‘Cultures of learning are critical to business agility and provide the foundation from which rapid change can occur’

As technological change accelerates and the world becomes increasingly connected, organisations find that optimising for efficiency is no longer adequate in today’s knowledge work economy. Instead, the current landscape challenges leaders to optimise for rapid innovation by cultivating cultures of learning.

The idea of cultures of learning as paramount for success is not new, but it has become increasingly relevant given widespread volatility and uncertainty. Peter Senge’s 1990s work on learning organisations asserted: “The only sustainable competitive advantage is your organisation’s ability to learn faster than the competition.”

In today’s environment, the structures that enable cultures of learning within organisations are as much baseline indicators of organisational health as they are market differentiators. Leaders must be instrumental in designing organisations with cultures, structures, processes and policies that both support and reward continuous learning. Just as oil and gas fuelled the Industrial Revolution, learning fuels the creation of business value in innovative organisations.

The problem is that the dominant conversation about achieving business agility by implementing lean/agile processes at scale distracts many leaders from the fact that cultures of learning, not processes, are the primary underpinning of business agility.

Too often, I have seen organisations implement agile frameworks and methodologies without addressing underlying cultural shifts necessary to ensure these processes contribute to rapid and continuous delivery of value. This creates friction among departments, strains existing organisational structures, frustrates employees and quickly degenerates into an empty set of rituals. Fundamentally, the power of agility is unleashed through people, not processes.

Organisations engender a culture of learning when they adopt an agile mindset. An agile mindset welcomes uncertainty, embraces challenges, empowers individuals, encourages experimentation and lowers the cost of failure to enable discovery. When accompanied by this shift in mindset, agile principles and practices prove incredibly compatible with cultures of learning and can help optimise collaboration, discovery and value delivery.

In fact, principles like “build-measure-learn” from the Lean Startup movement apply equally well to the development and evolution of organisational structures and processes as they do to product development. Frequent, targeted experiments and short feedback loops create a cycle of discovery that allows for rapid improvements. When anchored in a shared vision and understanding of desired outcomes, taking this approach to organisational transformation empirically reveals whether you are on the right track, and enables earlier course correction.

To further instil a culture of learning, leaders need to recognise learning as a core value, adopt a holistic view of learning and support structures that remove organisational boundaries to knowledge-sharing. In today’s organisations, leaders are not a source of direction and information; they are instead role models for a commitment to personal development towards mastery.

Recognising and articulating the value of learning across organisations sets the tone for individual empowerment and ownership, which in turn helps people proactively build the capabilities necessary to achieve a shared vision.

Formal training programmes are effective insofar as they are tailored, relevant, interactive and practice based. Because learning is best ingrained when it is applied, formal programmes need to set the stage for continuous learning in daily work. Strong individual and team development plans will not only incorporate knowledge acquisition, but also recognise a journey to convert this knowledge into relevant capabilities. Most importantly, leaders must support ubiquitous structures that enable diffuse knowledge-sharing, and build in time for reflection and organisational sense-making.

Cultures of learning are critical to business agility and provide the foundation from which rapid change can occur in today’s competitive and uncertain world. The role of leaders in creating and solidifying these cultures is vital not only to organisational success, but to survival.

By Shannon Ewan, managing director of ICAgile