Learning Culture and Business Success: The Role of Talent Professionals

“In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition, 1973

While Eric Hoffer’s insightful perspective was about people, not organizations, organizations ignore his message at their peril. Countless businesses have missed new opportunities or failed outright because they thought they were invincible, didn’t pay attention to new signals from customers or emerging customer segments, dismissed disruptive technologies, or ignored shifting geo-political forces.

As Talent professionals, you may wonder what impact you can have on these sorts of broad organizational mis-steps. But when you look closely at what’s missing in these failed organizations one common thread is – they don’t know how to learn.

You, on the other hand, do know how learning happens. That fact, coupled with your ability to you touch virtually every person in your organization on a regular basis, puts you in a position to play a powerful role in building a learning culture that can increase the likelihood of business success.

What do we mean by a learning culture? Peter Senge popularized the concept in The Fifth Discipline, and in the two decades since, much has been written about learning organizations. Simply put, a learning organization is one that proactively looks for and takes in new information, explores and synthesizes that information, and responds with appropriate speed in ways that have positive impact on individuals, teams, or the organization as a whole.

That definition may be simply put, but in truth, learning organizations are complex, and many of the elements of learning organizations fall outside the purview of Talent professionals – think customer insight data and strategic planning processes. However, here are three characteristics of strong learning organizations that Talent professionals can influence directly:

• Employees who are curious, lifelong learners
• Systems and process that foster knowledge-sharing across boundaries
• Leaders who encourage and reward risk-taking and learning from failure

Employees who are curious, lifelong learners

Your role begins upstream in the recruitment and selection process, and continues throughout an employee’s career. To check that you are identifying and developing talent whose mindsets and traits are consistent with your learning culture, here are some questions to ask yourself:
• Are our recruiters and interviewers skilled at uncovering evidence of mindsets of curiosity, resilience and lifelong learning?
• Does our new employee on-boarding program set the expectation that employees share accountability for their own learning?
• Do we provide employees with tools to explore their capabilities, and build and take ownership for personal development plans?
• Do we provide employees with a variety of formal and informal learning experiences and content, and reward them for exploring and consuming?

Systems and processes that foster knowledge-sharing across boundaries

Organization silos – both structural and mindsets – are among the most prevalent derailers of organizational learning. Silos are often unintended consequences of logical organization structures, but they can stunt learning by discouraging sharing information and knowledge critical to the business. Although Talent professionals are not typically responsible for the organization’s structure, they can play an important role in helping mitigate organizational barriers. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
• Do our reward systems include shared goals that encourage cross-boundary cooperation?
• Do we integrate business information into our learning offerings to support and model organization-wide information-sharing?
• Do we offer learning experiences – virtual or in-person – that bring together employees across organizational boundaries, and provide on-demand knowledge-sharing and network-building platforms to support ongoing peer connection and learning?
• Do our management and leadership development offerings develop skills in cross-boundary communication, influence and relationship-building?

Leaders who encourage risk-taking and learning from failure

Learning requires an element of risk. Learning organizations embrace that reality and encourage calculated risk-taking in the service of business success. Here are some things to think about:
• Do we develop leaders who both embrace and mitigate risk by actively managing important business dilemmas?
• Do our leaders use methods to learn from both successes and failures, such as After Action Reviews?
• Do we develop coaches who embrace risk by allowing employees to stretch and ensuring they learn from those experiences?
• Do we have high potential leadership programs that include stretch assignments, such as strategic projects and job rotations?

Organizations that know how to learn are most likely to survive and thrive in today’s constantly changing business world. Talent professional roles are uniquely positioned to help organizations learn how to learn and avoid falling prey to “living in a world that no longer exists.” Are you ready to play?

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