This post was written by Susan Fry Chief Creative Officer for KnowledgeStar

Why a learning culture is critical to your corporation’s survival in the Idea Economy

Your organization needs to be a learning culture in order to continue to succeed. That means a change from your current training culture. As the pace of change increases, the need for faster innovation and greater collaboration becomes critical. Which means performance is everything. Performance is not the same as training and learning what to do. Performance means being able to quickly find out what you need to do when and where you need to get it done. And the only way to make that happen is to develop a learning culture which supports that level of rapid and responsive performance.

Throughout the past year, during our meetings with various organizations, we kept hearing the same conversation. The discussions too often focused on the event, the program, some better learning technology, or the “cool” new tools.. The focus always seemed to be on the parts of the new learning environment in which we work, rather than seeing that environment as a whole interconnected system.

It became obvious that the conversation needed to change. There was a fundamental shift needed in the way organizations think about the way they provide learning. A change from the perception of the workplace as a training culture to one which is a learning culture. A place where employees take charge of their learning and have with immediate access to the knowledge they need any time and any place. Follow the lead of the most innovative and successful companies. Replace the emphasis on training and training technology with a focus on doing and the technology which enables people to perform.

As recently as eight years ago, transforming your organization’s culture from a teacher-led training culture to a learner-led learning culture, driven by digital technology, was a managerial preference.  Today, it is no longer an option.

The use of digital technology in the workplace is so profound, so dramatic, that it can be compared to the invention of the printing press in 1450 or Edison’s success in making electric lighting commercially viable in the 1880s. Digital technology is changing everything we know about learning. In a recent report on global human capital trends, Bersin by Deloitte advised organizations to look at the ways people learn in their organization and “Prepare for a revolution.”

With all due respect to Bersin by Deloitte, we think their timing is a bit off. Our own experience has convinced us that the revolution isn’t coming, it is here. Performance support systems, virtual classes, video conferences and more have all made inroads in individual departments and divisions of many companies to change the way employees are learning.

Yet all this digital technology has not yet significantly changed the basic way we think about learning in the vast majority of organizations. For the most part we are still pushing out training to solve problems the same way we did for the last 100 years since training was developed by the Prussian army. We were hard pressed to think of any other business that still approaches what they do today the same way it was done a century ago.

Relatively few leaders have fully grasped the enormous benefits to be gained by transitioning their training culture to a learning culture and changing the way their employees learn. This is true despite evidence showing that significant benefits immediately start accruing to organizations that successfully make the transformation.



This post was written with Sue Fry the Chief Creative Officer at KnowledgeStar.

A recent experience proved how dangerous adhering to the old “push” model can be. In consulting with one of the world’s best-known NGOs, I conducted an exhaustive series of interviews with Managers and Directors at different levels, located in countries around the globe.

This NGO is funded to do work throughout the world improving health — which also means working to eradicate deadly diseases or control outbreaks. The interviews quickly revealed that members of the NGO in one country were not sharing information that could be extremely beneficial to coworkers in other countries, even though doing so surely could have eliminated suffering and saved lives.

Deeper investigation revealed that the NGO had a long-established culture of “hoarding” learning and training and doling it out to those that the top management had decided they wanted to bring into “the fold.” When a favored few rose to the top in their own country, they were invited to the world headquarters located in a vibrant, wealthy city, where they were wined, dined and welcomed into the elite “inner circle.”

They then moved to the headquarters city to take their new positions, where they communicated information to the other “elites,” occasionally returning to their home countries. The pattern had been in place for years and there was little desire to change it — even though changing to a learning culture could clearly make them much more agile, effective and successful in meeting the stated goals of their organization.

This exposes one of the dangers of a “pull” learning culture as well, where inputting knowledge is power. If I go to my PC, it is KIKO (Knowledge In, Knowledge Out). The technology systems that enable the learners are only as good as the information they contain. If the underlying culture is still embedded in the old command-and-control hierarchy in which knowledge is power, then selectively sharing knowledge will become power.

The culture is the bedrock upon which leaders, learners and the enabling technology is built. In a true learning culture people instinctively believe that sharing knowledge is empowering and automatically act on that belief.

This is yet one more reason to build a real learning culture and not just erect a facade that might be able to pass for one.

The Inevitable Future of Learning


As recently as eight or ten years ago, transforming your organization’s culture from a teacher-led training culture to a learning culture, driven by digital technology, may have been a matter of managerial preference.  Today, it’s an absolute necessity.

The change to digital technology is so profound, so dramatic that it can be compared to the invention of the printing press in 1450 or Edison’s success in making electric lighting commercially viable in the 1880s. We are only now beginning to see the changes.

