What Is a Learning Culture and What’s It Got to Do With Business Change?

Change as the new norm requires organisational agility, an ability to capitalise on opportunities, deal with challenges, and disrupt rather than be disrupted. This is what we talk about in the business change world in terms of internal capability and change readiness.

More than simply having agile processes and strategic methodologies in place, it’s about people. Do people feel enabled, nurtured, empowered, challenged, secure and listened to? If they don’t then an organisation simply isn’t change ready.  As Peter Drucker once famously quoted: ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast!’

Much in the same way countries are recognising GDP isn’t a good enough measure of a nation, businesses are realising it’s not just about shareholders and bottom line any more.

So, what do we mean when we talk about a learning culture?

At a broad view, a culture is what we as humans ‘do’ as part of our survival mechanism, it’s what gives us an edge as a group – in the same way animal instinct allows us to respond to our environment. But think about that for a moment. Instincts aren’t always to be relied on! Our fear-flight mechanism gives us the ability to escape from harm, but likewise is a liability when trapped in an office with nowhere to go. In the same way – our culture can fool us, lead us astray and yes – it can affect business results.

To explore what constitutes an organisational culture, why it’s important and how to change it, take a look at our culture change blog series.

A learning culture is one that allows us to respond appropriately to the environment around us. But whereas individuals can go for a run when they’re stressed, culture is a lot more difficult to change as it involves groups (often large ones) of humanity.

What can organisations do to create a learning culture?

When it comes to learning culture, things can start getting very intangible very quickly. Businesses typically aren’t great at managing intangible elements, but its something they’ll need to get better at!

First, it’s important to define that a learning culture can’t be enforced or pushed. Rather it is like a delicate flower in your garden that must be nurtured to allow it to grow.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Tie learning to organisational goals

Share the organisations’ vision – its picture and story of the future, and make sure it’s authentic and genuine (shared not only in terms of dissemination, but also in terms of a collective understanding). Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline states: ‘When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-to-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to.’ As Simon Sinek points out – ‘Start with the ‘why’!’

  1. Plug in to intrinsic and extrinsic factors

People only learn if they see the purpose. This is different from sharing an organisational vision which is higher level, and instead zeroes in on the reason someone may have to learn something. A baker isn’t going to want to do training in ironmongery, unless he or she is looking for a career change! Bear in mind that your people will 9 times out of 10 not be 100% aligned with the organisational vision. This isn’t to say they’re not dedicated, professional and willing, of course they are, but check the reality – what are the intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors that underpin, or run alongside their work life?

  1. Examine your learning processes

People are natural learners, it’s in our DNA, it’s also an organic and longitudinal process. Unfortunately the view of ‘learning’ in organisations kills this natural tendency, making it dogmatic, and process-oriented. This is because it is forced upon people as part of a compliance exercise. Of course, some of this is unavoidable, but examine the processes you are using. What’s the balance of ‘push’ vs. ‘pull’ learning in your organisation? How much is developed by a top down methodology vs. a bottom up, grass roots approach?

  1. Do not view learning as a single event.

Ok- this one is a personal bugbear!

Learning happens over time. It seems obvious to say it, but it’s amazing how few organisations apply this in their learning practice. This is because we’re entrenched in a Victorian model of classroom education being didactically ‘transferred’.

Even the term ‘knowledge transfer’ gets me irritated, we are not computers, and you can’t lift-drop a ‘file’ of learning from one human to another and expect it to be effective. All learning must be gradually released and reinforced over time, if this isn’t allowed for then learning will fail to be effective in the vast majority of stakeholder groups.

  1. Encourage workplace reflection

We all make mistakes, it’s what happens every day. But how often do you all have the chance to reflect on how things went? How often is that shared? Do you learn from your mistakes? Build in more opportunity for these kinds of discussions, this is part of an on-the-job, workplace-learning exercise.

  1. Provide the ecosystem for knowledge sharing, lessons learned and broader collaboration.

Not only are people natural learners, they’re natural socialisers and givers too! That’s part of the joy of it. Nothing says “I’ve done my job well today” more than knowing you’ve solved a problem that many others will benefit from. Unfortunately organisations lack the learning ecosystem for this to happen on an organic and peer-to-peer basis. This may need a technical solution, but more likely it will need to run alongside some more intrinsic socio-cultural components. Remember people, process and technology – culture is a people thing.

Linking back to business change

Ultimately having a learning culture allows you to respond as a group, overcoming barriers and challenges of the outside environment. Much of the cultural piece is an intangible element – it’s something that is felt more than measured, but feelings matter too!

According to the recent Towards Maturity Report commissioned by the CIPD, top deck organisations showed a 24% increase in productivity in high performing learning organisations. That’s a lot!

Certainly, there’s a lot more to this than just a ‘cultural’ element, but a strong learning culture sets the water mark for what good looks like. Feed your learning culture and it will reward you with the results and that highly-sought competitive edge that your business really needs right now.

