(learning) Culture and technology – muddle or plan?

I am seeking help to lift me from a muddle. Anyone reading this (data suggests that you may be into double figures), I suspect, has wisdom to spare.

The theme of “learning culture” has risen in my working world recently. (It has been there all along, of course, but not so often called out with such deliberation). This lead me to call for help on LinkedIn a week or so ago. I was looking for some clarity on what learning culture is and how to best work towards its enhancement and creation. There are some very helpful contributions in that post. Clarity remains elusive, however.

My best shot at a definition derives from the exchange between Nick Shackelton-Jones and Matt Ash. “A learning culture is a culture in which learning readily occurs”. Nick used the word flourishes. I like that. Yet, with the benefit of a little hindsight, that might denote a strong learning culture. Furthermore, the philosopher in me worries at the circularity of this definition. This is my first fall into muddle.

I was also struck that, as usual, those outside of the worlds of HR and L&D don’t really care much about learning culture. Or, to be fair, they care for a productive and healthy culture in an organisation. One feature of such a culture is that people in it learn and instruct (maybe teach?). Other features probably include ready communication, shared values, clear objectives and sense of purpose, shared language, trust, respect and the ability to act on decisions. These features carry as much weight as learning culture. All are interwoven anyway as they enable and support each others presence. So it is a muddle…but in a good way.

Then to my second moment of muddle: is learning culture enough for a successful culture? I don’t, at this moment of typing, think so. But in the L&D/HR zone, it tends to be the set objective and therefore risks being insufficient from the outset. Probably.

So, perhaps learning is a necessary but insufficient element of a broader healthy organisation culture. That view is less muddled in my mind. Does that, in turn, mean that pursuing a learning culture is not worthwhile in itself because it falls short of the greater goal? That seems like an odd conclusion. A learning culture seems valuable whether it is referred to as that or not and whether the wider world sets it as an objective or not. It may not be the loftiest of goals but it remains a valuable one. Slightly less muddle.

And so to the “how does one encourage a learning culture?” question. The comments on LinkedIn offered “embedding”, “learning DNA”, “championship”, “allowing time to learn”, “inspiring managers” and “leadership” as important ingredients in the recipe. There was universal agreement that delivery of learning does not contribute much to learning culture, not alone, at least. The human factors are those with most purchase on culture – they are the behaviours that demonstrate what is valued and offer an example to others. When exhibited by those with authority, they have greater influence and impact. Leadership is a crucial ingredient.

In the digital realm, attention tends to focus on technology products and services that enable learning culture. The relative ease with which learning can be made available is a cause for optimism. It has also, I fear, lead to a great deal of digital learning production in the hope that it will inspire learning culture. Experience says otherwise. A common refrain in my line of work is that “we have too much digital stuff”, suggesting that the culture in which the stuff resides is not lapping it up in the hoped for manner. Production and publishing is not a cultural trigger.

Similarly, a golden thread of digital development is that of connection. Digital experiences connect us as users with content and with people. The promise of enterprise social networks is that, at the click of an icon, everyone can connect with everyone and share knowledge across boundaries. Another refrain in my line of work is that “we have implemented Zamster/Buzzplace/Chatspot/Facezone but only a couple of teams are really using it”. Culture beats technology every time.

A case in point: a large UK based public service broadcaster implemented an ‘official’ instance of Yammer to build on the unofficial usage and signs of momentum with the product. This was to be the digital water cooler at which staff would share opinions and ideas on the transformation programme to be unveiled. The starter gun was fired with a post from the most senior of leaders inviting conversation to begin. That post was both distant and tone deaf. It was also the first and only post by that user. There was a brief flurry of activity, the wind dropped and the water was stilled. Hope for an open, technology enabled cultural renewal was beaten out by the cultural reality of a workforce who were conversing elsewhere, if at all.

For technology to usefully enable cultural change, all those elements of positive culture need to be nurtured and supported as well. Which leads me to another (third/fourth?) muddle: the circularity of learning culture and technology. Cultural change will be powerfully enabled by technology but needs the human features for the technology to be relevant and useful. Without the technology, those human features will be more difficult to detect and amplify, making progress much more laborious. If the culture does not have a digital imprint, it is now significantly more difficult to identify and detect. That is one of the effects of a world in which Facebook has 2.2 billion active users.

I think I will pause here in the recognition that this topic is probably impossible to unmuddle. As with much of human affairs, it is complex and defies simple explanation. That also, to me, signals that it is valuable and worthy of pursuit and debate. So I will continue to ponder. Perhaps learning culture is a little like pornography (in only one respect) – very difficult to define but we know it when we see it.

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