6 Ways to Change Your Learning Culture

July 8, 2013 — 2 Comments

When you were growing up, you probably spent hours sitting in a classroom listening to teachers deliver lecture after lecture in school. Now, as an adult employee, the thought of sitting through company training seems boring, unproductive, pointless and wasteful compared to actual work you could be doing. And if that’s what you think, your colleagues are likely thinking the same thing. The great news is that learning organizations are shifting their methods. But tactics aren’t the best place to start. They never are. First, your organization needs a new learning mindset. Here’s how you can get one.

Adult Learning ClassFollowing are six specific ways many organizations have traditionally thought about training – with a culture “shift” for each one.

Learning takes place during training events.

Shift: Learning takes place before, during and after training events – as well as on the job and after hours.

Gone are the days when training is simply viewed as a “vacation” from actual work. With attitudes like this, it’s no wonder management got so eager to cut training budgets. Make sure employees understand that they must complete pre-work assignments before arriving at the learning event so they are prepared to engage with the content as soon as the events begins. Have a follow-up plan. Even more importantly, help them understand the importance of learning through experiences on the job – as well as from external sources.

The instructor is the expert.

Shift: Everyone is an expert: facilitators, self and peers.

If the instructor is the only expert, the purpose of a learning event will be to simply download the information from the instructor to the participants. If everyone is an expert, the facilitator operates as more of a guide and participants learn from assessing their own experiences and from collaborating with the content and with others – both inside and outside of the event.

The organization is responsible for each person’s development.

Shift: Everyone is responsible for own their development and for sharing what they know with others. The organization is responsible for supporting development via the learning infrastructure.

If only the organization is ultimately responsible for the development of each employee, then employees will understandably take a passive role in the development process. On the other hand, if the organization plays a support role, each person must be a proactive participant in the process. The organization builds the system and the participants engage with the content, resources, and most importantly: each other (are you catching a trend for collaboration?).

Mistakes are unacceptable, so hide them.

Shift: Mistakes are unavoidable – so share and learn from both successes and failures. Encourage creative experimentation.

Some mistakes are truly unforgivable, especially if they involve safety, privacy, sensitive information or ethics. And yet they still occur. The worst response is to sweep them beneath the rug and pretend they never happened. This only ensures that the same mistakes will take place again in the future. Not only that, it damages an organization’s credibility with employees (and outside stakeholders) who know the mistakes happened. Many mistakes are not fatal. It takes guts to admit when we’re wrong, but it’s one of the most development-rich opportunities out there. Mistakes become examples of what not to do (again). Moreover, when there is freedom to fail, there is extra incentive to succeed. Truett Cathy once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong… until we can learn to do it right.” When it comes to admitting mistakes, leaders ought to lead the way and go first. And if you are going to fail, take risks and fail in a training environment first.

Grades come from learning assessments.

Shift: “Grades” come from feedback of self, peer, trainers, supervisor and business results.

The ultimate grades of any learning event come in the form of business results. It’s not enough to give a right answer – you have to perform the correct action on the job. But the real catch is that often there is no “right” answer. Many decisions are situation-specific and don’t net a result until further down the road. And let’s not discount the value of feedback. Oftentimes we have a decent assessment of our own level of understanding. “I’ve got this,” or “I definitely don’t get this!” Peers, training staff and supervisors help provide additional insight that we can take or leave. Take them.

A passing grade completes training (emphasis on passing).

Shift: Development is never “complete” (emphasis on continual growth, mastery and collaboration).

Learning is only “pass/fail” in the classroom but never in real life. For some technical training events, a certain level of quantitative proficiency must be attained. I don’t want someone operating on my who hasn’t passed extensive competency assessments! But the learning is never over. A training event is simply a stepping stone on the path to mastery. Also, the most complete learner is not the one who knows the most, but the one who shares the most with others.

Which of these shifts does your organization need the most? What additional learning shifts would you add?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.
  • The non-profit I currently work for needs most of these shifts. I’ve learned that if the leadership team does not live out and set the example for growth and becoming better the people will resist it. Great thoughts Nathan.

    • They really do present a change in mindset and behavior. That’s what I love about organizational development – we get to study this stuff and make changes. But we’re only as good as the executives who get behind it.