A Learning Culture Critical To Driving High Performance

Media release

May 2014


 “A learning culture is what enables Cisco and Apple to ‘out-innovate’ their competitors… it is what enables ING Direct, Zappos and Starbucks to grow at rates 10 -100 times their competitors. And it is what prevented Digital Equipment Company, Tandem, Apollo Computer, Silicon Graphics and hundreds of other defunct companies from embracing changes in their markets and evolving their products. It means life or death for many organisations.”  This is the view of Josh Bersin from Bersin & Associates in his article entitled ‘How to build a high-impact learning culture’.

Bersin believes that the single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organisation’s learning culture – a view shared by Joyce Lebelo, Partner and Managing Executive: eLearning at LRMG performance agency.  Lebelo says cultivating a learning culture in organisations is critical to driving the performance and innovation necessary to successfully compete in today’s marketplace.

“What’s essential to realise however, is that a learning culture is not the same as the more traditional practice of putting learning in a box, labeled ‘skills development,’” she says. “Instead it’s the active practice of establishing an overall learning culture in an organisation that facilitates the practice of continuous learning. It’s not simply a series of activities that  take place periodically to complete  development scorecards.”

She cites extensive research released in 2010 which was conducted by Bersin & Associates for over six years by studying best-practices in corporate training, after which they identified more than 100 possible business processes, programmes and strategies which fall into the area of ‘culture.’ These include many formal aspects like ‘creating development plans’ and also informal aspects such as ‘regularly conducting after-action reviews’ and ‘leaders listen to mistakes.’

That was followed by Bersin interviewing and surveying over 40 000 organisations to understand how well they adopted these practices and simultaneously studies how well these organisations performed on well-defined business measures.

“As illustrated by this study, high performance cultures are typically associated with highly innovative organisations – and in order for people to innovate they have to be encouraged to engage in the practice of learning. That’s why establishing a culture of learning is important, as it ensures that people feel safe, and therefore willing to be a part of innovation process,” says Lebelo.

A learning culture also generates deep specialisation. She points out that companies that have been particularly successful have found that deep levels of competence are required, particularly in challenging economic times. . “While you may have people in an organisation with scarce skills and ability,  they may become stagnant if there isn’t a culture where those attributes can be  channeled into measurable contributions that are being applied to the specific context of the business.  You also run the risk of losing that deep specialisation, if not appropriately utilised.”

But before establishing a learning culture in an organisation, Lebelo stresses that it’s important to clearly identify the meaning of ‘culture.’ Bersin explains that culture is “like the air we breathe – it is all around us yet very hard to see. It is a real thing – and as you read about the 40 high impact practices for a learning culture you will start to see actual evidence of culture in almost every process, decision and interaction in your company.”

To ensure that learning is established as a culture, leadership plays a huge role. What kind of environment does leadership create for people when they make mistakes? Is it a safe space, or a shameful one? Is it a place where people are openly criticised or where old, traditional thinking about any form of failure equating to incompetence?  “The number one driver for inculcating a culture of learning is that people have to feel safe to learn, as well as safe to fail. Failure can’t appear to be fatal,” she stresses.

This further requires that value has to be attributed to everyone’s contribution. “Junior colleagues represent an untapped source of feedback that can help senior executives materially improve their performance and provide input on key strategic decisions. Also known as coaching, input from lower level team members to senior leaders is a really effective way to get a full, 360 lens on the whole operation of an organisation. Yet it requires that leadership are open to those types of contributions and don’t fall back on old school thinking that only people at a certain senior level or above are competent or qualified to make strategic contributions of that nature,” she says.

If a company does not establish a strong learning culture not only can there be   low levels of innovation and specialization but also the early tenets of a culture that does not support change.  “Change avoidance can be fatal in an economic climate such as this where your competitive edge has to be very pronounced and distinct for many companies even to survive. The danger lies in becoming complacent, blind to what’s really going on in your market and to the fact that your people aren’t being developed to adapt to those requirements – because you don’t know what they are or how to possibly mitigate them.”

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