The impact of organisational culture on learning outcomes
How does the culture of an organisation affect the learning of its employees? Acteon consultant Romy Craig explores why a learning culture depends on helping people to understand how they contribute, and to feel supported and valued.
Google 'how to create a learning culture' and in under a second you'll be inundated with opinions - over 500 million hits at the time of writing.
Businesses across the world speak proudly about their organisation's learning culture - the celebration of curiosity, the amazing opportunities and the investment of time and money in ensuring everyone can realise their full potential. What we don't talk so much about is the impact an organisation's overall culture has on allowing that learning culture to thrive, to make an impact, or to feel like it actually exists to the people who it claims benefit from it.
Of course it's important that we're proud to be curious, to embrace change, and to role-model behaviours that champion learning and give people the opportunities and space to learn. But that isn't all it takes. For a learning culture that actually delivers, we need firstly to take a step back and look at the impact of organisational culture overall, and then a step or two down Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to address the factors that allow its pinnacle to be reached.
At the top of Maslow's pyramid is self-actualisation - achieving full potential - the ultimate aim for an organisation with a learning culture. But what the hierarchy of needs illustrates perfectly is the other factors that need to be in place for that self-actualisation to be achieved. If we can take it that the majority of organisations have the 'basic needs' in place then we can see that it's the psychological levels that need to be conquered before their learners have a chance of reaching the top.
In order to meet a learning outcome, people need to feel that it's something they can do and that they want to do. Some of this feeling is led by internal factors (self confidence, whether they feel that they already have good knowledge of a subject, their experiences of learning), but a large part comes from external factors - the environment they're in and the support from those around them. Let's go back to those two psychological levels and see how they're impacted by those external factors.
To meet the need of belonging, people need to feel that they are part of something and have clarity on what their role within that is. Many employee feedback surveys ask people to gauge how clear they are about how they contribute to the organisation's success. The responses to this might not seem like something you'd relate to learning, but they are. In an organisation where people can see how they fit in not just as part of their immediate team but in terms of their contribution to overall business goals, they will be far more motivated to undertake and proactively seek out opportunities to learn things that will enhance that contribution.
That's not to underestimate the feeling of belonging as it relates to the people a colleague is directly surrounded by. If someone knows that they are in an environment where others around them have their best interests at heart, they will feel supported and reaching more stretching learning goals will feel far more achievable.
There are two key elements to consider in meeting the need of esteem. Firstly, it's imperative that people believe their contribution is valued - by the people around them and by the organisation as a whole. This links back to someone having clarity on how they belong and is similarly motivating - when you know that what you do is valued, the motivation to learn things that will improve or add to your skills and knowledge increases.
The second element is ensuring a culture in which individuals know that others have confidence in their potential to learn and achieve. This results in what is known as the Pygmalion Effect - where someone's performance is impacted by others' expectations of them. When we know someone else believes in us, our self-confidence increases and so do our chances of success.
Ensuring these psychological needs are met is not the only way in which organisational culture can impact on learning outcomes, there are other aspects which are essential to creating an environment in which a learning culture can flourish.
In a culture which celebrates achievement, learning will thrive. Countless pieces of research have shown how incredibly important recognition is to employee engagement - 2016 analysis by Gallup showed that employees who don't feel they've been adequately recognised are twice as likely to want to leave an organisation within the next year. We know this, but again, how does it relate to learning?
Essentially, we are motivated by acknowledgement and praise. Often learning will be of direct interest and obvious benefit to the learner, but not always. So in the cases where learning is of more obvious benefit to the needs of the organisation than to the individual, recognition can hold the key to success. If we celebrate the effort and dedication that someone puts in to learning, what they've achieved by doing it and the way in which that makes a difference then people feel that they have benefited and are motivated to do more.
Learning leads to many types of growth, absolutely. Improvement through growth is exactly what a learning culture aims to achieve. But what needs to be in place for this to happen is clarity on how tangible individual growth can be achieved. There will always be people who are intensely curious and delighted to learn regardless of whether they can see any discernible personal benefit to doing so, but there will also be a lot of people for whom this isn't enough to motivate.
Organisations need to ensure that people can answer the question "What's in it for me?". And that's not just about the individual chunks of learning that might teach someone a new process or increase knowledge (though it's always a starting point when we design learning of this type), but about embracing learning in general. If people can't see a clear path of progression and development, it puts a huge dent in their desire to learn.
Being an organisation with a learning culture is a proven path to success. And in order for that learning culture to be achieved, the organisational culture needs to be one where people know how they contribute, feel supported, celebrated and valued, know that others have confidence in their potential and have a clear view of a tangible growth pathway. Without these factors in place, the idea of a learning culture risks being something that exists only in corporate strategy presentations and not in the day to day life of an organisation.