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How mature is your learning culture?

This blog first appeared on the LINE website on May 5th 2010

Steve Barden, Lead Consultant, kicks off a series of posts on what learning maturity means to organisations. By considering the factors that are fundamental to the way an organisation can define its position on the road to more effective learning; it is possible to highlight where there are drivers for change.

The last ten years have seen tumultuous change in the business of what we used to call training and now, as a result of these developments, more often refer to as learning. This change in nomenclature is itself indicative of the fact that we have seen not only a transformation of the means by which we can deliver learning to learners – with technology dramatically widening the range of options available – but also a fairly seismic shift in the conceptual landscape.

As the decade turns, therefore, it is worth reflecting on where organisations are in their adoption of new learning approaches and new technologies, in order to help with defining some explicit benchmarks for maturity. It’s a big issue. To do it justice, I’d like to tackle it under three headings; learning structure, learning technology and finally the skills, knowledge and attitudes of the workforce that together define what is learning culture.

Learning Structure: From training to learning

The paradigm that has existed for many years, and still continues in many organisations today, is one where a department – often a subset of the impersonally named ‘HR’ function – is charged with delivering training to ensure the right skills are possessed by the ‘human resources’. Depending on the organisation, the focus on skillsets can be wide and varied or can be very narrow. No matter, the key is not so much ‘the what’ but more ‘the how’.

  • How does the training department determine the nature of what it has to train? Does it have the right level of connection to the business it serves?
  • How does it ensure the gap in current and desired performance translates into something that actually improves the performance of the people it targets? Does it apply performance consulting techniques to ensure whether and what type of intervention is needed?
  • How does it demonstrate the value it adds to the business by making its people perform to the required standard more quickly? Does it use a broader spectrum of training programmes than course–based techniques that maximise the speed to competence?

Primarily, confirming that the performance standard is met, rather than the knowledge just being possessed by the learner at the end of the training course, is paramount to ensuring credibility and the business value is measurable. Time to competence is a good benchmark to establish in order to measure change over time.

Where many learning organisations have succeeded is in adopting an approach that encourages and encompasses informal learning methods and supports the sharing of knowledge whilst working. Not only does this mixture – which is often termed the holistic or 70/20/10 model – extend the learning process beyond the classroom but it also addresses the need to learn at the point of application. This is a holistic learning model to suit learning organisations of the 21st Century.


The key consideration when looking at learning maturity is how a company (or public sector body) is organising and supporting its people in the move from being trainer-led to also being self-led in their learning.

In a traditional training set-up, the training manager’s job would be, put simply, to gather and mobilise learning content centrally so that it could then be distributed and transmitted to the learners. Within more mature organisations these days, it is less and less the case that all the learning content is transmitted by L&D.

Typically, a learner might be given some objectives for what they need to know, based on an initial assessment; some learning in basic concepts, and some signposting as to where they can find the knowledge they require to complete their final assessment. From there they have to bring some level of research and application skills to bear. Further work might involve talking to someone within the organisation or drawing on the organisation’s knowledge resources, not all of which are provided by L&D. It may also involve reaching out to the external environment, usually through resources on the web. The important point is that learning content is no longer completely controlled and mediated by the L&D department.

Along with this fundamental shift go changes in the way that learning is organised and initiated. The first step towards greater maturity here lies in moving from a hierarchical and centralised learning provision to a more federated structure.

A particular piece of learning might be created locally, then distributed around the organisation to be facilitated and localised in each department or territory according to different local needs.

It should be said that there has always been diversity in how people organise training from organisation to organisation: in some it will be more centralised, while others have a more federated structure. Individual business units often have complete responsibility for their own training, as do horizontal functions like IT or marketing. The difference is that organisations which are mature in their learning provision approach it strategically. The way learning is structured is driven by the knowledge needs of the organisation, rather than by tactical and contingent considerations as was often the case formerly.

Next month, I’ll look at some of the technological advances being adopted by mature learning organisations and how they are being applied in novel and innovative ways. In the meantime, consider these tips for ensuring the structure and governance of your learning department is reflecting the needs of a modern learning organisation.

Ten Tips for re-engineering L&D

  1. Accept there is a need to change: L&D is not responsible for all learning. Embrace and facilitate work-based learning, coaching and peer sharing.
  2. Ensure you fully understand who your stakeholders are and who your customers are. You need both groups’ full commitment to participating in the move towards a learner-centred focus.
  3. Adopt a learner-centred and performance consulting approach with your customers to identify the core performance needs and ensure the optimal solution is identified.
  4. Recognise that learner engagement and motivation to learn are crucial to success – use creativity and innovation in both communication campaigns and the learning content to attract and inspire but don’t over engineer either the design or the technical complexity – KISS is still the word.
  5. Talk and focus on business performance, business impact and demonstrate success through relevant measures and evaluation. Attendance at a course is never a relevant metric.
  6. Don’t persist in collecting statistics that are meaningless to the business. Getting feedback from a learner when they have just consumed a piece of learning is pointless. Develop an approach to collecting feedback on performance.
  7. Encourage ‘federated’ generation and sharing of learning. Whether created by individuals, teams or remote parts of the organisation, its authenticity can be a key success factor.
  8. Recognise and adopt a culture where ‘course’ is an outdated concept and replaced by building more granular learning to meet a specific competence or knowledge/skill/behavioural objective.
  9. Recognise that no matter how unique your organisation, there is always someone who has already invented the wheel you need. Learn from the knowledge of others.
  10. If you have addressed the first nine you should have covered the ‘whole life’ of learning from awareness and communication, to access, delivery, then on to application, sharing, support, refreshment, etc.


If you are interested in finding out how LINE’s expert consultants can help in assessing and improving the maturity of your learning culture, contact us today.