Every time I turn around there seems to be another article suggesting how organizations can create an internal learning culture designed to help employees keep pace with a changing workplace. To be fair, at least we’re talking about cultivating a learning culture instead of a training culture, which is a huge step in the right direction because it transfers responsibility for continuous personal improvement from the organizations to employees themselves. It’s a laudable goal, and one that many Fortune 500 companies have been pursuing for years now.

But how do you start building a strong internal learning culture if your organization doesn’t have the resources of, say, Google or Apple? Go undercover for a day, like CEOs on the popular reality television series Undercover Boss!

While the plausibility of a CEO slogging it out in the trenches disguised as a frontline employee for a week without being recognized is debatable, the show’s popularity is due in part to its repeated theme that senior management is out of touch with what the company workplace is really like for the majority of its employees. The American series is so popular that thus far, with eight seasons to its name, it has been able to tell the same story 111 times.

I’m not advocating that the L&D industry launch its own reality television series (although that would be fun!); instead, I’m asking senior managers to test their own assumptions about their internal learning culture by experiencing it for themselves, undercover, for a day. Why? Because like all those undercover bosses on TV, you might just discover that your organization turns training into a chore to be completed rather than a learning experience to be enjoyed.

I hope I’m proven wrong, but based upon nearly 20 years of experience talking with employees about their learning environments, there are a surprisingly large number of senior managers who have no clue what it’s like to be on the receiving end of long, monotonous training.

How to become an undercover learner

  1. Have your LMS team provide access to all courses a new hire must take, plus all courses a 20-year veteran must complete in a year.
  2. Put aside two half-days, with no intrusions.
  3. Make your way through all the courses, completing all questions and quizzes. Be sure to collect all certificates, badges, and/or other rewards for doing so.
  4. Pay special attention to the tone of voice used throughout the courses you’re auditing. Does it reflect the personality of the company? Is that voice respectful, encouraging, and motivating? Does it convey trust in you as an employee?
  5. Take a moment after finishing each course to reflect on the experience. Focus less on what the course wanted you to remember and more on how it made you feel. Use adjectives, and write them down.
  6. Now review the certificates, badges, points, or other rewards you received for completing those courses. Ask yourself: Are you proud of them? Will you show them to anyone else? Either way, what will you do with them? Your answers will tell you whether they are a useful addition to your organization’s courses.
  7. Finally, and most importantly, review your list of adjectives about how the courses made you feel. That list describes the current state of your workplace learning culture.

Ask several new hires and long-serving employees to confirm your findings, and use that list to begin creating, cultivating, or overhauling your internal learning culture.

Each episode of Undercover Boss has a happy ending, with the unmasked CEO recognizing and rewarding a few deserving employees with a promotion, raise, or some other job-related perk. But since training is supposed to help employees achieve those things without a reality TV intervention, most people I know would be happy to start receiving courses they actually enjoy taking. Wouldn’t you?