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The Importance of Your Learning Culture

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 22, 2016

By Amy Gibson

First things first: What is an “organizational learning culture”?

Your organizational learning culture is defined by the value your organization places on continual learning and improvement. 

culture of learning
Photos courtesy of KTA-Tator Inc.

According to Peter Senge, a culture that truly prioritizes organizational learning incorporates systems and practices that naturally encourage ongoing individual and organizational growth.

It is easy to say that an organization supports and values learning, but a culture that truly prioritizes organizational learning incorporates systems and practices that naturally encourage ongoing individual and organizational growth. 

Organizational learning is not a new concept. Peter Senge popularized the phrase in his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline.

Senge emphasizes the importance of decentralizing the role of leadership to enable people to work collectively toward a common goal. The idea is that organizations that continually expand their capacity in order to achieve collaborative results will foster free, creative thinking that contributes to organizational success. 

A true learning organization is able to transform and recreate itself time and time again, as opposed to just surviving.

collaborative learning

Another of Senge's tenets emphasizes that collaborative or team learning creates dialogue that fosters even more learning.

Regardless of its age of origin, recognition of the importance of organizational learning is peaking as a result of our current state of technological advancement and innovation. An accelerating rate of change leaves organizations with an ongoing need for improvement in order to remain competitive.

Why Should You Have a Learning Culture?

Here are some of my personal takeaways from Senge’s five core disciplines for your consideration:

  1. Organizations cannot learn without individuals who learn first.
  2. If something is forever done the “same way,” it will never change, even as everything around it changes. There must be an option for suggesting change in order for things to improve.
  3. If you share something with someone, it belongs to you both. A shared vision is more valuable and meaningful than one person’s vision.
  4. Collaborative or team learning creates dialogue that fosters even more learning.
  5. Each part of a system affects the remaining parts of the whole. The big picture must always be considered. Each individual part might not function identically, but there must be a common thread throughout that ties the parts together to support the whole.
sharing knowledge

When the knowledge of one individual is transferred to a group for processing and discussion, innovation is possible as a result of the creative flow.

True learning cultures report many resulting competitive advantages. Here’s why:

Learning organizations normalize open discussion. Employee suggestions, feedback, opinions and input are accepted and valued. This free communication fosters a continual transfer of knowledge within the organization, using knowledge that one individual has acquired and spreading it. As a result, cooperative growth becomes natural, creating a continual opportunity for new ideas and creative collaboration.

This constant creative flow leads to innovation. The knowledge of one individual is transferred to a group for processing and discussion, potentially leading to a new opportunity. 

In addition to innovation, open communication leads to high employee retention. Within the learning organization structure, the insight of every employee is valuable. Employees who feel valuable are more likely to be satisfied at work and committed to their jobs.

The awareness of personal value also creates more productive and competitive employees. Each employee understands his or her worth, and therefore assumes accountability for the success of the organization.

Coming full circle, the desire of employees to feel valuable and beneficial leads to a desire for learning. Employees choose to increase competency in order to provide valid contribution for the good of the organization.

The result is an organization that is able to adapt to change, transform to stay current, and recreate itself to gain the competitive advantage in unpredictable markets.

Do You Have a Learning Culture?

Completion of training requirements to comply with regulatory mandates is not enough to constitute a learning organization. 

A learning organization enables constant opportunities for learning. In return, new knowledge creates opportunities for the organization.

continued learning

The desire of employees to feel valuable and beneficial leads to a desire for learning. Employees choose to increase competency in order to provide valid contribution for the good of the organization.

A true learning culture has implemented permanent behaviors via processes that support continual learning. 

The structure of the learning culture must include leadership from all levels. If all decisions come from the top, there is no way to initiate collective change. Employees must be given opportunities to demonstrate their own leadership capabilities; they must be stretched to their greatest capacity.

The focus of a learning organization is on long-term, not immediate results.

Long-term planning allows for diagnosis of ideas and results in order to continue improving. This means that time is dedicated to thoughtful reflection, which must be prioritized over daily deadlines and schedule conflicts. It also means that you don’t have to get it right the first time, but rather learn from every opportunity, which creates less pressure on those offering new insight.

As a result, learning cultures function on a high level of trust, where employees feel comfortable expressing thoughts, accepting suggestions, asking questions, owning ideas, and taking risks. 

Special Behaviors

I would speculate that many organizations cannot currently identify themselves as true learning organizations. If your organization is working on improving its learning culture, keep in mind that there are some unique behaviors that apply:

  • A learning culture appreciates opposing or challenging ideas, because different ideas create an opportunity to see from a new perspective. 
  • A learning culture rewards employee contribution, because discovering the knowledge of an individual employee can lead to valuable new knowledge for the organization. 
  • A learning culture prioritizes the well-being of employees, because the employees are the greatest asset. 
  • A learning culture increases power by fueling and drawing from all of its resources.

Obviously, developing a learning culture is not an overnight process. Development of an authentic learning culture requires strategic leadership that will model learning behaviors; technology that can accommodate change initiatives; a workforce open to new ideas; and support, support, support.

Despite the seemingly complex process, the overall idea is simple: Learning increases knowledge, and knowledge increases organizational capability, strength and sustainability. 

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Amy Gibson

Amy Gibson is the manager of training and education services at KTA-Tator Inc. in Pittsburgh, PA. She runs KTA’s coatings and safety training programs and provides curriculum and instructional design consultation. Amy is a master trainer and primary administrator for NCCER (founded as The National Center for Construction Education and Research), and she manages and maintains KTA’s International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) accreditation. Amy has a master’s in instructional leadership and is certified in online instruction. Training and Certification covers a range of practical topics related to continuing education and learning opportunities to improve your own skills or that of your workforce. Contact Amy.

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Tagged categories: Business management; Business matters; Education; Worker training

Comment from George Zarogiannis, (2/24/2017, 10:36 AM)

Great article Amy! A learning culture not only fosters innovation but also inspires confidence in an organization. Knowing that you can learn and apply what you have learned without fear - is a great way to retain employees as well.


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