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5 Difficult MUST HAVE Conversations on Your Learning Culture Journey

Learning culture. Everybody’s talking about it. Does your company have one? How do you “create” one? Who’s “in charge” of it? And, like with any corporate culture goal, the “learning culture” speak comes with a lot of jargon. Unfortunately, industry-specific buzzwords (personalized, on demand, just in time, user-generated content, etc.) can have the unintended negative consequences of turning people off from the (typically) very positive fundamental ethos of the words.

In general, a learning culture is one where the company’s culture (values, processes, systems, behaviours) explicitly facilitate — through encouragement and support — their employees’ learning, growth and development for the ultimate purpose of increasing employee competence and organizational performance.

There are many articles about “how” to actually cultivate this. My worry is that they land too tactical in nature than many companies might be ready for. I’m a root cause, company DNA, company foundation first learning professional. And when considering what “learning culture” might mean for your company, I recommend going deep.

“Authentic learning is not discovered in a textbook, but rather at the crossroads of contemporary societal issues and student passion.” — Aaron Duff, M.Ed.

I know, right? I love this definition of authentic learning by Aaron Duff. It may be “housed” in the context of academia, but its philosophy is equally relevant to corporate learning. The idea of learning happening at the crossroads of contemporary society issues and “student” passion is a concept I’d like us to transfer to our corporate contexts.

If we do so, we’ll notice that a truly successful learning culture can’t be found in someone else’s LinkedIn article. It can ONLY be found by examining the challenges and frustrations and learning gaps that exist within that company’s culture and context. 

On a deeper level, if we follow the oft-cited (and perhaps a touch trite) example of a company’s culture being akin to a house’s foundation, we can start to create a strong company-aligned base from which to build from. 

Building rooms with fancy furniture (e.g. buying an LMS, offering monthly learning sessions and telling people that it’s okay to try new things) without having the proper foundation to support it (see the five basics below) is disengagement and frustration waiting to happen.

Start by having some transparent dialogue around the following. Or, at the very least, consider these foundation-building questions while putting the walls up!

1Consider reactions to “failures”

Learning — at its core is intrinsically connected to “failure.” The very need to learn something implies the inability to do something to begin with. And the process of learning often includes “failures” along the way. Be curious and mindful about how formal leaders in particular react to failures. You’ll never create a culture of learning if the predominant reaction to getting something wrong the first time is panic, frustration and humiliation.

2Consider what gets talked about

Corporate storytelling is intensely telling. The stories you choose to tell (during onboarding, during town halls, doing meetings and business reviews) tell your employees something — it tells them what matters. And if the stories we tell do not include the true process of learning (which again, can’t help but be connected to “failing,” trying, iterating, needing and leveraging help, etc.), then we can’t be surprised if we don’t see a lot of that organic learning culture behaviour that we say we want.

3Consider how problems are solved/decisions are made

Drawing on adult learning theory, solving problems that have immediate relevance to the adult and a strong internal motivation is a recipe for growth and increased competence. Having an honest look at the processes for problem solving and decision making in your company might be telling. Adults want to contribute what they know and have a reasonable amount of autonomy to participate in problem solving towards the company’s mission. If most decisions ultimately lie with the top three senior leaders at your company, we can’t be frustrated if we’re not seeing evidence of our employees flexing their problem-solving muscles.

4Consider your message transparent/consistency

Think equity, not equality. Not every employee will be able to leverage every learning and growth support that is available in the same way. A learning culture at its core doesn’t support treating all employees the same. At the same time, providing all employees with equitable access to information and support is critical to truly building a learning culture. If certain employees are privy to transparency and accessibility around growth opportunities (e.g. dollars available, secondment opportunities, promotional processes, etc.) while others are in the dark, you’ll be hard-pressed to truly leverage the amazing benefits that having a learning culture can provide.

5Consider who’s involved

A learning culture is owned by the company. Individual contributors and senior leaders alike are compelled to be accountable and own their part in contributing to the learning culture. While it’s standard for companies to have chief learning officers and/or learning and development professionals, their critical role is to influence, lead and champion the processes of learning and development, NOT own them independently. A company who is still asking when and how the L&D team will create a learning culture by developing content still has a bit of a row to hoe. Leveraging INTERNAL and NON HR or L&D talent for knowledge sharing, growth and learning is where it’s at.

Got some work to do? No worries. Stay tuned! Next time around, I’ll offer up strategies to overcome these five foundation-building questions! 

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Have something to add? I’d love to hear from you!

Dr. Chantal Thorn, Ph.D.
Director, Program Development
Box of Crayons


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4 Responses to 5 Difficult MUST HAVE Conversations on Your Learning Culture Journey

  • Daniel Flounders

    A great read.

    In my managerial experience the barriers towards a learning culture are the fear of failure and a failure to reflect. This fear has a systematic effect due to a managers own personality, how a manager may want to be perceived by others, appraisal and performance gradings, promotion aspiration and personal and organisational reputation. I think these systematic influences can severely hamper the creation of a true learning cultur. However, I am now beginning to see change, but like any change it will take dedication and time.

  • Chantal

    Thanks for reading Daniel. Such a legitimate reflection on the role fear and failure to reflect plays in the creation of a learning culture. I see them as both separate AND interrelated!

    Reflecting often involves delving into things that maybe didn’t go so well. No one’s going to want to ‘go there’ if there’s fear of failure and failure is seen as a negative thing rather than an opportunity to get curious and learn.

    Happy to hear that you’re beginning to see change. That’s something to celebrate! When you think about wanting to be part of a learning culture- what’s most important for you?

  • Bruce Sokolove

    Chantal, in my law enforcement working culture we use the term “hot wash” (derived from military operators cleaning their weapons after a mission) for immediate and when necessary, full after-action review of an incident. No fingers are pointed — it’s agency practice and procedure focused to minimize errors, faulty thinking – decision making, etc. Getting our tradition anchored, cop-shop culture to embrace an open “learning culture” has been as easy as herding feral cats. Thanks for an excellent read. I’d like your permission (cited) to pay it forward. All the best, Coach Sok

  • Chantal

    Ahh coach Sok! You had me laughing out loud! “As easy as herding feral cats!” I love the idea of the “hot wash.” Minimize errors and faulty thinking/decision making. So how did you all go from ‘feral cats’ to ‘hot wash?’ What’s been your greatest learning/lesson in slowly but surely turning that culture ship around- as they say? And of course- please feel free to share. All the best to you too! Chantal

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