via role modelling, developing systems and structures that support learning, and rewarding/recognising individuals and teams who take it on board. You might see evidence in support for bottom up projects, rich communication loops, team discussion meetings, good L&D stuff etc.
No finger pointing!
One standout condition for a learning culture is a healthy tolerance for risk and failure. If people are scared of making mistakes, they will never stick their necks out to try something new. So a healthy managerial response to failures is essential: This response needs to be one of “What can we learn from this?” rather than punitive finger-pointing.
Coaching plays a big role in a learning culture: good coaching, whether developmental or performance coaching, supports people to take ownership of their own learning, aligned to organisational strategy. Learning cultures and coaching cultures go hand in hand.
“Coaching….. is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” Whitmore 2002
And what’s the payoff?
Once again you can probably predict these: increased motivation and engagement, increased discretionary effort and productivity, attraction and retention. And of course increased creativity and innovation.
I’d love to hear about your experience of learning organisations and learning cultures.