We often find ourselves immersed in the learning culture conversation, but do we really know what it means and what we’re aspiring to achieve?

It’s a pretty commonly used phrase, but when I ask people what they mean by ‘learning culture’, the closest I get to a definition is ‘a culture in which people learn?’

Given that humans learn in pretty much any environment, that doesn’t seem to be a useful definition. Most of the learning we instinctively do is informal. We work with others, we work things out, we observe and internalize how people do things and emulate the most successful.

Informal learning does not correlate with a learning culture

When I talk about informal learning, those who would lay claim to a learning culture will share an anecdote about how they were able to informally learn a new thing.

However, when Berg and Chyung conducted a study in 2008, they found no correlation between the learning culture (or the degree to which the organization could credibly be described as a learning organization) and the incidence of informal learning among those surveyed. They wrote:

“..it would seem logical that an organization with a strong learning culture would be structured in a way that creates opportunities for informal learning to a greater degree than those organizations that lack such a culture. However, this may suggest that informal learning is not inhibited by a lack of learning organization structure.”

In other words, people learn all the time, regardless of the culture in which they work. Whether they learn the right things all the time, or the things that will help them perform and the organization succeed, is an entirely different matter.

So is learning culture about formal learning then?

If a learning culture is not necessarily correlated with informal learning, maybe it’s about formal learning. Maybe it means that people complete online modules, attend classroom courses, keep up to date with personal development plans?

Once again, I am skeptical, because although all those things can be measured and the data tracked, does it necessarily mean that learning is taking place? I have worked in organizations that lay claim to a learning culture on the basis of this kind of data, but when I spoke to the users of these various interventions, I often found that they were simply ticking boxes.

Measuring things that are easily quantifiable is not the same as measuring things that are important. That extends to learning analytics and many fancy datasets, which are being crunched around learning and development in organizations. Just because data is being gathered does not mean that useful insights are being generated.

Every learning culture I have seen has a continuous dialogue between team members, team leaders and L&D people about how performance can be improved. This is not the same as having an annual appraisal.

There’s more to learning culture than we think…

We have three factors that may play a part in learning culture: informal learning of things which are of value to the organization; conscientious attendance or use of learning resources; and some kind of monitoring of what’s happening.

However, assuming those factors are in place, there are still missing elements before one can lay claim to a learning culture.

  1. New ideas are valued and properly considered

  2. Personal autonomy and accountability for one’s performance, with support where required

  3. A close dialogue between L&D and teams, with formal courses sparingly used only where they add value.

Welcome new ideas

I have defined culture as the sum of dominant attitudes which affect action. In other words, what we think, collectively, has a bearing on what we do – as individuals, in our teams and as an organization.

If everyone believes that problem solving, innovating and sharing good practice is positive and how the organization works, then that is what people do. If people are criticized or discouraged about introducing new ideas, then people will stop.

The most harmful phrase I have heard usually from more established members of staff when responding to ideas by new people is ‘Oh, yes, we tried that in the past. It didn’t work’. This always indicates to me that a culture may be a light on learning.

I’m not saying that new people in a team shouldn’t benefit from the wisdom of those who have been around for a while longer. But what is that often heard phrase actually saying? What it’s saying is: ‘You don’t have the experience to change things around here’ or, worse, ‘we’ll listen to you once you’re as old and cynical as us’.

So the first thing we need to have is a way of new ideas coming to the surface and being accepted and worked on, including by those with more experience and the scars to prove it.

Encouraging personal autonomy that adds purpose

The other hallmark of learning cultures I have witnessed is role clarity. This is the kind of organization where individuals know what their job is – not in the sense of a job description or set of KPIs, but in the sense of purpose and outcomes.

Do individuals know how they contribute to the organization’s mission? Do they understand the values ​​and vision of the organization and can they work towards these things without having to be reminded? Do they have an objective view of the standards they are achieving (how well they do their job) and what could be possible (not just the minimum required)?

This role clarity extends to team leaders. If you have people who lead others who don’t think that working towards continuous performance improvement is a significant and vital part of their role, then you don’t have a learning culture.

The goal of a learning culture is to enable people to deal with change.

The second important part of a learning culture, therefore, is a degree of personal autonomy focused on contributing to the organization’s purposes, bolstered by appropriate support from managers and leaders.

(Just a note here: This does not necessarily mean coaching, although this could be part of the answer. It may be performance management, facilitation, feedback, assessment or mentoring or a combination of all these. There’s no one answer that is right for all cultures.)

Keeping the lines of communication open

Finally, every learning culture I have seen has a continuous dialogue between team members, team leaders and L&D people about how performance can be improved. This is not the same as having an annual appraisal where the course catalog is pushed across the desk.

It is not a checklist of mandatory programs. It is a genuine consultation about how individuals can improve their performance, how team leaders can assist and enable change to happen and – where it adds value – whether the best route to achieving the next performance breakthrough is through some kind of organized intervention involving the L&D team or an external organization.

Change is the new constant

The goal of a learning culture is to enable people to deal with change. It is the only constant we are told, repeatedly, and the change cycle seems quicker and quicker. Creating an environment where people are able to:

  • Recognize when change is necessary

  • Work out what change could be

  • Validate their ideas with others

  • Implement ideas in line with the organization’s purpose, mission and values

is the clearest indicator that you may have an elusive learning culture.