Developing a thriving learning culture may not seem like a top priority for the boardroom in today’s tough financial climate, but a strong learning framework can play a major role in promoting company strategies – at least that’s the view of supporters.
One such is Nick Brooker, managing director of Wentworth Training & Research. He says companies that do not have an embedded culture of learning tend to lapse into an annual appraisal routine, which means they can become inflexible and unresponsive. He believes that companies with integral learning structures are “more focused on the key things that matter in business” and on achieving them through highly competent and effective employees.
For Simon Callow, managing director of consultancy Personnel Decisions International UK, a learning culture represents the glue that connects employees.
“If you’re going to have a successful learning intervention you have to have the culture there,” he says, adding that the existence of an embedded framework helps to encourage progress, improving the availability of training and developing capability.
While a culture is unique to a particular organisation, Callow outlines certain success factors, including openness, giving good feedback and giving clarity about what people learn.
“You don’t buy a learning culture like it’s a tangible product – you really live the model of learning,” he says. Senior management buy-in is a crucial cog in the wheel, with learning cultures starting at the top and individuals participating in leadership programmes talking about what they’ve learned, he says.
“You’ve got to have a curiosity about the future. People should be looking to ask questions, with scenario planning or cross-functional/geographical taskforces. You need very strong networks – both informal and formal, which make sure that people’s ideas are valued.”
For Bob Bannister, managing director of iManage Performance and a speaker on developing a meaningful learning culture at this month’s World of Learning conference, a learning culture has certain key elements. These include: management sponsorship exemplary management behaviour rewards for outstanding behaviour the measuring of behaviour in appraisal processes a formalisation of the learning process, making learning an organisational value and having a clear and accessible funding route. Learning and development (L&D) should also have its own internal marketing plan, according to Bannister.
Brooker also believes that coaching and mentoring, with encouragement, support and frequent constructive feedback is a major part of the process.
“In my experience, organisations that adhere to the Investors in People standard tend to have an extremely well-embedded learning and development culture – as long as they keep it fresh and aligned with the business,” he says.
L&D and training departments play a pivotal role in embedding such a desirable culture, says Bannister. “The biggest part may not be the obvious arrangement and delivery of learning interventions,” he explains, “but instead the persistent communication about that reinforces the new culture and keeps it alive over the long term. Once you’ve communicated a message as many times as you think necessary, in as many different mediums as you think possible, my belief is that you are only a 10th or 100th of the way there. So like any change programme, it will be vital for L&D to be prominent, and remain prominent – even when everything else all around comes and goes.”
Callow agrees and adds that the centres of excellence that are being created around the L&D department are becoming critical in terms of upholding learning.
“L&D needs to reinforce learning culture in an organisation, and then drive the content,” he says.
“This means giving people an insight about learning and what they’re expected to learn. It’s about driving the accountability for learning – holding people to account for being good learners, making sure that people are clear about what they need to learn and then making them accountable for knowing that content.
“There should be an expectation that you should be learning in that organisation,” Callow adds.
Case study: Volkswagen Group
Creating a thirst for learning within your organisation is a key part of embedding a learning culture, according to Cathie Wright, HR business partner at the Volkswagen Group.
Until two years ago, learning and development was very much seen as an individual’s responsibility within the group, with a small centre available for learning and career progression and development advice. That has evolved into an L&D-driven learning culture that focuses squarely on the business’s priorities and individual goals.
Wright says this culture is supported by regular opinion surveys, which takes people’s learning preferences into consideration. L&D found, for example, that people within VW valued face-to-face interventions over e-learning.
Another crucial factor has been talent management: rather than being discussed at board level, Wright says L&D has put some ‘science’ behind the process, using 360-degree feedback and stakeholder interviews to identify high potential people. “In the main, the people that work for Volkswagen are very ambitious and we’re had to make sure that the L&D department supports that personality,” she states. “People need to see the development offering as an opportunity to learn skills – but not just for the position they’re in.”