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Igniting a Culture of Learning in Your Entire Organization!

by Sue Plaster, M.Ed.

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When my beloved dentist retired a few years ago, I knew I’d miss his care of my teeth. I also knew I’d miss his passion for learning about dentistry. Well into his 70s, he and his team continued to attend special training sessions and to incorporate new practices, new technology and new equipment into their work. He was a master teacher. He could make a crown or a root canal so interesting, I couldn’t wait to hear more! He loved his profession and he loved learning. His staff of all generations mirrored that love of dentistry and learning.

Granted, many of us work in much larger organizations than a dental practice. Some of us work in highly matrixed settings. It is not always clear who is the master to be served, as we try our best to keep the ultimate customer in sight as well as our internal partners and supervisors. Our organizations are complex, and we are often working across functional, organizational and global cultures to accomplish our aims.

At its heart though, igniting a learning culture throughout our organizations does at times come down to a four letter word epitomized by my former dentist:  L o v e. Love of learning. Love of challenge. Love for the work itself. Love of the customer. And love of our partnerships. This love is what ignites passion for learning in ourselves and in others.

Many of the pioneers in corporate learning date back to the 1990s and earlier, and there still is much to distill from their writing. Let’s see what we can learn from Peter Senge, who told us in 1990 in The Fifth Discipline that learning organizations are:

“…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

Notice the language about expanding capacity. When individuals and teams grow, it creates huge organizational impact, because they accomplish much more than could have been anticipated when the original project goals were set. Expanded capacity is what allows learning and development leaders to build the case to ignite our organizations around learning. David Ulrich of the University of Michigan and his co-authors in their 1993 article about “Building and Diffusing Learning Capability” point to the importance of managers not only generating ideas but also generalizing ideas with impact. Literally spreading the wealth. And impact is one of the biggest word on the learning scene today. It is the impact of learning that most organizations are seeking.

Here are six suggestions for igniting a culture of learning in your organization, with tremendous positive impact.

    1. Find an executive champion. The right champion can make a huge difference in encouraging the generation and generalization of ideas. Looking for the right champion?  Watch for a passion for learning that allows him or her to embody the learning organization you are seeking. Create for yourself and for your learning champion a communications and action plan that details how you will spend your time and what teams, leaders and departments you will connect with as you shift the focus toward learning. Share your learning goals with other employees every chance you get, and teacher champion to do so as well. Share the joys and frustrations of learning as well! Failure and missteps have to be acceptable for learning to be embedded in the culture – provided we learn from them.


    1. Work with the leadership team to set a meaningful goal for the organization’s learning. You need a goal that engages every employee, not just the leaders. For some organizations a meaningful learning goal is 40 hours per employee each year, and employees report on their learning at their annual appraisal. For others the measure is not in hours, but in content to be mastered by every employee. There may be an organizational dilemma just waiting to be defined in terms of learning. Do we all need to learn more about the Voice of the Customer, or about our organization’s financials, or about dramatic changes in our markets, so that an organization-wide learning goal is called for?


    1. Pay careful attention to how training is delivered, but don’t jump to “the new” without checking your audience first. Recently I delivered a workshop on generational differences for an organization with 300 employees. They were in one room for their annual all-staff conference that day. The technology we used was the oldest in the book: face-to-face. I heard later that they loved it! Why? I like to think that I did a good job. But reason number one probably was that they were interested in the topic, and second, that they were so frantic serving clients that they rarely got to see or spend time with each other. That day, through an interactive workshop, they saw and heard from colleagues they hadn’t even had a chance to meet yet. In this case they highly valued face-to-face learning. In other organizations, a different day, a group of managers might be so busy they would have wanted the content delivered in e-learning or through a video. Listen and observe what channels work best.


    1. Help individuals make connections. This is the essence of adult learning. Remember how strong the desire of adults is to learn when it connects with our prior experiences. So much dialogue today is about self-directed or employee-directed learning, and in reality the employee is at the heart of much of the learning we design. By and large, our training and development work in corporate environments is intended to benefit the individual in the room by connecting him or her to what they already knew. Sometimes we are providing frameworks of understanding that allow prior knowledge to be better understood. Other times we are building an existing base of knowledge to make it deeper, broader, or richer.


    1. Always tie to organizational impact. We spoke earlier about impact. And for good reason. Purpose is powerful. Be ready to measure for results using the Kirkpatrick scale, and report impact authentically, as it is reported to you. A client of mine recently let me know that in evaluations for their training program for front line supervisors, both the training participants themselves and their bosses say they notice positive changes in their supervisory style after taking the class. This is a wonderful example of impact. When you can show impact, be sure you make it known to others. Sharing these early “wins” will help others to see and applaud the organizational impact for your learning initiatives.


  1. Remember to connect to your own passion, and keep yourself energized. Be prepared to tell stories that demonstrate the power of learning for the organization and its people. Stories are sticky – they attach to our memories and to emotions. It’s also vitally important that you constantly re-energize your champion and yourself. Find opportunities along the way to “feed” your champion with new information, new contacts, and new opportunities to learn. Seek out opportunities for yourself so that you can continually be refreshed with new perspectives.

And Share the Wealth

As your organization becomes ignited around learning, remember the value of communicating about what you are engaged in. You may choose internal media, or professional journals, or other external media – even YouTube — to spotlight your story. Keep in mind that what you are developing is a valuable case study about how organizations build capacity through learning.

About the Author

Sue Plaster holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Minnesota, with a focus in leadership development. She advises individuals in job search, career transition and onboarding, and consults with organizations on diversity, succession planning and leadership development. Sue’s corporate career includes communications and human resources roles with the Fairview Health System, Honeywell Inc. and Boston Scientific. You can connect with Sue through Writing Assistance, Inc. at www.writingassist.com or sales@writingassist.com

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