Can continuous learning help future-proof the workplace, and how important are the leaders of organisations in creating a culture of learning? Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader, shares some insights.
If you want to futureproof your organisation, you need to ensure that you can adapt to ever-changing conditions. We exist in a digitally accelerating, politically unstable reality that creates novel opportunities but also raises the threat of obsolescence across products, services and entire sectors. In this new reality, we need to be more agile. Agile organisations are better at identifying new opportunities and making the most of them. They’re also better at spotting problems and overcoming them.
The importance of a learning culture
If we want to be more agile, we need to keep learning and developing. It is important that learning becomes ingrained in day-to-day working life and isn’t seen as a separate, distinct activity. When thinking about how best to create a culture of learning, consider where in your own organisation this would best accelerate innovation and improvement. By focusing first on an area where you are likely to see swift results, you can help to create a hub of learning which can influence the rest of the business.
What is learning agility?
Research from Columbia University in 2016 describes learning agility as ‘a mind-set and corresponding collection of practices that allow leaders to continually develop, grow, and utilize new strategies that will equip them for the increasingly complex problems they face in their organisations’. The quicker and more effectively we learn from experiences, the more agile we can be as the circumstances around us change. We need to create time and space to reflect, to make sense of what is happening to us, what we are experiencing, and to gain insight into where are the most significant opportunities and threats.
Being agile is most useful in conditions where the old ways won’t work, where the rules have changed and where survival and success depend on adapting quickly. Learning agility encompasses not only our curiosity and our ability to make sense of our experience, but also to convert that insight into helpful actions that increase our performance.
How to spark a learning culture
To develop a learning culture, encourage colleagues across your organisation to seek more opportunities to learn from experience. Expose people to different ideas and ways of working beyond their current roles. Create space and time for making sense of this learning, so colleagues can relate it to performance. This can be through reflection, with time to make notes or create a presentation to share with others. It can through discussion with colleagues or a partner or a coach, as talking through an experience helps make sense of it in your own mind. Encourage everyone to seek more feedback.
Feedback and learning
Feedback can drive improvement. When we share feedback after a significant meeting, presentation, or project, it helps us to improve next time. If we’re going to learn from feedback, it does of course help if it is delivered in a positive way. As humans we have two responses to feedback. If we perceive it to be negative feedback which feels like a threat, we want to get away from it and do not like to hear it. If we perceive it as positive feedback, we see it as a reward, it releases dopamine in the brain, and we move towards it.
To give and receive feedback well requires us to be receptive, to seek the information to improve, and to be able to distance ourselves from any sense of defensive reaction. We need to be able to process the information in a balanced way, seeking to understand what we can learn from it rather than seeking to justify why we are doing something.
If you have, or can establish, in your organisation a culture whereby feedback is sought, valued, and acted upon as a matter of routine, you will have a powerful tool to drive performance improvement. It is an old adage that ‘feedback is a gift’, but it is true, and will be increasingly important as the flow of feedback in the digital age increases exponentially.
The role of senior leaders
Senior leaders are key to whether the people you lead will embrace agile ways of working and play their part in building an intelligent learning culture. Encourage your senior leaders to look at their mindsets, behaviours, communication styles, and approaches to decision-making. Leaders are the catalysts that can create a culture of learning and a more agile organisation.
Here are a couple of questions that may be helpful for your senior leaders to think about:
- How open to learning are you every moment of every day?
- What shadow do you cast at work, and what does it cause others to do (or not do)?
The danger of risk aversion
A love of learning is something we normally have as children, as an instinct so we can learn to survive and thrive as human beings. This love of learning does not always survive into adult employment fully intact.
At work, too often the same learning from experience that taught us as children teaches some of us that making mistakes leads to disapproval and punishment. We learn to reduce our acceptance of risk, and we learn to conform rather than challenge the assumptions of managers about how to compete successfully. To learn, we need to be willing to explore and try things out, yet the culture of our organisations too often causes us to avoid such exploration, as it is too risky. This risk aversion leads to the paralysis of analysis or approval, which slows down how we work and how the organisation operates.
Do you recognise any of this in your own organisation? If agility is about speeding up the organisation to deliver innovation and improvement, we need to shed this constraint of risk aversion. Clearly you need to remain legal and compliant with relevant regulations in your market, so you do not want to shed all risk management. But you do need to challenge the state of learning in your business and check that it is flourishing rather than held back by the fear of failure.
Would your colleagues and customers say that your culture is personified by the ‘love of learning’? If so, you’re in an exceptionally positive place. If not, think about how you can create an organisational culture where learning is front and centre, and there is a constant desire for improvement.
Dr Simon Hayward is CEO of Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader.
© TrainingZONE 2018.