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Building Learning Cultures: Some Insights

In the corporate world, Learning Culture is like a ghost. Everyone talks about it, but nobody has really seen one. As it is so amorphous, let’s start this discussion by agreeing upon some basic definitions. 

What is Culture and What is Learning

A culture is a way of life that includes aspects of arts, beliefs and values, and institutions of a defined set of people. A culture has a specific code of behavior, dress, language, rituals, cuisine and sometimes, even religion. It is observed that culture is a more powerful influence on people’s behavior than its constituent parts. As whole, culture binds people together tighter than even its religion.

On the other hand, learning is a relatively permanent change in behavior. It includes new knowledge, skills and attitudes that are acquired through introspection, observation, exploration, study, application, and experience. Learning means change in behavior, which is an outward manifestation of a person’s internal change in beliefs, values, knowledge, thoughts, and emotions. The resultant change in the person is an equilibrium of the old and the new, so to speak. If the person’s ‘old’ doesn’t agree with the ‘new’, there is no learning. Permanent learning happens when the old and the new merge to become a new entity, that brings forth a new individual seen through a changed behavior. Learning is something like what Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.

Signs of a Learning Culture

When we talk about a learning culture in an organization, we should mean it as a way of life of that organization. The organization should have deeply ingrained beliefs and values about learning and well-accepted institutions within that support learning. The organization should also have a clear code of conduct when it comes to learning, a unique jargon, certain unique rituals (like encouraging trial and error, celebrating learning?), what formats of learning are they consuming, and whether the organization as a whole worship the god of learning, on the same pedestal as the god of the bottom line. The organization should also inspire its people to learn, not by coercing, cajoling or even rewarding. Although learning happens through both ‘inspiration’ or ‘desperation’, the former is pleasurable, economical, and permanent, whereas the latter is just the opposite.

Why is Building a Learning Culture Hard

Building a true learning culture is a mirage for L&D in most publicly funded corporations because their leadership must constantly balance the long term with the short term. The stock markets reward the short term more not the long term. Organizations are not schools or universities. Their purpose is not educating their people. Their purpose is to creating value for its shareholders and other stakeholders. Organizations (and individuals who run them) always go for the short term – this year, this quarter, this month… They must satisfy Dow Jones or else heads will roll. So, what takes precedence is investments in technology, quality, processes, products, customers, and even government. People come last.

To paraphrase Charles Darwin, it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one more responsive to change. Being responsive to change is to learn and adapt. In organizations it means technology and products will not save the company. It is its ability to innovate. Learning is a means to innovation and adaption to changing environment. A learning organization will insure its survival and growth. Afterall come to think of it, nothing is constant in any organization – everything changes over time – products, technology, processes, customers or even its people. The only enduring element is its culture. Why not then make your culture a learning culture?

If individuals, corporations, organizations, and societies desire to survive and flourish, there is no other way but to build a learning culture in themselves. We need to find ways to balance the “important-and-urgent” with the “important-and-not urgent” aspects of survival and long life.

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