Another version of this article originally appeared on Learnlight Insights.
As nice as it may sound, why would anyone want to have a learning culture? There are reasons that won’t suffice: HR needing a pet project, the company looking for good PR, or even an edict from above. All these lack meaningfulness for the ones who must carry it out—everyone else.
“What for?” should be answered by combining vision, business objectives and the need for new capabilities when solutions are unknown and conditions are ever changing. It then becomes clear that the only way a company could succeed is to learn. Now that’s something people can get behind.
In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge defines a learning organization as one “that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” While every company must grapple with what’s to come, the ones that learn have the ability to do much more.
Besides that, to have a corporate learning culture means that learning is in the company’s DNA--not compartmentalized into a particular aspect of the culture, or within a certain department or functional area. All learning organizations have a corporate learning culture, and all corporate learning cultures lead to learning organizations.
What does a learning organization do?
Published by The Leadership Quarterly, Gary Yukl describes the essential processes of a learning organization as:
“the discovery of relevant new knowledge, diffusion of this knowledge to people in the organization who need it, and application of the knowledge to improve internal processes and external adaptation.”
This goes far beyond training programs. This is why so many L&D departments follow the Center for Creative Leadership’s 70-20-10 guideline (on-the-job/relationships/training). For learning to occur on a large scale, culture--with its power to influence behavior, perceptions, and interactions--must drive it.
As professors Victoria Marsick and Karen Watkins write in a forthcoming publication:
“Research and practice suggest that organizations focus…on cultivating a learning culture and environment that, in turn, motivates and incentivizes integrated work and learning architectures. This trend is consistent with a view of learning organizations that emphasizes the learning culture as key to strategic goal achievement… there is a significant relationship between a learning culture and organizational performance.”
People look to their leaders when culture change is imminent. Employees want to know where leadership stands and how they will lead. Leaders’ responsibilities don’t end there. They must actually follow through in guiding the organization before, during, and after these changes. They do this by:
1. Setting the vision. As the decision makers of the organization, leaders initiate change by communicating the vision for the future. According to Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’ classic Harvard Business Review article, vision is made up of core ideology (values and purpose) and the envisioned future (a vivid description of Big Hairy Audacious Goals). Setting the vision happens while building the case for a corporate learning culture, but needs consistent reiteration and communication.
2. Empowering employees through co-design. Leaders may have started the transformation towards a learning organization, but their people finish it. Forcing change from top-down has proven problematic time and again. Involving people as equal partners in co-designing a future they are expected to deliver shows greater promise for change adoption.
This is not about leaders bestowing an act of benevolence. It is about recognizing the limitations of one’s own perspective and utilizing talents and capabilities of the whole, à la Appreciative Inquiry’s Wholeness Principle, as described by the Center for Appreciative Inquiry:
“Wholeness brings out the best in people and organizations. Bringing all stakeholders together…stimulates creativity and builds collective capacity.”
Using a co-design framework that emphasizes learning, such as Design of Work Experience in Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work, will provide the guidance and discipline for productive co-design of the learning culture.
3. Deploying resources. Leadership must understand that sufficient access to necessary resources will set the conditions for success. Resources can come in the form of budgetary support, talent, technology, space (physical, virtual, or psychological), and their own time and attention. The organization must scale resources collectively identified (and thus properly vetted) during co-design.
4. Demonstrating leadership. An organization pursuing transformation requires visible and demonstrated leadership. True leadership doesn’t come from a job title. It is granted by people on a continuous basis. They want leaders who role model the changes and behaviors with consistency throughout the transformation and beyond. Doing so gives them the credibility to set expectations, recognize and reward success, and ensure accountability. Anything contradictory erodes trust.
The job doesn’t end there. According to Yukl in the same Leadership Quarterly article, leaders can directly influence collective learning by:
“…encouraging the use of procedures that increase creative ideas, nurturing promising ideas that are initially vague or controversial, obtaining resources needed to develop new ideas, encouraging members to experiment with new approaches to assess their utility, using after-activity reviews to analyze team processes, and monitoring external events that are relevant to innovative activities by the team.”
