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Becoming a Learning Culture: Competing in an Age of Disruption

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

By Stephen J. Gill All industries are undergoing enormous change, mostly due to new technologies, globalization, and a very diverse workforce. For example, in the hospitality industry smartphones put scheduling and reservations at our fingertips, literally. Social media allows restaurants, hotels, airlines, and travel services to market directly to us based on our personal interests. Apps give us car services and meals on-demand – no waiting. These services are competition for established companies and are changing the industry and guest expectations. Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and Grubhub are just the beginning. The industry will continue to evolve dramatically.

Any company, faced with these kinds of disruptive forces must keep learning. Employees must learn how to use new computers and new apps, how to operate new, high tech machinery, how to be responsive to customer demands, how to create innovative products and services, how to manage a multi-cultural, multi-generational workforce, how to work effectively in cross-functional teams, and how to plan for a future that is constantly in flux.

The only thing holding companies back from learning at the speed of change is their organizational culture which, for many, is a barrier to learning. Most companies have a training culture, not a learning culture. This emphasis on formal training is a barrier to learning and change. In a training culture, responsibility for employee learning resides with instructors and training managers. In that kind of culture, trainers (under the direction of a CLO) drive learning.

Whereas in a learning culture, responsibility for learning resides with each employee, each team, and each manager. In that kind of culture, employees, with the help of their managers, seek out the knowledge and skills they need, when and where that knowledge and those skills are needed.

In a training culture, most important learning happens in events, such as workshops, courses, elearning programs, and conferences. In a learning culture, learning happens all the time, at events but also on-the-job, facilitated by coaches and mentors, from action-learning, via smartphones and tablets, in social groupings, and from experiments. Learning is just-in-time, on-demand.

In a training culture, the training and development function is centralized. The CLO, or HR, or a training department controls the resources for learning. When new competencies need to be developed, employees and their managers rely on this centralized function. In a learning culture, everyone is responsible for learning. The entire organization is engaged in facilitating and supporting learning, in the workplace and outside the workplace.

In a training culture, departmental units compete with each other for information. Each unit wants to know more and control more than the other units. This competition can result in short-term gains for those units and even for the organization as a whole (e.g., drug development in pharmaceutical companies). In a learning culture, knowledge and skills are shared freely among units. Everyone is working to help everyone else learn from the successes and failures across the organization. This creates a more sustainable and adaptable organization.

In a training culture, the learning and development function is evaluated on the basis of delivery of programs and materials. Typically, what matters to management is the courses that were offered and how many people attended. In a learning culture, what matters is the knowledge and skills acquired and applied in the workplace and impact on achieving the organization’s strategic goals. It’s less about output and more about impact and the difference that learning makes for individuals, teams, and the entire organization.

In our book, The 5As Framework, Sean Murray and I describe seven steps managers can take to facilitate and support learning of their direct reports:

  1. STEP ONE: Discuss what the learner needs to learn in order to help your business unit achieve its objectives and the organization’s strategic goals.

  2. STEP TWO: Agree on a set of learning objectives for the short-term and long-term.

  3. STEP THREE: Agree on the indicators that will be used to determine progress toward those objectives and achievement of goals.

  4. STEP FOUR: Describe how the learner can get the most out of the learning intervention.

  5. STEP FIVE: Arrange for the learner to get whatever resources he/she needs to apply the learning to your business unit.

  6. STEP SIX: Plan regular meetings (they may be brief) to discuss progress toward objectives and goals and any changes that would help the learner’s progress.

  7. STEP SEVEN: Make modifications in the learning intervention as needed.

Essentially, managers should work with learners to set goals, clarify expectations, provide opportunities for application, and hold them accountable for making a difference. Learning professionals can certainly help managers with this, but managers are in the best position to facilitate the kind of day-to-day learning that is needed in high performance organizations today.

Managers are essential to employee development in our fast changing world. But the culture of the organization as a whole needs to be supportive of learning. Applying traditional notions of education (K-12 or post-secondary) to the workplace will limit the growth and competitiveness of any company. Learning must be woven into the very fabric of the organization.

As Arie de Geus said:

The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be your only sustainable competitive advantage.

Stephen J Gill has done this work for more than 30 years, since leaving the faculty of the University of Michigan, School of Education. He has written extensively about these topics. His most recent books are Getting More From Your Investment in Training: The 5As Framework, published by RealTime Performance in 2009, Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations, published by Sage Publications in 2010, and Communication in High Performance Organizations: Principles and Best Practices, published as Kindle ebook in 2011. A forthcoming book about developing talent in the Digital Age, tentatively titled Managing Minds, Winning Hearts, and co-authored with David Grebow, will be published by ATD Press later this year. Steve also posts regularly on www.ThePerformanceImprovementBlog.com

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