In my previous post, I named the four horsemen of the work culture apocalypse.
The Blame Game
Disconnect Between Learning and Working
To combat this common enemy, we need a system for cultivating a learning culture.
But before we can lay the foundation for this system, we first need to define it.
Let’s start with culture
My good friend Paul Millerd, wrote an excellent article on general workplace culture, which gives us a good starting point. I’ll be returning to this piece in subsequent posts on Shared Assumptions, where we’ll explore how culture arises.
“Culture is a messy term.” - Paul Millerd
Paul parses through a review of 134 different definitions of the word “culture” to pinpoint a useful definition.
“that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired as a member of society” - Sir Edward Tyler in Primitive Culture.
Three key concepts we need to hone in on here to define learning culture:
Complex whole - culture is a complicated collection of many things.
Capabilities and habits - the “things” in this case are capabilities and habits.
Member of society - we form them by being part of communities.
With this lens, we can now turn our attention to learning culture specifically.
Learning culture: a complex whole
Recognizing that culture is a complicated collection of many things should remind us to resist being too prescriptive in naming it.
That’s not going to please the marketers who crave pithy, attention-grabbing headlines to describe ideas.
But to get to the essence of learning culture, we must recognize it as a mindset, a feeling, an internal drive within individuals, but shared by many.
I liken this to diversity and inclusion initiatives. One approach to cultivating a spirit of diversity and inclusion is to try to name all the things that make up diversity and inclusion and tell people about them.
That’s how you end up with a text-and-next slide show on unconscious bias.
Another approach is to bring people together who actually have diverse backgrounds and opinions and create a safe and intentional space for them to engage in dialogue.
What you get is exposure to diverse opinions (surprise!). A natural desire to include others develops, as people realize they’re not so different. And a spirit of togetherness forms.
By showing people what diversity and inclusion mean, you change hearts and minds.
So let’s not try to be too prescriptive. But just as a room full of diverse people and lively conversation paints a picture of diversity and inclusion we can paint a picture of what a learning culture looks like.
Learning culture: capabilities and habits
What are the specific capabilities and habits that make up a learning culture?
I’ve spent 5 years talking to and learning from clients at Curious Lion, I’ve spent many more on my own personal reflection, and I’ve interviewed dozens of learning leaders on The Learning Culture Podcast.
Here’s what I’ve learned about the capabilities and habits of people who exhibit a culture of learning:
Growth mindset - they never see themselves as the finished product, they’re always learning.
Curiosity - they have a passion for learning and personal development, and they adopt a beginner’s mindset.
Abundance mindset - they see learning opportunities everywhere, even in failure.
Fearlessness - they aren’t scared of struggling with new ideas or being wrong.
Generosity - they are compelled to share their learning with others.
Openness - they build mutual trust and respect people with diverse opinions, helping them learn from others.
People who exhibit these capabilities and habits are lifelong learners.
To bring this fully into the context of organizational learning, I’ll add one more.
Lifelong learners in organizations have the ability to recognize and apply learning to a shared vision.
The sum of the capabilities and habits needed for a learning culture ends up looking like this:
This is where community comes in, and where learning culture truly takes shape.
Learning culture: formed by community
Coming at it from the perspective of the individual, James Clear writes in Atomic Habits:
“One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.”
Coming at it from the perspective of the company, Peter Senge writes in The Fifth Discipline:
“The fundamental learning units in an organization are working teams. Whether they are management teams or product development teams or cross-functional teams, people who need one another to act, in the words of Arie de Geus, are becoming the key learning unit in organizations. This is so because almost all important decisions are now made in teams, either directly or through the need for teams to translate individual decisions into action.”
Add these two ideas together and you begin to realize the incredible self-reinforcing power of a team of individual lifelong learners building capabilities toward a shared vision.
A company like this is truly a learning organization, with category-defining potential.
From what I’ve seen, there are 3 features all learning organizations have in common:
Build teams, not stars - everyone’s strengths are different, and people learn more when they are supported by others. In most cases, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Focus on how we learn and how we do - leaders set the tone by articulating “this is how we learn”; managers evaluate how work was done, not just what was accomplished; learning is rewarded.
I’ll give you an example from my own company.
We are small by definition, so our learning team is the majority of the company for now. Every week we have open office hours that anyone can join. Some weeks we discuss how we do what we do, often in the context of one team member’s current project. Other weeks we discuss a topic of interest like writing creative hooks to capture attention. Once a month someone on the team presents a topic they’ve researched, like emotional education.
This is by far the highest leverage hour of our week. Without fail, we leave with ideas for immediate implementation. We also record, edit, categorize and store clips from these meetings for future reference and new hires.
We think very deeply about building our own learning culture.
This leads me to my contribution to defining it.
For me, a learning culture for a company is:
the self-reinforcing flywheel of curiosity, fearlessness in failing, open-mindedness, and continuous learning present in small groups of people, applied collectively towards a shared vision.
The only hope of cultivating this kind of culture lies in understanding the individuals, their capabilities and habits, and the context in which they operate.
That’s where our journey will pick up in the next post.