Cultivating a Learning Culture
What factors constitute a learning culture and how can L&D cultivate this kind of environment?
Curated resources on cultivating a learning culture
Among the many topics coming up in professional conversations these days is a desire to strengthen the learning culture in our organizations. We want to create an environment in which people freely and deeply learn, an environment that creates knowledge and skill as well as passing it on, and an environment that supports the organization’s need for innovation, rapid reskilling, and ongoing development.
Many people are not feeling it, though, so it raises the question of how to cultivate, create, build, nurture, or strengthen (pick your verb) a culture of learning in our organizations – and what role L&D can play in that project.
In A New Culture of Learning (2010), Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown make the point that there are several ways of thinking about culture. There’s the traditional Edgar-Schein-like definition that speaks of culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions” and there’s the culture that is found in a petri dish. In a petri dish, “culture” is understood as the growth produced in that environment.
“In the first case the culture is the environment, while in the second case the culture emerges from the environment – and grows along with it.” ~ Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown
In the context of rapidly changing workplaces, it seems to me that it’s more useful to think of cultures as emergent and changeable than to think of them as monolithic and immutable. For one, that gives us far more hope for creating a strong learning culture than might seem possible in a constraining organizational context.
The petri dish culture analogy is also more in alignment with our ongoing experiences. Culture is a socially constructed phenomenon – it exists in a relational space (how we interact with one another) and is formed in the values we espouse, the beliefs we carry, the actions we take, and the stories we tell.
Notice the “we.” While culture can be deeply influenced by leadership, it’s not not fully realized without the engagement of the people within its scope. If “we” don’t like the culture in which we find ourselves, “we” can change it (although I don’t doubt that is sometimes easier said than done). Further hope can be found in the fact that culture can be very localized, and that subcultures exist within broader cultures.
On learning culture
All that heady philosophizing comes down to this point. We can grow the kind of learning cultures we need to thrive. We do that, I think, by being as deliberate as possible about what is in our petri dish – being thoughtful about our values, beliefs, actions, and stories, regardless of whether we are leaders or players.
Researchers, theorists, and learning leaders have shared many key ideas that we can use to conceptualize a petri dish that will grow a vibrant learning culture. In my analysis of quite a bit of material on the subject, I synthesized the foundations for strengthening learning culture into three main elements – purpose, connections, and mindset. In the writings of both academics and practitioners, we can find not only these imperatives, but plenty of actionable tactics that can help us in our own efforts.
Foundations for cultivating learning culture
- Shared vision
- Leadership engagement and support
- Alignment of learning to organizational business plan and initiatives
- Depth of inerpersonal rapport and trust
- Array of connections inside and outside the organization
- Engagement in collaboration and cocreation
- Knowledge sharing tools and practices
- Skilled engagement in learning practices: feedback, reflection, dialog
- Encouragement of experimentation and intelligent failure
- Cultivation of learning orientation and curiosity
- Demonstrated actions to empower people and value independent learning
“We can then build “learning organizations,” organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” ~ Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline
This summary is an edited version of my blog post from February 17, 2020.
My workshop on cultivating a vibrant learning culture discusses these key features, explores examples of learning cultures in exemplary organizations, and helps you to craft a specific plan for cultivating the culture in your organization. Plus, you get to play my Build a Better Culture game. If you would like a customized workshop or development program on cultivating a learning culture, please contact me to explore the possibilities.
// On learning culture
- Developing A Learning Culture & Organisation With Nigel Paine, Learning and Development Podcast (2019).
A discussion of Nigel Paine’s book, Workplace Learning: How to build a culture of continuous employee development.
- Human inside: How capabilities can unleash business performance, John Hagel III, Maggie Wooll, John Seely Brown, Deloitte Insights (2020).
Advocates for leaders to focus on the development of capabilities rather than skills. More relevant, the “how to cultivate capabilities” and later sections provide concrete advice useful to creating a learning culture.
- Building a culture of learning at work, Adam Grant, strategy + business (2021)
Discusses the role of psychological safety in building learning culture.
// Foundations of the foundations
The links in this section will take you to detailed resources that expound on several of the more prominent models for learning culture and learning organizations that were the foundation for my analysis of the key features.
- The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization by Peter M. Senge (1990/2006)
The seminal work.
- Facilitating learning organizations: Making learning count by Victoria J. Marsick and Karen E. Watkins, Gower Press (1999)
These authors created the Dimensions of the Learning Organization Questionaire, and they have been conducting studies and advancing the model for decades.
- How to build a high impact learning culture by Josh Bersin (2010)
The characeristics of a High Impact Learning Culture is based on organizations that have one.
- Is yours a learning organization? by David Garvey, Amy Edmondson, and Francesca Gino, Harvard Business Review (2011)
A good overview of what managers need to do to build a learning organization.
- Work environment redesign by John Hagel, John Seely Brown & Tamara Samoylova, Deloitte (2013)
A forward-looking view of what is needed to ensure capabilities in the organizations of the future.
- Driving the new learning organization: How to unlock the potential of L&D by Jane Daly and Laura Overton, Towards Maturity (2017)
An analysis based on multiple years of benchmarking data.
- Workplace Learning: How to build a culture of continuous employee development by Nigel Paine, Kogan Page (2019)
Conceptualizes the learning organization gyroscope to keep organizations going in the right direction as the environment changes.
// Recommended for your bookshelf
- Workplace Learning: How to build a culture of continuous employee development
Nigel Paine, Kogan Page (2019)
- Driving Performance Through Learning: Develop employees through effective workplace learning
Andy Lancaster, Kogan Page (2020)
- The Fearless Organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning and growth
Amy C. Edmondson, Wiley (2019)
- A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change
Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, Self-Published (2011)
- The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization
Peter M. Senge, Crown (2006) / Doubleday (1990)
For tactics, see also: The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (1994) and The Dance of Change (1999)
- The Connected Manager: Why some leaders build exceptional talent – and others don’t
Jaime Roca and Sari Wilde, Portfolio/Penguin (2019)
- The Curious Advantage
Paul Ashcroft, Simon Brown, and Garrick Jones, Laiki Publishing (2020)
- Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration
Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Random House (2014)
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Last updated: August 7, 2021 by Catherine Lombardozzi
This page is part of a collection of resources curated by Learning 4 Learning Professionals
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