4 Ways to Embrace a Culture of Learning [HOW-TO]

Change is hard—and establishing a learning culture is a significant change for many organizations. In this post, we’ll explore some important steps towards making that cultural shift when you’re met with the dreaded “that’s not how we do things here” response. Specifically, we’ll cover how to encourage change, take it slow, and bring people along for the journey.

“We’ve always done it this way.” (An Anecdote)

Before we dive in, this anecdote reminds us why knowing what we’re doing and why making adjustments along the way is so important.

A factory in England had a process of filling out daily reports on overall productivity of the shop floor. The form had been in use for decades and was photocopied from copies of copies so many times that the field names were no longer legible. Yet because the form was filled out every day, everybody knew what most boxes were for—except the first box at the top of the form, which always had a zero in it.

Each day, the manager completing the form would write down that zero even though nobody knew what it represented. That is, until somebody digging through old paperwork found the original form with the descriptions. And at the top, next to the box where they always wrote a zero, the description read “number of air raids today.”

During World War II, “number of air raids today” might have been useful to explain days with low productivity. But decades later, adding a zero to the box had become a completely pointless task. Yet people continued to perform that task simply because that was what had always been done.

The path to embracing a change in learning culture is uncomfortable.

So, on the path to good learning culture, let’s take some cues from the epic journey of defeating Sauron (the bad guy) in “Lord of The Rings.” Specifically, let’s look at how the three Hobbits are tasked with stepping outside the safety of their home (the Shire), traverse unknown lands, fight and win over adversaries, and overcome Sauron using his own powerful ring—all on the quest to make life better for everyone.

It’s easy to stick with “that’s how we’ve always done it.” But to make real, lasting change, someone needs to initiate the first step. And turns out that someone is you, Mr Frodo.

1) Change Won’t Happen by Itself

One does not simply change the culture of an organization overnight. And there’s a significant challenge to bring about change when people are used to being told what to learn, rather than given a chance to pursue self-directed learning. In other words, you can’t launch a learning experience platform, share content, and then expect people to take initiative when they’re in the habit of being told what and how to learn.

So, what’s the solution?

When modernizing how learning happens in your organization, planning how you will achieve cultural change is just as important as planning the implementation of underpinning technology. Don’t assume cultural change will just happen; plan the steps you need to take to make that change.

The great news is that organizational development has several tried-and-true models in their playbook that help plan and implement change and cultural shifts. Try these popular change models to plan your change journey, whether it’s to initiate small- or large-scale transformations:

  • The Three-Step Model of Change consists of creating the perception that change is needed by reducing the forces maintaining the status quo (unfreezing), moving in the direction of the desired shift (changing), and then stabilizing and reinforcing that shifted position (freezing).
  • The Action Research Model consists of locating a problem and getting involvement from stakeholders during the entire diagnostic and problem-solving process (i.e. scare them, make your solution their idea, and then work together to accomplish it).
  • The Appreciative Inquiry Model takes a positive approach by drawing on inspirational topics from stakeholders and getting involvement through affirmation.
  • The General Model of Planned Change is basically a combination of the Three-Step, Action Research, and Appreciative Inquiry models that focuses on problem-solving, identifying best practices, and revisiting each step in an agile way.

Like the Action Research Model, the change approach in LOTR is all about solving a critical problem and getting help from others along the way.

2) Take One Step at a Time

Even when you plan for and work at cultural change, don’t expect it all to happen at once.

So, what’s the solution?

In the previous blog post, we explained how it’s necessary to take people on a journey one step at a time. If people are used to mandatory training, don’t expect them to seamlessly transition to self-directed learning.

Instead, give learners more flexibility and freedom little by little, while keeping an element of structure until they are ready to take ownership of planning their own learning themselves.

The idea of defeating Sauron by taking the ring from their starting point all the way to Mordor in Middle Earth sounded like an impossible task for the Hobbits who had never left their home, the Shire.

But, with the guidance of the council, the support of their friends, the occasional intervention from Gandalf, and the safety of a long path on which to fail forward, Frodo and his friends took many small journeys/steps before getting to the end goal. You can do the same, by putting many smaller steps on the road to the large transformation.

3) Get Buy-In from Leadership

Shifting the culture from what people are used to is not something the L&D department will be able to achieve on its own. It’s vital that you get senior leaders on board to set the direction and provide inspiration for the rest of the organization to follow.

And it isn’t just senior leaders—having managers at all levels on board is an important part of changing culture. Developing a good learning culture needs to be a change in the very DNA of the organization and embedded into every process and task.

So, what’s the solution?

You have to build consensus and support. And we recommend reflecting back on the change models covered above.

At the Council of Elrond, representatives of Elves, Men, and Dwarves discussed how to overcome the threat of Sauron and the ring. Each clan had their own solution, but they couldn’t mutually agree on a satisfactory answer.

After running through all the options together, the council crafted a solution that would send someone on the journey to destroy the ring (and overcome their problem). In coming to this solution together (think Action Research model), they were all brought in to accomplish this task.

4) Get Buy-In from the Workforce

It’s equally important to get the workforce on board and excited to learn. At Watershed, we know the importance of encouraging and supporting one another to improve ourselves—which is also why one of our core values is “make others better.”

So, what’s the solution?

Consider how you will get in front of people, either physically or digitally, to explain and sell the vision of a positive culture of learning and development. Even if you encounter resistance, having that conversation is vital to getting the organization on board.

Why is this conversation important? Going back to the Council of Elrond—while the leaders discussed the challenges, the options, and ultimately the solution—the risk-averse homebody Hobbits were guests.

It wasn’t until Frodo understood the situation, how he fit into it, and how his life would be affected that he volunteered to continue the quest to destroy the ring. 

Think of your learners as Frodo and his Hobbit friends. If they don’t have the same passion, investment, and support as the leaders do in committing to the change, nothing will change.

Some practical ways to motivate people in your organization can be:

  • Tapping into internal sources such as people’s desire to perform in their role (i.e achievement, autonomy, responsibility, opportunity)
  • Enhancing or improving external factors outside of people’s role (i.e. compensation, job security, working conditions, benefits)
  • Using good, old-fashioned inspiration through transparency, encouragement, and curiosity (i.e. “what do you need to succeed?”)

How can learning analytics help change employee mindset?

Learning analytics can help people embrace a cultural shift by highlighting success stories of those in the organization who have tried and seen the benefits of self-directed learning.

Analytics also can be used to help prove the impact of a good learning culture. If you can show this kind of approach is already working within your organization, it will help you bring others along on the same journey.


Up Next: We don’t have time to learn.

Time is precious, and in the modern world it seems like there is always too much to do. In that context, even motivated people struggle to make time for reflection and learning. That said, competing priorities and a lack of time are other significant barriers to developing a learning culture—and we’ll explore these challenges in our next post.

Lord of The Rings is used here only to illustrate the examples in this blog post. Watershed is not associated with, sponsored by, or affiliated with New Line Cinema, WingNut Films, and/or The Saul Zaentz Company.

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