Notice how much partnership, facilitation, and empowerment of others is embedded among these day-to-day behaviors.
5. Learning with Agility. It stands to reason that a learning organization requires leaders who learn, especially agile learners. Learning agility is about learning from experience with speed and flexibility, as evidenced by research from Columbia University’s Dr. Warner Burke that resulted in the Burke Learning Agility Inventory (BLAI).
The capability reveals itself in enabling behaviors identified in the BLAI, such as: seeking feedback and information, performance and interpersonal risk taking, collaborating, experimenting, reflecting—and of course, speed and flexibility. As the most visible learners, leaders must demonstrate these behaviors to an observable degree everyday.
So if a corporate learning culture is truly desirable, leaders (and the HR and L&D professionals supporting them) should look to fulfill these five responsibilities—or, more boldly, obligations—to ensure that they play a pivotal role in creating learning organizations out of their companies. Combined with vision and culture, learning is unstoppable.
"One good turn deserves another" as they say. That was true in this case. We had such a good time talking back in September that we decided to do it again in December. Being a radio show first and a podcast second, time allotments are limited. I was happy to return for another conversation on Sharon Kay's What's the 411? Sharon is a generous and inquisitive host, and it was great to provide perspective on recent headlines related to GM's plant closures and the scandals plaguing the tech industry (especially Facebook at the moment). Check it out!
This article originally appeared on the SHRM Executive Network HR People + Strategy Journal Blog.
What does it mean when “culture” is a part of your job title or role description? Can one person (or even a whole functional area) alone be totally in charge of and wield its power?
Culture is not about amenities, employee appreciation days, company picnics, or community service events. It is “a construct reflected in all things that have the power to influence behaviors, interactions, and perception within a socially defined entity or institution…[delineating] the boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable. [It] is manifested in how people behave, interact, react, and perceive reality. Culture is created, reinforced, and experienced by people.” Because it’s shared, no one can control culture, and yet it is accessible enough that a single person can make a difference. There are a number of roles for HR to play when it comes to culture:
Educator. The topic of culture can be intimidating to some because they don’t understand it. This might lead them to push it aside or ignore it when they really shouldn’t. Who will enlighten them? If this describes HR, corrective action is needed if they truly want to be the conscience of the organization. The educator must first be educated, and there’s nothing like having to learn something in order to teach it. As attributed to William Glasser, we learn 95% of what we teach others. People have to learn the importance of culture, how it impacts behaviors (like decision-making), and influences outcomes (for better or worse). Leaders have to understand that culture is more than a liability--it can also be a business asset.
Facilitator. Culture change gets that extra boost and attention as a designated initiative, but it must also be continually managed as part of “business as usual.” In either scenario, the CEO should be the ultimate culture champion. In partnership with or in the absence of that leadership, HR must step up to make it happen. Either empower others, or lead yourself.
Evangelist. When it comes to culture, be visible, communicate frequently, and consistently demonstrate by example. Recruit other evangelists across the organization regardless of role, level, background, or responsibilities. Make culture the backbone of how your company operates and integrate awareness of culture into daily work life. Compel people to take active roles in supporting and experiencing a healthy culture. You’ll know how successful you are based on how well the aspirational culture sticks.
Sponsor. A sponsor doesn’t just endorse. Sponsorship means you are willing to stick your neck out for it and be an active advocate. If you believe in the aspirational culture the company is promoting, there should be no hesitation. I don’t mean that you sacrifice yourself for the cause (without champions of culture, things will be worse off). Influence as much as you can for the intended outcomes.
Connector. Should you and your HR function assume these other roles, you become a nexus point in the organization, one that knows what’s going on, who’s who, and what’s to come. This enables you to connect people and create the platform where new connections uncover possibilities and catalyze results.
