10 December 2018

The Role of Leadership in Creating a Culture of Learning

Leadership development
culture of learning


Karen Jaw-Madson

A culture of learning is needed more than ever when you combine vision, business objectives and the need for new capabilities when solutions are unknown and conditions are ever-changing. Under these conditions, it is clear that the only way a company can succeed is to learn. This “call to arms” for businesses to pivot towards a culture of learning is now being embraced by senior leadership in many leading organizations.

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, having a culture of learning means that learning forms part of 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 culture of learning, and all corporate learning cultures lead to learning organizations.

What does a learning organization do?

In 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.”

Demystifying the Modern Learner
How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning
Demystifying the Modern Learner
How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning

This goes far beyond training programs and is why so many L&D departments follow the Center for Creative Leadership’s 70-20-10 guideline for how learning is acquired (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.

Further reading

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 culture of learning, 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.

Demystifying the Modern Learner
How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning
Demystifying the Modern Learner
How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning

This is not about leaders bestowing an act of benevolence. It is about recognizing the limitations of one’s own perspective and utilizing the 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 will provide the guidance and discipline for productive co-design of the corporate 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.

People 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.”

Further reading

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; collaboration, experimentation, and reflection; and, of course, speed and flexibility. As the most visible learners, leaders must demonstrate these behaviors to an observable degree every day.

Unstoppable learning

So if a culture of learning 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.

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