By Stuart R. Levine
Published In, The CU Times

In his 1990 book “The Fifth Discipline”, Peter Senge coined the term learning organization: “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”.

Today, building a learning culture seems a greater organizational requirement than ever, yet most are not prepared for their learning and development needs. PwC’s 2015 Global CEO Survey of 1,409 CEOs in 83 countries, found that 75% felt that a skilled, educated and adaptable workforce should be a priority; but, 72% were concerned about the availability of the key skills their companies needed. Furthermore, Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends, incorporating data from 3,300 business and HR leaders in 106 countries, reported that 85% thought learning was “important” or “very important”, yet only 40% were “ready” or “very ready” to build a learning culture.

How then does an organization build learning into its culture? It starts with CEO commitment. And CEOs, in turn empower CHROs and Chief Learning Officers, who become key leaders for fostering learning at all organizational levels. As Senge observed: “Organizations learn only through individuals who learn. Individual learning does not guarantee organizational learning. But without it no organizational learning occurs.”

CHROs and CLOs implement procedures, platforms and products to create an organizational learning ecosystem. The most common form of learning is “on-the-job” and generally means solving problems associated with work. Good leaders promote on-the-job learning opportunities and make time in employees’ schedules for them. They provide readily available tools. Research shows that “formalized informal” learning programs like on-demand training, coaching and performance support tools, including digital courses and mobile apps, outperform more “formal” learning like lectures. In this ecosystem, content, programs and experts are easily accessible to guide employees to quickly learn. Training often succeeds best in small, easy-to-use and easy to find chunks of content.

Learning is a strategic lever that can change how employees think and act. One of our clients illustrates how well this can work. Our client found that time spent in meetings was significantly reducing productivity. Meetings accounted for 40% of time at work, but 28% were deemed not really necessary, start and stop times were not well managed (55%), and the goal often not achieved (47%).

The identified problem of meeting inefficiency led to a targeted learning approach. All employees, including the CEO and division heads, learned best practices for meetings through an intranet based digital course, comprised of three 30-minute sessions. The results were dramatic, with a very significant improvement in the organization’s meeting culture. More impressively, the results continued to improve and were greater a year later. Compared to pre-course levels, 45% increased their usage of agendas, 41% increased their attendance of meeting that were absolutely necessary, 38% more started and ending on time and 29% increased their achievement of meeting objectives. The culture shifted because senior management engaged with employees; they identified a problem, and addressed it through learning.

The meeting management program utilized an external expert solution. Internal sources are also critical. For example, a directory of internal “experts” enables the organization to deploy employee skills and experience in person-to-person learning. Systems can efficiently match the organization’s experts with those needing expertise. Additional learning tools are made readily available, such as digital courses, apps and internal social networks. Operating procedures are designed to encourage and reward the interactions.

Measurement assures that learning resources are targeted and effective. In our meeting management example, survey data identified an efficiency waiting to happen. The learning program unleashed this opportunity. Its efficacy was measured shortly afterwards and then in a year, proving the program’s value.

The U.S. military, the largest learning organization on Earth, teaches us that the best organizational and individual learning often occurs following mistakes. After every maneuver, there is an “after-action review”. This formal process made the team understand what worked, what didn’t and what needed to change in order to improve.

Company-specific learning is one of the strongest contributors to employee engagement and retention, as described in a “Journal of Applied Psychology” 2013 study and related data from Deloitte University. Those companies that committed more training hours and funds per employee become more efficient and effective, delivering significantly higher customer service, innovation and alignment with business strategy. As Senge understood, when your company is a learning organization you expand your capacity to create the results you desire.