How to Encourage a Learning Culture in Your Organization

A group of business-people part of a successful learning culture.“The organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization.” – Peter Senge

Creative… innovative… proactive… are these the words you would use to describe your organization? Or does it feel like you and your team are always a little bit behind the curve and doing what you can to just survive? The difference lies in what kind of learning culture your organization promotes.

In my last post, I focused on the power that Social Learning can have and the importance of learning by example in organizations. Leveraging the knowledge of experts within your organization is a great way to increase the overall knowledge base, as well as the potential for adaptive learning. 

What is adaptive learning? Actually, it’s quite simple: identify a problem or an obstacle preventing you from getting somewhere, and then work to solve the problem. 

However, there are limits to adaptive learning. Increasingly, 21st-century organizations require something called generative learning — changing the parameters, and discovering new ways of perceiving and thinking about our problems. 

Promoting this type of learning in your organization requires much more than learning purely by example. It requires a learning culture. Organizations with strong learning cultures have some distinct elements that differentiate them from the rest of the pack. 

5 Basic Elements of a Learning Culture

  • Belief in people’s ability to learn. It’s not just finding naturally curious people, it’s also encouraging current members of your team. This requires confidence in people’s ability to change—both their environments and themselves. 
  • Time and a degree of creative freedom. Don’t be afraid to give people the time they need to explore and discuss new, out-of-the-box ideas. Give your team a real-life challenge to focus on rather than a theoretical scenario. 
  • Open communication. Empower people to submit ideas and suggestions without fear of derision. The goal is to create a climate that nurtures critical thinking, where challenging authority and speaking up are encouraged. 
  • Collaboration is encouraged. Competition is not always the best way to achieve results — every member of the team should recognize that in many situations interdependence and collaboration is far more effective. 
  • Reinforcement of positive learning behaviors. Often, employees are asked to maximize results, efficiency, and productivity, even when it comes at the expense of continued learning. Therefore, it’s vital that organizations provide their teams the tools, infrastructure, and support they need to learn.

It can be quite difficult to incorporate some of these elements into an organization (that’s why more organizations don’t try). What’s more, there is a general bias toward linear, short-term planning that often comes at the expensive of systemic, long-term planning. Another inhibitor to learning cultures is the myth that leaders always have to be in control, dogged, and dominant. This inclination can quickly stifle a learning culture. 

However, the results are worth the effort. Rather than just surviving, your organization could be thriving by enhancing its capacity to create. I work with teams to help them create a self-facilitating Community of Practice that supports both adaptive and generative learning that is built, owned, and managed by your team. Contact me to learn more or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

Harness the Power of Social Learning in Your Organization

Social learning in an organization. “In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life.” – Albert Badura

Many leaders are increasingly frustrated by the time and money wasted on traditional types of training. These seminars, workshops, and webinars, while packed with helpful information, rarely lead to tangible results. If you lead a team, finding the best way for your team to be fully engaged in what they are learning should be a priority. Which is why many organizations are looking at social learning.

Although the term is relatively new, social learning has been a powerful vehicle for human progress throughout history. According to ideas proposed by learning experts, such as psychologist Albert Bandura, we learn primarily via interaction and shared experience. 

One increasingly popular example of a social learning forum is YouTube. YouTube users upload their own content, on a topic of their choosing, and the content’s credibility is mainly determined by the popularity and rating of the video from those within the community. This highlights a key difference—social learning is self-regulatory. (Interestingly, an article from Wegner and Trayner comments on how some online communities mirror aspects of Communities of Practice). 

What are the advantages of social learning?

One advantage of social learning is that it stimulates attention and motivates action. It’s very difficult to learn information when you don’t find it interesting. The social element adds a degree of pressure and increases our focus. There is also typically some kind of social reward that goes along with our learning, which further motivates us. 

Another advantage of social learning is that learners retain more, and for longer. In traditional learning environments, there is often a lack of information retention evident after only a few days. Social learning encourages practical learning in working environments and allows learners to actively pull knowledge from experts within the organizations instead of having knowledge pushed on them (which leads to less retention).

Social learning is integral to a Community of Practice — a community that develops organically from a common concern who collectively use their skills and knowledge to build trust and share solutions. The communities that result from social learning establish a system for troubleshooting, problem-solving, research and development, and innovation. There is no better way to ensure engagement from each member of your team!

How to Adopt Social Learning 

Draw on the help of experts. 

