I'll tell you something: No organisation need ever lose its way again if it builds a true learning culture

22 Aug 2019 By Nigel Paine

Moving L&D to the heart of the business can be the key to success, says Nigel Paine

Imagine piloting an aeroplane in turbulence and thick cloud. You look out of the side window – nothing. You peer out of your windscreen – grey and more grey. As you look out at the confusing landscape, what gives you the certainty about which way is up? How can you be sure where the horizon is?

The answer is a little device that gives a pilot complete confidence. A gyroscope explains where that horizon is, and how high or low the nose of the plane is pointing in relation to it. But many businesses appear to be flying blind, stumbling into the future unable to anticipate potential disruptions.

I believe a learning culture is the organisational gyroscope that keeps them on track and allows them to make critical adjustments to survive in turbulent, disruptive and opaque conditions. During research for my recent book, Workplace Learning, I found those organisations that had built a learning culture had far more resilience. And a learning culture is not a destination but a process, and a very dynamic one at that.

The energy that spins the organisational gyroscope comes from learning. But it is not about individual insight, it is about collective intelligence. The most successful learning cultures have curious lifelong learners in their midst, but what makes them successful is the speed with which learning can be taken from outside, shared across the business and turned into effective action. 

Those workplaces that tell me every member of staff has a learning plan are only part of the way towards building that learning culture. The reality is that learning has to be embedded in every part of the workflow and the process of learning cannot be separated from work.

There is, perhaps, an irony that to build a learning culture, you need to focus on a large number of elements and not just learning. In the self-assessment instrument developed by Michelle Ockers and myself, we listed nine attributes of a learning culture. These include four completely linked areas for exploration: trust, engagement, empowerment and leadership. They are indissoluble and all inform and support each other. 

The second block defines the way of working that will lead to diverse and articulate responses to challenges and issues. These include allowing people to work with a degree of autonomy, a sense of purpose, and a wish to share and collaborate with colleagues. Only with these areas in place should the focus switch to learning. 

A learning culture is a stunningly effective way of building success and remaining ahead of the curve. If you take on the challenge of moving in that direction, you have the perfect excuse to engage the entire organisation in your quest. It is not about L&D getting closer to the business, it is about moving L&D into the heart of the business.

If you look at an organisation like WD-40, the current chief executive has taken the market capitalisation from around $200m to $1.4bn over 10 years. It has been done by focusing on building empowerment, learning from failure and sharing ideas rapidly and effectively. The business is proof that offering lots of autonomy with support, and challenging leadership to coach and mentor – not command and control – delivers shareholder value in spades.

A learning culture is a game changer for individuals. They do rewarding work, and are learning new skills while developing their career. But the real game changer is the ability of the organisation to duck and weave through turbulence and disruption, and come out stronger than before. Learning is about to move to the heart of organisational success.  

Nigel Paine is a speaker, writer and broadcaster on development, technology and leadership

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