 

At Afiniti we regularly partner with our clients to design and deliver highly-successful business change projects which include aspects of learning and culture. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help your organisation with its business change challenges and opportunities drop us a line and we’ll get straight back to you.


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Transformation – Where Do We Start?

So, you want to transform your business?

Perhaps you have already decided that technology is the key. You have started to establish a Programme and talk to potential suppliers. There is a burning platform. The business will suffer if you don’t do this. Everyone agrees it’s the right thing to do.

But how clear are you on what “it” is?

You will be wasting a lot of money if you don’t have crystal clarity, and full alignment. Key questions are: why? What are the implications of not doing it? What will be different? How will we measure it? And, what are the key changes we expect to see in the organisation?

A few years ago, I was called into a sizeable utility organisation. About to embark on a £200M transformation programme with a known organisation, they were seeking some independent advice. I spent three hours with a group of stakeholders, working through a list of questions. In my opinion, there were a lot of strong foundations in place:

  • It was very clear why the transformation was needed.
  • The scope of the programme was well defined.
  • Roles and responsibilities were mapped out, including the role of the supplier.
  • Stakeholders were engaged, measures were already in place.
  • The narrative had been established, and the outline communication strategy was agreed.

Then I commented that their transformation journey implied significant organisation change. They talked about contact centre colleagues’ roles changing to include a sales element (previously customer support only), and seamless movement between channels.  This implied organisation re-alignment top-down, potentially changes at exec level, and a considerable investment in colleagues’ skills changes which would probably include recruitment as well as development.

When I asked whether this conversation – about the organisation changes required – had happened with the exec team, the response was ‘they wouldn’t like that’.

And yet, these were the core changes required to realise the intended benefits.

My advice to that organisation was not to spend a single penny of their planned £200M until they had a Transformation Strategy written down, developed with the exec team, that included an outline of how the organisation was going to approach the required organisation changes. Otherwise, the chances of realising any of the intended outcomes in return for their investment, was very low. As a wise colleague of mine once set, they would simply end up with a ‘very expensive train set to play with’.

Contrary to behaviours we have all learned, there is no blueprint, playbook, or method, which guarantees you success in transforming your business. Often these constructs are simply ways of “outsourcing” the transformation process – to another team, to a supplier, to a programme vehicle, to a process … or often all the above. Sound familiar?

Successful transformation is about facing into the challenging questions upfront. Tackling transformation head on, is about, guess what … tackling transformation head on. Sounds simple, but it’s often not what happens, and it’s tough to do. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it successfully!

Let’s say you have decided your support functions are no longer fit for purpose for where your organisation is headed. Your processes are sluggish. There is too much bureaucracy, too many people spending too much time on low value rather than high value activities. Things take too long, and there is not much value add. You are convinced that a new ERP system is a significant part of the answer. You have already spoken to suppliers, who not surprisingly, agree with you. A new ERP will provide world class processes “out of the box”, and this will be a catalyst for transforming your support functions.

And yet, an ERP system will address none of the challenges described above. The ERP system is a tool which can support improved ways of working. But, to address your challenges, you need to work out how the organisation needs to change, and the approach to tackling those changes.

Take some truly independent advice. Work with your exec, and your support functions to develop a transformation strategy, which answers the key questions (why, what, what will be different). Include the outcomes you would like to see from the transformation, and workshop how those outcomes could be delivered. Set up a team to begin working on the changes you have identified.

And then, only then, ask the question about the part that technology may have to play.

This way your programme is outcome led. Updates with exec and Steering Groups should lead with progress towards those outcomes. Engage your people fully in the journey, as this will make success far more probable.

In a world where the pace of change is rapidly increasing, and your success will be defined by how fast you can move, you will need to radically rethink your approach to change and transformation. My advice – tackle it head on!


neil finnie

Article by Neil Finnie, Business Change Director 

 


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Practical and Pragmatic Change Leadership

In the previous two blogs of this series Showing up as a Change Leader and Preparing Yourself as a Change Leader, we explored the ways to prepare ourselves, as well as the things we can do, to make a difference when leading our teams and organisations through change. In the final blog of the series I’m going to reflect on the practical and pragmatic things you can do which build sustainable change leadership.

If I could travel back in time to visit myself 10 years ago when I was first embarking on my journey as a business change professional, these are the pieces of advice I’d share with my rookie change-leader self.

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Showing up as a change leader

In the first blog in this series, we talked about the challenges of being a change leader and how to prepare for those challenges before being able to help others.  In working with leaders of change in a range of sectors and change contexts, I have seen all manner of styles in action. Here I reflect on what I think makes an effective change leader and the difference that effective change leadership can make to business.

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Preparing yourself as a change leader

In this series we’ll be exploring what it takes to be a leader of change: the skills and competencies that you need in your toolbox; the big, and little, things you can do as a leader to drive, implement and deliver change. And starting here, I’ll be sharing my top tips on preparing yourself as a change leader.

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