The principle tenet of social learning is the power of learning by example. Every organization has people that are more experienced than others in various areas. Educate your team by giving them channels where the experts on your team can share their knowledge. 

Forums and message boards. 

These channels can be easily created and maintained online. It should be a space where participants can ask questions and receive answers from within the organization. It can also be a good idea to encourage users to rate answers by their educational value. Another way to quickly get a new member up to speed is the use of an inter-organizational wikipedia as a source of specific, helpful information. 

Reward progress.

You can’t force someone to learn, but you can make it as easy and rewarding as possible. A great way to encourage your team to share their knowledge is via shared tools that support collaboration. Invest in good infrastructure to provide your team with the tools they need to collaborate effectively in real-time.

There’s no doubt that social learning is a powerful way to improve the effectiveness of your organization. Nothing can replace the process of asking questions and testing solutions on actual problems in real-time. 

Are you intrigued by what your team could achieve using social learning in your organization? Contact me to learn how your team can develop an action-oriented model of activities and ways of communicating that drives you towards your joint purpose. Or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team to learn how to get started.

How Communities of Practice Work in Education

A community of practice meeting in the field of education“Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.“ – Marian Wright Edelman

After decades developing leaders in the field of education, I came across the concept of a Community of Practice (CoP), and it forever changed my perspective of how educators can work together to make the biggest difference in their community and the world. I learned that the guiding principles behind Communities of Practice have existed long before the terminology was invented—in reality, as long as humans have come together to share ideas on common goals. 

I was thrilled to observe the results of a Community in Practice in the field of education when I served as the team leader on a three-year Site Leader Community of Practice (SLCOP) study in seven school districts across California. Before the Community of Practice was instituted, the site leaders (school principals) were isolated from any peers, and as a result, there was little opportunity for them to network. 

The goal of the SLCOP was to bring these principals together to share their successes and challenges. The Community of Practice also allowed the principles to practice reciprocal learning in order to learn as an aggregated whole. 

This three-year project was a resounding success and it illustrates the benefits of Communities of Practice in educational contexts. Why did this project work out so well? How do Communities of Practice work in education? Let’s explore how it works. 

Why are communities of practice such a good fit for the educational field? 

In the field of education, peer learning is vital. 

In a community, we learn and grow by observing and practicing in a safe space with other learners. This is relevant because now, more than ever, educators are facing knowledge challenges. There is a new focus on social-emotional learning, digital literacy, computational thinking, cross-cultural skills, etc in education today—the ways that we define student success are changing rapidly. 

However, in order for educators to teach these skills to students, they must first master these same skills. In CoPs, educators can help one another grow and learn, and most importantly, make a lasting impact on their students.

Communities of Practice allow educators to work toward common professional development goals by forming connections and sharing ideas, practices, and tools. CoPs can be constructed by a district, school, or by the educators themselves. 

How do communities of practice work in education?

CoPs have been used in teacher training and in providing isolated administrators with access to colleagues and mentors. CoPs can meet in person or virtually. Virtual connections allow teachers to interact with others from around the world. It extends the reach of interactions beyond geographical limitations and expands the possibilities for communities based on shared practice. Changing the learning theory can constitute a much deeper transformation. 

Often, there is a level of competitiveness among schools and districts, especially at the high school level. But, what if, instead of pushing each other to succeed via competitiveness, schools collaborated and shared understandings? This is the heart of a Community of Practice—mutual assistance leading to shared benefits. 

Are you an educator looking to achieve greater success through a Community of Practice? Contact me to learn about customized Community in Practice trainings for educators looking to harness the power of collaboration.

Showing Vulnerability to Your Community: The Ultimate Test of Trust

Leader showing vulnerability in a Community of Practice

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” ― Brené Brown

There’s a ubiquitous idea among community and business leaders—hide your weakness, at any cost. 

This approach may work at times if the goal is gaining power, but it’s nearly impossible to be an effective leader of a Community of Practice (CoP) with this philosophy. As my last blog post highlighted, trust is the essential element in any Community of Practice, and the only way to gain the trust of your team is by showing vulnerability. 

A few years ago I experienced the truth of this. My husband and I worked with a realtor who promised amazing results after we saw our “dream house” that was clearly beyond our reach. Somewhat worryingly, she told us, “trust me”. 

While these words can be oversold by many a person in sales, she really meant it. She went on to describe what was basically a Community of Practice among realtors. 

