Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Culture of Learning: Turning Values Into Actions

Creating a culture of learning begins with emphasizing the value of workforce development. Sustaining it entails collaboration among learners, as well as alignment of programs to key organizational goals.

Learning cultures thrive in organizations that consistently reinforce the value of learning. These organizations encourage information- seekers, facilitate educational experiences and consistently demonstrate a commitment to learning by defining the culture in actions, not words.

Learning is not a one-time event. Effective and meaningful corporate cultures understand learning is an essential part of the fabric of the company, woven into all roles, functions, divisions and regions of the organization. Placing value on learning and creating an open environment creates an enduring organization and provides the ultimate source of sustainability.

Too often, education on corporate values and principles is addressed in silos. Corporate attitudes and behaviors are heavily influenced by an organization's culture, and the culture is shaped by the organization mission, core values and traditions. In a healthy learning culture, education is visible in all aspects of the business - so learning penetrates the entire organization to foster a culture of interactivity and engagement. In the case of a company's ethics and compliance education, a company's values come to life in actions that provide competitive advantage to the organization.

This holistic approach to learning - including the company's values, ethical decision making and business risks - is necessary in creating a learning culture. Yet, too often, education is applied to meet compliance standards or the minimums of the law and not necessarily designed to foster a values-based culture.

Evolving Into a Values-Based Learning Culture

Global businesses are faced with a number of new and more complex challenges than ever before regarding how people connect, collaborate and work cohesively and productively. Trend data from LRN's "2008 Ethics and Compliance Risk Management Practices Report," which surveyed more than 420 global companies, shows that one-quarter of organizations have a desire to engage employees in learning, but are challenged to put their corporate values and integrity into action.

When an organization seeks to transform its corporate culture through values-based learning, it is best to initiate the tone from the top and ask executives to define the overall culture to determine whether they consider it to be a learning culture. This assessment should touch a representative sample of organizational stakeholders, in addition to the leadership team - which may include customers, shareholders, suppliers, as well as employees.

Next, a thorough assessment of current programs assists in evaluating the attitudes and perceptions of the organization's learning culture. This assessment should reach employees across roles, functions and geographies to gather a balanced perspective of their educational experiences. The results should be compared to highlight any key commonalities that are important to maintain. However, it also is important to identify any discrepancies in perceptions of the overall culture, as well as the educational programs, to create an action plan that moves the company toward a truly aligned learning culture.

Shifting attitudes and transforming behavior do not happen overnight, but leveraging multiple learning channels within an organization is an excellent avenue to engage the workforce through awareness building and activities that can slowly shift the tide. The focus of any initiative cannot begin and end with awareness, but should repeat consistent bits of information, facilitate forums for informal learning and create a sandbox for learners to test and socialize information, shift attitudes and, ultimately, increase knowledge retention. This type of collaborative learning takes education from the individual development approach and creates a connected environment that builds the foundation of a learning culture.

The work of Judith Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption, challenges the whole way we look at teaching. Her work showed that, historically, the perspective on teaching overestimates the influence of parents and teachers, and underestimates the role of peer pressure. There are some real and practical steps to enhance learning by working with peers in team environments.

As companies work to create a more engaging educational program, they should not lose sight of how best to educate their workforces on mission-critical information in meaningful and sustainable ways. Organizations need to avoid implementing learning initiatives as a one-way communication, risking information overload. Pushing out content onto a corporate intranet, in the hopes that learners read and absorb the information, satisfies a "check the box" approach to education but does not represent a culture of learning.

For example, if an organization is launching a new environmental, health and safety policy, posting a set of compliance rules communicates to the enterprise that leadership is taking a passive approach to education, whereas some organizations take an additional step, requiring their workforces to electronically certify that they have read, understand and agree to abide by the policy. This sends a message that leadership deems these policies critical to the business.

