Professional learning competence — a combination of continually refreshed skills and knowledge — is an enabler for personal career advancement, but can also help an organization innovate and reinvent itself to remain relevant. To create a culture of continuous learning, organizations must foster an environment that is conducive to learning. There must be time for employees to focus on reflection and analysis, think about strategic plans, assess current systems and invent new products. Learning is difficult when employees are rushed; only if top management explicitly frees up and embraces employees’ time for this purpose can learning occur with frequency.
“The world is changing too quickly and has gone global,” said Tommie E. Joe, former president and chief operating officer of Public Communications Services, a telecommunications and software application enterprise for law enforcement, and a member of Executive Next Practices Institute, a group of Southern California Fortune 1000 C-level and top functional leaders who meet to discuss innovative business and leadership strategies. “Unless you continue to learn to keep the saw sharp, you or your organization will become dull and your competition will soon take over.”
Creating a culture focused on continuous education and skill building can help an organization adapt during unanticipated dilemmas.
“If a culture has been created to be a learning organization, and the leadership team has been learning by getting outside feedback or ideas, during unexpected circumstances, a team member could reach out to some of his or her trusted advisers to seek potential solutions to help during those times,” Joe said. “If this type of learning culture hasn’t been created, it may be more difficult to find best practice solutions to help overcome those unforeseen problems.”
According to Joe, if a team believes it is part of a learning organization, it will feel more inclined to seek change and be open to feedback. Further, as an individual in a team is given an opportunity to learn about different techniques or ways to solve problems, that person will begin to share those ideas with other team members, which will improve organizational performance because all employees will be focused on achieving the same common goals.
“My definition of a team has always been a learning team,” said Daniel R. Tobin, author of Learn Your Way to Success. “If the members of the team aren’t learning from each other or aren’t learning together, they’re not really part of a team, it’s just a bunch of people that happen to work for the same boss.”
Boundaries within teams inhibit the flow of information; they keep individuals and groups isolated and reinforce preconceptions. Opening up restrictions with learning projects ensures a fresh flow of ideas and the chance to consider competing perspectives.
“There’s a need for everyone to be on the same page, have a clear sense of the big picture,” said Scott Hamilton, president and CEO of the Executive Next Practices Institute. “The best way to achieve that is through learning, by having everyone understanding the context for where the organization is going, what their role is and how they can best contribute.”
According to Hamilton, learning is essential to establishing a mindset across an organization where people understand the contingencies, are looking forward and are looking internally and externally for changes and trends in the marketplace.
To promote this type of learning and make sure it has a business impact, Tobin believes managers should be required to sit down with their direct reports before they attend a formal or informal learning program to go through the program outline and objectives. They should decide the most important things that should be taken away from the program. This will help the learner focus on what the manager thinks is important. Learners should focus wholly on the program while completing it and debrief with their managers upon completion. From there, the manager and learner should sit down and negotiate the implementation plan for how these new skills and knowledge will be used in the workplace.
“At any level, an employee’s key learning partner is his or her direct manager,” Tobin said. “In today’s economy, there’s no one set of competencies or knowledge that’s going to guarantee that you can perform your job well from now into the future. Things are changing so fast that people have to take every opportunity they have to learn. Many companies will promise their employees a week of more training a year, but learning has to be continuous; it has to be an everyday activity for employees in order to improve their current job performance and accelerate their careers.”
Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@CLOmedia.com.