She and her colleagues meet weekly in a consultancy approach where they forward their most challenging clients and, together, craft an approach to the seller that, in almost every case, gets them a winning offer. While their domain is evident (real estate) and their practice (sales) is easily defined, their sense of community that allows them to share their practice elevates their work beyond the typical realtor working one client at a time to sell one house after another. 

Their willingness to engage in a shared approach, demonstrate vulnerability (after all, there is a commission on the line), and find new ways to solve the problem of successfully matching home buyers and sellers was impressive. This vulnerability made it far easier for me to trust that I could indeed trust this realtor to find us the right home.

When building a Community of Practice (CoP) community collaborators must share their practice, and even more daringly, their struggles with their practice. In fact, a measure of effective community building is the growing sense of trust within the group. With a strong sense of community, our domain becomes our passion and purpose. Without it, our domain is as simple as the place we go to work. 

As a leader, are you ready and willing to expose your strengths and weaknesses to benefit from every member of your community? This may go against your natural inclination, but when you see how effective it is, it’s incredibly motivating.

Here are ways you can take the lead in being vulnerable with your team or CoP:

Don’t be afraid of not having all the answers. You don’t have to be the first with an idea or an answer. Be the kind of person that actively seeks out others’ input. Acknowledge that you’re not an expert on a particular topic, and then ask for help. You’ll be amazed at the positive response. 

Encourage others to take the lead in important conversations. Try to engage the perspectives and thoughts of others. Ask different people to take turns at running meetings, you’ll see a newfound commitment to the shared vision of your organization. 

Expect honest feedback. Ask for your team to give feedback on some aspect of your performance. Of course, the way in which you receive these comments will impact whether you receive sincere feedback from your team again.

Regularly engage in consultancy activities. This allows you to delve into a colleague’s shoes and see their work in new, different, and refreshing way. Like the real estate group I shared earlier, this is a deeply sustaining practice that helps colleagues, or even competitors, to become collaborators. 

Be ready to try something new. Don’t let your ego protect you from being willing to step out of your comfort zone and risk embarrassment. And when you make a mistake (not if, when) acknowledge it. You’ll gain the respect and loyalty of your team when you show the humility to admit a mistake. 

Are you intrigued by what your team could achieve as a Community of Practice? Contact me to learn how your team can develop an action-oriented model of activities and ways of communicating that drives you towards your joint purpose. Or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team to learn how to get started.

Trust: The Essential Element in any Community of Practice

Community of Practice DefinitionDo you trust each member of your team? Do they trust you? Do they trust each other? According to Stephen Covey, “The ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust is the key professional and personal competency of our time.”

Trust is especially important if you’re working within a Community of Practice. In fact, a Community of Practice (CoP) based on anything but a shared feeling of trust and security—like fear or authority—ultimately will be a failure, because it’s based on an unstable foundation.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Trust needs to be built over time and attended to on a regular basis. The trust of your team members can’t be bought, only earned.

Without attention to trust, mistrust happens all too easily. We have all had experiences where our trust has been betrayed. So remember each member of your team has had their trust misplaced, it seems to be part of the human experience.

Building trust through time and effort

Trust isn’t built overnight so you need to begin finding time to build trust within your community. I remember at one of my organizations, we diligently appropriated the first 20-minutes of every meeting to community building. And not just the “how is your week” type of check-in (which quickly becomes perfunctory). Instead, each staff member, on a rotating schedule, was charged with crafting a meaningful, opening to each meeting. On a weekly basis, that translates to 52 different ideas for a well-crafted, time-sensitive, community-building activity.

There are a plethora of community building activities both online and in print to help you get started. However, I’ve seen that the best trust-building activities are developed when I take an existing activity and then tweak it to meet the needs of this particular group. Personalized activities go a long way toward building a true community.

When these types of activities are prioritized, the first thing that begins to grow is camaraderie, a great lead-in to building trust. Occasionally, it builds competitiveness, but, as trust builds, the competition typically remains positive in tone.

To establish and maintain a positive tone, a solid set of working norms is necessary.

Most of us have experienced a perfunctory set of norms. In order to be part of the community-building experience, norms need to be organic and fluid. Rather than dictating to them as the leader or boss, encourage your team to co-construct their own set of norms. Discussion about the norms, as they are created, is important to ensure that each voice is heard in the shared behaviors for the group. Don’t forget, norms must be revisited on an intentional basis to help the group actively own their norms.

Are you intrigued by what your team could achieve as a Community of Practice? Contact me to learn how your team can develop an action-oriented model of activities and ways of communicating that drives you towards your joint purpose. Or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team to learn how to get started.

Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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