Yet, posting a policy and successfully obtaining certification is only the first step to raise awareness. Where most organizations assume their work is done, a true learning culture believes the education has just begun. The next step is to ensure the workforce understands how to apply the policy in real-life situations it faces in daily work life. We know that recall is enhanced by learning in the context in which one is expected to perform. Yet, most teaching is done in alien environments such as classrooms, training centers or in bland online formats. So create an ideal blended approach that incorporates awareness building, knowledge building and skill building through peer interactions.

Enabling the workforce to translate rules into actions empower the business, mitigates risk and builds a cohesive corporate culture that ideally becomes a self-governing one. Once the awareness around a topic is achieved, it is important to foster a rich learning culture in order to educate, not just inform. This can be achieved by designing a suite of learning experiences that trigger the learner's personal relevance in the equation of the compliance topic.

Learning experiences can take on many shapes and forms, such as interactive modules that enhance the learning experience - to help the learner connect the dots from policy awareness to application. As noted by the Peer Research Laboratory at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, adults retain 10 percent of what is read, 20 percent of what is heard and 80 percent of what is experienced, so it is important to consider experiential learning, which can be facilitated through a variety of learning tools such as live workshops, virtual worlds or interactive gaming. These are all extremely effective ways to turn awareness into knowledge. In a global environment, these learning experiences should be localized to align with regional guidelines.

After awareness building, a guided application of the policies can empower learners to see their ownership in the experience and facilitate greater understanding and relevance. This results in a more compelling and meaningful learning experience and sends a message about the value the organization places on knowledge building. From William James and John Dewey through to David Kolb and Roger Schank, there has been a torrent of theory showing that we learn more by doing; yet, much teaching and training is locked into theoretical knowledge and not a skills-based model. There is hardly a training subject that would not benefit from a boost in experiential learning.

Learner Expertise and Knowledge Sharing

Global audiences today thrive in forums of personalized learning and creative expression. They are self-authoring content and emerging as amateur filmmakers and photographers. Innovations to connect and build knowledge have arrived through collaborative tools such as blogs, wikis, photo streams and machinima clips (animated movies created with gaming technology).

High-impact learning cultures recognize the value in user-generated content and embrace this next generation of tools. Perhaps the easiest and simplest piece of learning theory to put into practice is chunking, which means being sensitive to the limitation of working memory.

Less is more in learning, and it is important to distill information for the adult learner, rather than enhancing, elaborating and creating distracting noise. Additionally, a lack of understanding about how memory works leads to a lack of preparation of material in terms of size of content, order and engagement, which leads to weak encoding, a lack of deep processing and, ultimately, poor retention and recall. In creating a learning culture, it is essential to engage and educate the workforce often with small interactions and incorporate peer and direct manager discussions into the program.

As the workforce continues to grow through globalization, we must remember the value of relationships and the connection between people as an essential element to consider throughout the enterprise. The fabric of any organization's culture is built upon relationships that evolve over time through communication and connections. In a global culture, the core is strengthened by fostering a learning environment that supports relationship building through activities, such as peer collaboration, or particular platforms that allow colleagues to have a dialogue around successes and failures.

Tomorrow's Leaders

Preserving a learning culture requires keeping the learner population at the forefront of the company's strategy. When there are marketplace changes or competitive challenges, it is critical that an organization's learning environment is flexible and prepared to augment its program to support the business.

Today, organizations are challenged to maximize operational performance while increasing retention and driving workforce productivity. Sustained learning cultures build strategies and processes that give them visibility into how talent allocation best aligns with organizational goals and needs. This includes alignment on the cultures, values and mission of organizations. Mature learning organizations recognize this and focus on talent-driven initiatives through performance management processes that integrate values into career development and succession planning.

Taking a strategic approach to succession planning is a powerful catalyst for organizational transformation, growth and development, and ultimately drives cultural sustainability. Developing the skills and talents of the next generation of leaders and transferring institutional knowledge into practical business applications will contribute to ongoing business success and a sustainable advantage.

Ref: Marsha Ershaghi

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