David Caulfield

What the heck is a 'Learning Culture'?

What is a culture?

If you want an equation, here's mine: Culture = Behaviours + Expectations + Wisdom

Cultural Behaviours

Pick any group and you will quickly see that each has their own ways of interacting and behaving with each other.

  • Country
  • County (especially in Ireland!)
  • Village
  • Local community
  • Family
  • Company
  • Team

Cultural behaviours are unconciously picked up when we integrate into a new group of people. If you have travelled abroad to multiple countries, you know that the 'feeling' between coutries is very different. If you have stayed with another family for a few days, the 'feeling' of that family feels foreign, strange and often uncomfortable. A family member of mine says "Other people's families are always very strange". This is true. Different cultures are just that - different. People expect each other to behave in a certain way and give a strange look when that doesn't happen.

Cultural Expectations

If the first part of culture is its peoples' behaviours, then it follows that the second part is what people expect of you. When you go to France, you greet another person by kissing them on the cheek. You must point with your thumb instead of index finger in Malaysia. When you sit down for a meal with your family, you are expected to say Grace. We call these expectations 'customs'. Expectations keep people in check and produce a sense of belonging, protection and safety - an amazing evolutionary strategy we have developed.

Cultural Wisdom

Thirdly, wisdom plays a huge role in culture. Over time, the culture's behaviours and expectations become instinct to its people. In other words, the culture's people build a body of wisdom which comes naturally to them.

It is common for people who misunderstand a culture to treat it with resentment. But cultures are formed through behaviours that have given its people support to survive and thrive. In other words - cultures form over time because they work for that group of people. This doesn't mean that change should not happen. But we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Some behaviours are good, others are bad, and some are just different.

The body of wisdom that is built up in a culture should be treated as just that - wisdom. Not a list of rules that have come from 'back in the day' that we need to change and get rid of simply because they are old.

So when we talk about culture, remember: Culture = Behaviours + Expectations + Wisdom

What is a Learning Culture?

If Culture = Behaviours + Expectations + Wisdom, then Learning Culture = Learning Behaviours + Learning Expectations + Wisdom about Learning. You need to understand what behaviours will help your colleagues progress their knowledge. This is the primary purpose of L&D. Without knowing how people learn and what their learning needs are, any L&D individual will fail to understand what learning behaviours should be encouraged.

How is a Learning Culture Created?

Cultures are made up of complex people and, as a result, are complex things themselves. In “Toyota Kata”, Mike Rother describes structured, practised behaviours that are the building blocks of a learning culture.

Learning Behaviours

What behaviours do you want from your colleagues when it comes to learning? Narrow in on specific behaviours, right down to the scenario and task level. As you develop and support different scenarios your colleagues experience, they start building a set of behaviours condusive to their learning. Be warned though - you cannot force people to behave in a certain way. You can only encourage things that they want to do. Focus on the individual's strengths and interests to understand how they can enrich your company's learning culture. For example:

  • Someone interested in coaching might be able to give workshops to teams.
  • A subject matter expert might be interested in mentoring new joiners.
  • A new joiner might be able to become owner of a team's documentation and improve it in some way.

List the Learning Behaviours

List down the behaviours you want to see in your organisation.

  • I want people to learn everyday.
  • I want teams to continuously improve.
  • I want managers to enable change.

Each item is a high-level expectation. Get specific. Divide each item into specific scenarios you want to see.

For example:

Behaviour: I want people to learn everyday.

  • Scenario: When someone sees something useful, they note it down and bring it to their daily work.
  • Scenario: People take online courses in areas that they are interested in at least once a week.
  • Scenario: People read books on topics they are interested in.

The more scenarios you can think of, the better.

Next, prioritise your list of scenarios and break them into actions you will take.

Scenario: People read books on topics they are interested in.

  • Action: Create a library area in the office with 100 books.
  • Action: Enable people to order any book they want to add to the library.
  • Action: Have a monthly 'book' day where people share what books they've read and what they have learned.

As you can see, wishing for a learning culture to appear is not good enough - get specific! Otherwise, your colleagues will become disenfranchised with your mission and, worst of all, become apathetic.

Having said this, your goal isn't to encourage every behaviour in every individual. Some encouragement with some individuals is enough. Small wins along the way is the goal.

Learning Expectations

After you've figured out which behaviours to encourage, the next step is to look at expectations. What should your colleagues expect from each other? The lazy answer of "I just want people to be better everyday" isn't good enough.

Step back for a second. What if someone came up to you and said "I want you to be better today". You wouldn't know what to do.

It is easy to say "I expect people to learn", but without accepting the responsibility of providing encouragement and support, then they are empty words. L&D must put their money and time where their mouth is.

What About Hiring?

It is difficult enough to promote culture amongst people who agree with its principles. It is impossible to do it amongst those who don't. In his book 'Principles', Ray Dalio writes how his company, Bridgewater, hire for a specific kind of culture.

Bridgewater's culture values brutal honesty above all else. If you think this results in a nice work environment where everyone is up front with each other, you would be wrong. It results in an environment many people are not cut out for.

Imagine if every proposal was met with everyone in the room responding with "I disagree with you because XYZ". Imagine if every single action was challenged by multiple people in the room.

A look at Glassdoor reviews shows these values coming through as good and bad, depending on who is commenting.

  • "Culture is huge here, managers really like to take an interest in people's inherent personalities and tendencies. As someone who likes a demarkation between work and personal life, such a probing culture isn't really conducive for that."
  • "It's not for the weak-stomached. If straightforward feedback induces anxiety, this would not be a healthy work environment for you."

Are these 'bad' reviews, or is it more likely that you need suitable personality traits and values to succeed in such an environment? While this may be an extreme case, it illustrates my point. People with values anti-thetical to the culture will not thrive. So you need to be up front with potential employees from the very beginning.

If you are building a Learning Culture, it needs to be screened at the interview stage.

  • Do you work better alone or with other people?
  • Walk me through a time you improved someone else's job.
  • What is the last project you made outside your work (technical or not)?

No interview questions are 100% perfect, but the goal of any interview is to estimate if this person would fit well in your company. If the person does not display curiosity or enjoy sharing information, then they likely won't thrive in a learning culture where these values are the foundations.

The End Result

Now that you have a list of behaviours you want to see, get to work! Over time, encouraging particular behaviours together with screening for good hires will build the culture you envisaged.

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