In a previous column I talked about the need to work smarter via an ecosystem. One aspect of that has been implicit rather than explicit, and I want to elaborate. The element I want to highlight is that to truly take advantage of opportunities, you have to draw upon people’s cognitive and conative capabilities. And that’s a culture issue.

In cognitive science, we recognize the cognitive (thinking); affective (feeling); and conation (intentions). Learning success depends not only on a person’s cognitive capability, but also on their willingness and intention to learn. This holds true for both formal and informal learning. Increasingly, it’s the latter that makes a difference between an organization that just survives and one that truly thrives. This is where building a learning culture comes in.

Why building a learning culture is important

It’s a reliable phenomenon that you’ll see the best performance in an organization when you have a learning culture (hence, Peter Senge’s focus in The Learning Organization.) Of course, you can mandate what everyone should be doing, and people will take the courses you prescribe and execute (more or less) in coherence with the rules and incentives. However, when people are actively engaged and feeling responsible for the organization’s success, you’re at a whole different level. This is an effect of a learning culture.

A learning culture has a number of components. The first is that people need to know what they’re doing and why it’s important. As Daniel Pink pointed out in Drive, people need a purpose. They must care about it and believe it’s important. A second component is safety, as Amy Edmondson talks about in Teaming. It must be expected (not just tolerated) that you’ll experiment and fail, and that’s okay. Accountability is also important. Experiments need to be focused, reflective, and responsible.

There’s more. Diversity helps; as does openness to new ideas. And there must definitely be time for reflection. Further, it can’t be isolated—it has to permeate the organization. This puts a focus on sharing—ensuring others learn from your mistakes, and vice-versa. People need to communicate; asking and answering questions from one another, and collaborating to find solutions.

This latter bit is critical. The old model of doing things alone is no longer appropriate. With problems as complex as the ones we’re increasingly facing, it is unlikely any one person has all the necessary skills and knowledge. When we work together, the outcome is better. That is, when we manage the process right. When people recognize that failure is part of learning; that the focus is on the lessons learned; and that we’re all in it together. 

Technology and culture

And this is where technology comes in. Learning is more than just formal presentations of content and assessable interactions. Informal learning—working together to solve new problems—is part of it. Along the same lines, eLearning is more than just authoring tools, course management systems, media creation tools for job aids and how-tos, and portals to host them.

Implicit in the discussion above is the need to represent information in ways where we can get feedback and work together. We can (and should) go beyond whiteboards to support persistence and revision. We have powerful tools that we can take advantage of to empower this sort of work. We can share our learning via blogs, podcasts, or videos. We can share our representations as documents, presentations, spreadsheets, diagrams, and more. Further, we can collaboratively comment on and revise each other’s work, as well. New uses for technology emerge as we experiment, transcending the models from the physical tools of the past.

We also can track what’s being done. The purpose should be to look for what’s effective—not for what people are (or are not) doing. (That would sour the culture!) If we can find synergies that indicate folks who do X rather than Y succeed more often, we can recommend X. It’s about learning together in rich ways.

A full ecosystem is not going to have all the tools, but instead have representative tools for all capabilities. You don’t need more than one form of blog, wiki, or microblog, but you do need one. The point is to create an environment that facilitates the culture in ways that align with how we naturally think, work, and learn. And it’s unlikely that there’s only a single solution. You’ll need to create an integrated solution.

Walking the walk

It sounds ideal, but how do you get there? Our practices have to reflect our intentions, and the tools are the vehicles to put principle to practice. We need to use the tools in ways that accomplish the goals we’re trying to achieve. And we need to align all the elements.

This isn’t trivial. Change management is being seen as inadequate, and organizational development is a model that’s increasingly being recognized as necessary. When moving big initiatives, the nature of small, systematic steps in a direction is more effective than a big blast.

Change can (and probably should) start with a small initiative somewhere in the organization. L&D is a logical candidate for several reasons. For one, L&D should own initiatives related to learning. Secondly, L&D needs to understand how tools relate to learning. And it’s easier to support roll-out if you’re the one who’s demonstrated the viability.

Leaders need to walk the walk. If folks are told that sharing failures is okay but the leader doesn’t share, will they really buy in? Leaders need to communicate, ask questions, share feedback, and explain reasoning. Showing your work, or working out loud, isn’t just for those in the trenches. If the leader is showing his or her thinking, other folks can align better.

The need is real, the mandate is convincing, and the opportunity is there. Yes, you can get value out of technology and a formal approach, but the potential is so much more when you shift to a learning culture. It’s doable, and it’s time. What are you waiting for?