Building A Thriving Learning Culture

Building A Thriving Learning Culture

Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision (of teams), Team Learning and Systems thinking are the pillars of building a firm where employees think critically and challenge the status quo.


At 87, the legendary Michelangelo wrote, “Ancora Imparo”, meaning “I am still learning” alongside his painting. Organisations today would benefit if they inscribed these words in their boardrooms and hallways. And you will be not in a minority if you assume that these are paeans from an enthusiastic organisation learning evangelist!


Work today, learn tomorrow!


Indeed, most organisations believe that relentless execution, where employees work efficiently are sure shot pathways to great financial success and customer delight. However, such a belief is unfortunately not true. Even the best execution cannot guarantee enduring success in the digital knowledge economy. When organisations are too busy ‘doing’- they fail to pause, experiment, learn and unlearn. Kodak, a company that once dominated the photographic film market, blew its chance to lead the digital photography revolution. Steve Sasson, the Kodak engineer, who invented the first digital camera back in 1975, went on to say that when he first presented it, the management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute—but don’t tell anyone about it!”


What are learning organisations?


Peter Senge, Faculty at MIT Sloane School of Management and the author of ‘The Fifth Discipline’, first mentioned about learning organisations during the 1990s. He identified five interrelated disciplines. According to him, Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision (of teams), Team Learning and Systems thinking are the pillars of building a firm where employees think critically and challenge the status quo. A good example for a learning organisation is Southwest Airlines, built on innovative concepts for its industry like point-to-point travel, no assigned seats, rapid loyalty rewards, continues to thrive through constant innovation and an unflappable commitment to customer service. And Disney, with its solid core values viz. innovation, quality, community, storytelling, optimism, and decency, continues to invent newer forms of entertainment.


Wow! Let’s do it, then!


The nagging question is that if a learning organisation is synonymous with a successful organisation, why are all the organisations not doing it? It is difficult. There are three primary reasons for this. First, because most organisations just profess that learning is important, but when the ‘rubber hits the ground’, (read sending employees for training programmes)- you find business priorities taking over. In one’s experience, the drop rates for in house training programmes is as high as 50%, and the situation gets worse with a senior profile.

Secondly, most organisations fail to create the all-important ‘what’s-in-it-for me’, for learners. The CEO and senior executives get it, but people down the line have no idea how a training programme will help them. Finally,



The biggest hurdle is the ‘touch and go’ nature of most learning interventions. Organisations consider learning to be a one-time event; done with much grandeur, but those that do soon get lost in the sands of time.



Creating a learning organisation


Watkins and Marsick (1993, 1996) provide an integrative model of a learning organisation. Their proposed learning organisation model integrates two main organisational constituents: people and structure. They also went on to create the Dimensions of the Learning Organisation Questionnaire (DLOQ), designed to measure learning culture in organisation  (1997). According to Watkins and Marsick, there are three levels of organisational learning.


◆ Individual level: Composed of continuous learning and inquiry.


◆ Team or group level: Reflected by team learning and collaboration.


◆Organisational level: Contains four dimensions of organisational learning - embedded systems, system connections, empowerment, and provide leadership for learning.






Getting the research to work


In my view, learning culture is built on four foundational principles


Principle 1: Build self-efficacy: The seeds of learning culture first need to be embedded at the individual level. Here, individuals need to be convinced that once the learning happens, they have the power to change things. There must be a definite and visible gap that they can see, which they believe the learning can help close. This can be termed as - the belief of change. If individuals are convinced that they can become better influencers at the end of the ‘Influencing Skills programme’- they are more likely to attend it. And that is where the first seeds of a learning culture are planted- in the individuals.


Principle 2: Make others care about it: Most learning is difficult. It means investing in time away from work or life. And it becomes important to create the learning organisation culture we need to build a system where learning matters. If individuals can share, talk, evangelise, even ‘show off’ their learning- then they are more encouraged to learn - an important link that most learning strategists fail to recognise. If learning remains a personal endeavour, it can never become part of the culture that encourages learning.


Principle 3: Create the systems & tools: Gone are the days when creating the learning calendar, finding the best faculty, and creating the best learning experience were important for building a good learning culture. Today, what you do after the training, that truly matters. The systems and the processes that will sustain the learning is far more important than the learning itself. Are there people in the system who can become the ‘go-to-resources’? Are there learning aids? Learning repositories that one can access, when one is struggling with that learning attribute? A strong learning management system is a key enabler to sustain the learning culture.


Principle 4: Bring in the leaders: Like in all aspects of organisational behaviour, the role of the leader hugely influences the learning culture. When leaders actively question and listen to employees’, people in the institution feel encouraged to learn. If leaders signal the importance of spending time on problem identification, knowledge transfer, and reflective questioning, these activities are likely to take roots. When people in power demonstrate their commitment to learning by taking classes or attending classes, or even encouraging alternative points of view, employees feel emboldened to offer new ideas and options.


It also works when these four principles are taken in isolation. Indeed, most organisations would have one or more of them working in tandem. However, it is only when these come together starting from the individual, to the team, to the systems and finally to the leadership that it really starts to create a learning, thriving organisation!



Nishath Usmani is responsible for leadership development of senior leaders at KPMG. She comes with an experience of more than 18 years in leadership development, learning strategy, talent management, facilitation, coaching & learning communications. She has worked previously worked in Capgemini's Corporate University and Deloitte Consulting. Nishath is presently pursuing Ph.D. in management (HR).


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