The DNA of a strong learning culture

Change has become a constant in most organizations. Most of us feel the impact daily, it seems there’s no escape and it’s not going to stop soon. That’s why we must adopt new ways of thinking, working and learning — we all need new skills.

Senior teams are looking to us in learning and development to help them move forward with the challenge of workforce upskilling by creating a culture where learning and working are integrated across the whole organization. This gives us new opportunities to influence the business, so long as we embrace organizational reality.

Our clients at Stellar Labs, many of them L&D leaders like you, are looking for new frameworks to help them steer a course through these challenging but exciting times. They want a strong DNA for learning that is people focused, pragmatic, evidence-based and enables them to tackle the challenges of digitalization, flexible working and an increasingly global and diverse workforce. 

L&D leaders want to influence multiple stakeholders at a time when operational pressures are high. Many  want to initiate self-directed learning but also keep the human connections that promote a successful workforce. And like you, they want to be credible and professional and able to show the value they bring to an organization. 

In this article, I will explore real stories through the lens of the DNA for an effective learning culture and discover practical examples you can apply in your own organization.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we can adapt quickly and effectively when needed. But it has left some people feeling lost, tired and exhausted, whereas others are exhilarated by the opportunities. This was experiential learning in action. But to learn from an experience, we need to reflect, take stock, identify what we’ve learned and what we need to do differently for the future.

So, how is the learning culture where you work now? What’s stayed the same? What’s changed?

Arie de Geus, former CEO of Shell, said “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”   

Now is the perfect time to examine your learning culture and work on it afresh; it’s alive and ready to continue its evolution.

We recently did a Linkedin survey to find out what are considered the most valuable elements of a learning culture. It came as no surprise to find that most respondents thought the vital, universal ingredient is people.

You need all your people for a strong learning culture; it’s not just L&D and employees who are involved in learning. Proximus, Belgium’s biggest telecom company, were surprised at what a learning stakeholder analysis revealed. They anticipated that L&D, HR and the people in the training were involved but with some careful questioning, that list became longer. 

They recognized every single person in the business needs to learn, from the CEO to the most junior recruit. Everyone is a learner when “the times they are a-changin’.”

The C-suite had already identified the upskilling challenge and established that all their business-critical processes needed to change, including sales, product development, operations and recruitment, etc. The balance of skills is shifting as the requirements for different ways of working change and there are new skills they currently lack altogether or are in very short supply. This was a benefit to L&D because the C-suite already recognized the business value of effective training but additionally they want to be able to measure the impact and return on their investment.

In an effective learning culture there isn’t anyone who’s not involved in some way.  Are all your people pulling in the same direction? 

Managers and supervisors are a critical factor in motivating people to get trained despite the challenges it creates for them in operational downtime. Crucially, they are also best placed to find opportunities to apply new skills in day to day situations. Some people think learning happens in training programs, but it really happens when people practice what they learned in the context of real work until they reach desired performance levels. Training must be connected to operational reality.

Social learning is also essential, such as buddying up, mentoring or coaching. They can also learn from the experience. Imagine the value of cascading your new knowledge and skills to your teammates so they can also develop and a most effective way to learn is to teach.

HR monitors and measures performance after training, which also means finance plays a part. How are people rewarded for developing themselves and the organization?

Follow the science

Why is science important for learning — surely we all know how to learn and many know how to teach? The trouble is, most people or organizations don’t know enough about the science of learning to learn or train effectively. Millions of dollars are wasted every year on ineffective training with no impact or return on investment.

Learning happens in our brains and bodies and if you’re designing or delivering learning interventions with impact, then what you’re actually doing is rewiring people’s neuroplastic brains.  

When people talk about changed behaviors, upskilling or knowledge acquisition, what they really mean, at a fundamental level, are changes to the structure, chemistry and function of our brain. These become our perceptions, memories, behaviors, habits and skills. When you don’t know any of the science, your training interventions are more likely to be hit and miss. Your training can become much more effective and armed with some proven tools to drive attention, build memories and create new habits.

We’re not claiming that every chief learning officer  employs a team of neuroscientists on the spot. But someone in the team needs to be able to challenge ineffective practices and have the knowledge and skills to apply evidence-based principles.

We recommend you don’t try to change everything at once – that would be an almost impossible challenge. Instead, take it step by step to move towards evidence-based learning. IKEA asked us to audit a selection of their e-learning offerings to see how they can apply a more science-based approach to topics ranging from food safety to facilitation skills.  Whilst the quality of the learning experience was already high, they recognised it wasn’t improving performance because people quickly forgot what they’d learned.  Their first improvement is to implement spaced repetition  into  e-learning courses as a first step to help people remember processes or product features for the longer term. 

Take charge of the process

Learning is an iterative process of change in the brain and body. It takes effort and time — there  isn’t an easily inserted learning microchip yet. However, you can greatly increase the likelihood that effort and time result in improved personal and organizational performance by following evidence-based processes.

The learning process is universal. For a learner to change the way they work they must build long term memories, behaviors and habits. They need to:

  • feel motivated.
  • experience memorable, sensory, emotional input. 
  • explore and experiment.
  • practice regularly with feedback.
  • have support and guidance.
  • apply new skills at work.
  • regularly repeat, recall and reflect. 

To successfully transfer skills L&D must follow a process to apply specific transfer levers into the design to support learners and create an ecosystem where the organization plays its part. 

Organizations like AstraZeneca, Novartis and Melexis are working on initiatives to give more autonomy to learners themselves. But it’s no good directing people to the LMS and simply saying “There are some great courses here,” because content is only the start of the learning process. Many people don’t know how they really learn, falling back on ineffective techniques like highlighting their notes or watching videos. This is why learning agility is quickly becoming a key skill for the future because it underpins how well you’ll learn everything else in life.

Champion learning with technology

Technology has always been an enabler of learning, from the invention of the pencil up to the most sophisticated artificial intelligence-driven, virtual reality options of our modern world.  Even now, many technology solutions are designed by IT specialists and not learning specialists. So, whilst they may have amazing features to engage, entertain or help you search vast content libraries, most technology only plays a supporting role in acquiring new skills. 

We strongly recommend you ask your technology suppliers deeper questions about learning science and processes. What elements of an evidence-based learning process do they support and what can’t they support? Armed with that information you can make informed choices about what else needs to happen to genuinely accelerate performance in the flow of work.

Trust the data

Of course, technology does enable us to collect data — vast quantities of data. But what will you do with the data to enhance your learning culture and drive personal and organizational success.

The first question to ask yourself about data is, “why do you want it in the first place?” What decisions will it help you make? How can it help your people track their own progress or help managers offer the right support at the appropriate time? 

What can that data offer to you in L&D to build your credibility.? The C-suite doesn’t want to know how many people you onboarded or how long anyone spent on e-learning. They want to know whether there are sufficient, skilled people at the right levels to do the job now, and what new skills are being nurtured that they will need in five years. 

One of our clients, an international building firm, is measuring progress on a leadership trajectory including tracking their results from real life work activities built into the program. Whilst much of the data is subjective it’s been linked back to business objectives and KPIs. Data analysis enables the L&D team to see how, when and what elements of the training are having the most impact in the workplace and they can report ROI to the senior team.

You’ve been on a trip through the DNA of an effective learning culture and heard some real life stories and examples along the way about people, science, process, technology and data. Armed with this DNA, what are the next steps you will take? How will you start to create an ecosystem where your people and your organization thrive and everyone learns, every day, everywhere?

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