Notice advisor is not on this list. That’s because assuming this role could lead to the misconception that you “own culture,” which isn’t true and won’t help your cause. Advising also promotes a certain emotional distance and separates you from being a part of the shared community. Leave advising to the external consultants. Remember that within the company, culture is accessible to all as “consumers of the work experience,” and “everyone is prequalified to contribute.” Avoid being known as the culture advisor.
HR is by no means restricted to these roles, and there are certainly connection points and overlaps. Resist the temptation to see these as a checklist—instead, treat it as a collective state of mind that influences actions on a perpetual basis. If fulfilled, HR will have an amazing impact when it comes to culture, for it creates a virtuous cycle of positivity when done well. Healthy culture = trusted HR function.
Where to start? First, there are things you can do right away in your of daily life. Look for and pay attention to culture and how it is revealed day-to-day—in meetings, interactions, written communications, decisions, etc. Ask yourself: How is our culture influencing our perceptions or actions? What anomalies or individual circumstances might create an undesirable long-term impact on the culture? Are we reinforcing a desirable or undesirable pattern or norm? Are we building up our culture or eroding it? Do our words match our actions? What are the cultural consequences of my behaviors as a leader?
Adopt language that indicates your understanding and priorities when it comes to culture. Point out what you are paying attention to and observing. This reminds people of culture’s pervasive influence and encourage others to follow suit.
Make employee engagement a priority--not just in task or operationally--but strategically. Start with a deep dive into the current state to uncover and understand its complexities and mechanisms. Answer: Do values, brand, and intentions match lived experience? Are cultural norms intentional and positive? Are other experiences compromising the integrity of the culture? What strengths enhance the organization? Where are the unmet needs when it comes to culture?
With that knowledge, the excuse of ignorance is no longer valid. That’s a good thing, because now you can take informed action. Design of Work Experience can guide your organization through the process of understanding your current state, designing for change, implementing for the future, and sustaining it. Don’t wait to leverage culture for the better, because you could be heading off a brewing firestorm without even knowing it. A better, stronger future awaits.
All quotes from Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @Work by Karen Jaw-Madson (Emerald Group Publishing, 2018)
Thank goodness a friend of mine received a copy of this magazine and snapped a photo for me. I otherwise would not have known that CYC was included in the Best issue of TD Magazines under the Best of HR Books. What an honor to mentioned next to titles like Amy Radin's The Change Maker's Playbook and Marc Effron's 8 Steps to High Performance. I am awestruck seeing my baby in print every time, and it never gets old.
We sometimes are our own worst enemies when we practice self-limitation, especially with either-or thinking. The Looking For And podcast seeks to make the shift to "yes, and," a principle popularized by improv to open ourselves to the possibilities and make connections. So much of practicing Design of Work Experience is about Yes And, but you can find the specific shout out to it on p. 113 of the book. Check out the interview!
Despite it's success predicated on the talents of individuals and teams, most conversations about Design of Work Experience are about organization-scale culture and change. On Get Yourself The Job, we delve into how culture affects the individual, what they can do about it, and the implications of culture "fit." Many of my coaching conversations cover this territory and people's specific situations, but here's a chance to hear about it as a general audience. Give it a listen here.
My publisher has been supportive of Culture Your Culture--this podcast is an example. It was a luxury to not have to worry about time limits and commercial breaks while doing a deep dive into the content. All that being said, this episode still clocks in under 30 minutes, and yet we covered so much. Please enjoy it!
It's every speaker's dream to have an engaged audience. I was truly honored to present Culture Your Culture at The Design Collective's Salon in SF last night, which included lifestyle brand makers and creative directors, furniture designers, high-end plumbers, an auditor, life coach, product designers, purveyor of wall coverings, a UX designer, an architect, writers, and other creatives. Highlights from the dialogue are worth sharing!
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