The Google Plus logo

How mature is your learning culture? (part 3)

This post first appeared on the LINE website on December 15th 2010

Steve Barden, Lead Consultant at LINE Communications, continues his series of articles on what learning maturity means to organisations.

Organisational culture is a subject about which it is extraordinarily difficult to generalize. Nothing is more individual, more local and more specific to an organisation than its culture.

This diversity is one of the major reasons why maturity in the use of learning technologies varies so widely from organisation to organisation, from sector to sector – and why new ideas that take root fairly easily within one type of company work less easily within another.

We see this clearly when we look at one of the key principles of second-generation learning – the self-directed learner.

You can lead a horse to water …

Many accept the idea of the self-directed learner as a ‘given’ of the 21st century landscape. However for others, the phrase is almost an oxymoron. Learners need to be led, they will say, usually by the nose. Learners are no more likely to be self-directed than horses, left to their own devices, are likely to organise their own Grand National.

For many organisations which have a rigid, top-down, command–and-control culture this is undoubtedly the case. Manufacturing companies organised around a production-line model, for instance, tend to have very traditional approaches to training.

But let’s take a different example, that of a global organisation in the professional services sector with a young, highly-educated workforce; used to dealing in intangibles and to operating in a virtualised environment. These learners are highly motivated, use online tools like search engines with ease and are highly likely to be mainly self-directed in their learning. In this case, the classical model of classroom training will very quickly prove unable to fulfil their needs and expectations, and the organisation is likely to experience an upward pressure for more flexibility in the way learning is provided.

Then again, many large organisations have highly mixed workforces. The employees of a single large organisation may encompass lawyers, IT professionals, salespeople, manual workers, administrators and customer-facing call-centre staff. Each of these groups are likely to have a different attitude – and hence support need – to pursuing their own learning. In addition, organisations frequently need to train people who are within their value chain but outside the organisation. We see this in the automotive sector, for instance, where a car manufacturer will have to give product training to showroom staff, within companies which may have cultures very different to its own.

Contemplating such a mixed picture, it is all too easy to make the objection that no L&D department can be expected to cope with this degree of complexity in tailoring its provision of learning: faced with pressure on budgets, a one-size-fits-all approach is almost inescapable, and a default towards the traditional ‘spoon-feeding’ model of training.

The reason why we feel this argument is fallacious is that it misrepresents the true nature of the relationship between learner and organisation within a mature, second-generation learning culture.

The (alleged) loneliness of the self-directed learner

The first thing to appreciate is that it should never be up to the learner alone to make learning work. Shaping and directing is required, if there is not to be wasted effort. Learners need the structure and support of their organisation to grow the knowledge and skills appropriate to their role. There must be a balance between the organisation’s need to control and its sometimes conflicting need to provide learners with a degree of freedom.

This means having the right kind of learning culture – something that doesn’t emerge spontaneously after the uttering of a suitable quantity of impressive-sounding buzzwords on the part of L&D. It has to be created.

So what is it that organisations need to do to pull together the structure and the technology that we have talked about in the previous articles in this series to create an environment and culture that is supportive of learning?

Key principles for building a second-generation learning culture

Good signposting of knowledge is essential. It’s not enough to say that everything you need to know is on Google: you must give links. As Dr Johnson’s famously said, ‘Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it’. This ‘knowing where’ not ‘knowing what’ is an important principle for next generation learning.

Organisations must create a support infrastructure for their learners, which might take the form of, for instance, a dedicated learning repository. They might have to structure themselves differently to achieve this, since disciplines such as knowledge management are often in discrete organisational ‘silos’ and under this model might have to be integrated with the L&D effort more closely.

The role of the trainer changes from one where the dominant activity is instruction to one where facilitation and coaching becomes more important. But as well as top-down support, learners should also benefit from peer-group support. It is increasingly recognised that learning has a whole social dimension, too easily overlooked. Again, this will not happen spontaneously, it must be intelligently fostered and enabled.

It may also be necessary to address the readiness of the learner to embrace and benefit from such a culture. Becoming a self-directed learner may involve learning how to learn.

But how ready and willing is the workforce we currently have to do this?

The idea may not be such a big shock to learners as some people think. According to Laura Overton of Towards Maturity, based on the CIPD’s figures, 85% of UK organisations now use learning technologies in some way. Toward’s Maturity’s own work in benchmarking shows a standard distribution curve in the maturity of organisations in using these technologies, but only around 35% could be described as mature in their use – which is to say that it is having real impact on their learning culture. The result of this is that at least a proportion of the workforce, somewhat over a third, that an organisation inducts from other organisations – i.e. not directly from Education – may well have come through companies that have embraced self-directed learning.

Education has changed, too; with a huge government investment in getting technology into schools over the last decade and moves towards more collaborative styles of learning and working. In fact the danger exists that workplace learning does not keep pace with these changes in Education. With a high percentage of schools and further/higher educational institutions focused on collaborative and self-directed learning, and those learners then join organisations with a more conservative learning culture, there is potential for a sizeable mismatch between expectations and reality, resulting in delays getting new starters up to speed, underperformance in post and a larger number of recruitment failures.

Employers who wish to give their people more autonomy as learners may find they are pushing at an open door.


Organisations are becoming ever more complex, demanding greater flexibility of their employees. Their people must be supported in dealing with continuous change, and an ever-increasing pace of change.

The challenge today is for business leaders to be enlightened enough to grasp the importance of transforming their training, and to take the right strategic decisions that will foster a learning culture appropriate to the scale of the challenges that its people will face in their daily working lives

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 – or read about the LINE Healthcheck, which is designed to consider all the factors in the transformation of learning.