Digital communication is changing everything about learning. In a recent report on global human capital trends, Bersin by Deloitte advised organizations to look at the ways people learn in their organization and “Prepare for a revolution.”

With all due respect to Bersin by Deloitte, we think their timing is a bit off. The revolution isn’t coming, it is here. In our kids’ K-12 classrooms, changing the ways they learn. Anyone can now be a publisher or a video producer and provide news channels for knowledge. Performance support systems, virtual classes, video conferences and more are finding their way into individual departments and divisions of many companies. Yet the technology is not significantly changing the way we learn in our organizations.

ATD’s 2014 State of the Industry Report confirms that instructors still reign supreme in workplace learning, with 70% of formal training hours delivered by an instructor in a classroom.

While we’ve eagerly adopted digital technology and the changes it has brought to our personal lives, the vast majority of organizations have not seemed to grasp the need to adapt our organizational lives so they embrace the possibilities presented by the digital world. Either they are resistant to the change or simply don’t know how to go about making the change.

In fact, relatively few leaders have fully grasped what enormous benefits there can be in transitioning their training culture to a learning culture and changing the way their employees learn. This is true despite evidence showing that significant value accrues to organizations that make the transformation from one culture to the other.

I have an spent my entire career defining, designing, developing, delivering, and evaluating corporate education programs around the world. When I started, the model was all “push.”  Now it’s becoming “pull”.  About creating an organizational culture that supports people in automatically finding what they need to learn, when they need it, anytime and anywhere. Learning at the point of need.

Susan Fry, Stephen Gill and I have written a whitepaper to answer questions about what we believe is the inevitable future of learning:

  • What is a “learning culture”?
  • Why is creating a learning culture is critical to my organization’s future success?
  • How can I assess progress toward changing my organization’s culture?
  • What are the key elements of a roadmap that I can follow to get started?

If you’re interested in receiving a free copy, leave a comment.

What do you think about the idea of the learning culture?

dilbert on training


Okay so I’m on the phone with the CLO of a large manufacturing company. We’re talking about ways to improve performance, specifically time-to-performance for new hires. I make a fatal mistake.

“Have you thought about developing more of a learning culture to replace your training culture?” I asked.

“Culture?” she replied. “What’s a learning culture? I’m not even sure I know what the culture is.”

My bad. I was guilty of not jumping far enough behind my assumptions about what someone in her position would know. It should have gone like this …

“I think we can definitely help improve the new hires time-to-performance in ways that will be observable and measureable, and directly impact on the profitiability of the company. Did you ever look at the difference between training and learning?”

“More or less. How do you define them?”

“Well, training is knowledge people may need that is pushed out to them, usually from your group. It can be pushed out in many forms but it is pushed because it is often an event they are told to go to, or an online program that becomes part of their annual performance review.”

“But you can get our elearning materials anytime and anywhere.”

“That’s true but aren’t you still defining and developing the lessons and pushing them out there?”


“Well that’s what I mean by push. What they learn is being pushed out to them. Pull is when they need to know something and they need to find the information themselves. They pull it from a variety of resources.”

“Resources from a classroom or elearning program?”

“It could be, but it’s more like finding the answer by talking with someone who knows, or looking up an expert and asking for help, going to someone who has been designated as a mentor. There can be many different ways to get to the answer but the key is that the person who needs an answer does not wait until they get to a classroom or watch an entire online program.”

“And how does that relate to the difference between learning and training, they seem to be same?”

“Well think of it this way. Training is push, and learning is pull. In a classroom the teacher pushes the training and the student learns by pulling the information into their brain. Take the teacher out of the equation and the student still needs to pull in the lesson only now they become responsible for finding and pulling the lesson or answer on their own when and where they need it. There’s no one around to do the pushing.”

“Okay I see how one is pushed out and the other pulled in. What’s the point?”

“Imagine your organization without any teachers or classrooms or long courses placed online that you needed to sift through to find a the piece of information you need.  You could be a sales person about to go into a sales call, or a person on the assembly line confronting a problem that requires a quick solution so as not to stop the line. You might be a manager confronting a problem employee. In your case you have a bunch of new hires and you need to get them up-to-speed as quickly as you can, and there’s no classroom or orientation session that will do the job.

So you create what we call a learning culture, in which everyone is responsible for finding the answers to their questions and learning what they need to learn. You supply as many tools and resources as you can for them to make it easy. It’s like a performance support system spread around the manufacturing floor that can find the answers to questions just-in-time. It’s like a Google for manufacturing. It’s an expert locator to help you find the person who is an expert about attaching parts A and B.”

“Okay but why call it a culture?”

“Remember last month when we met at your office? I walked in and we shook hands. We didn’t think about shaking hands we just did it. That instinctive reaction in that situation is one of the things that defines what a culture is. Hundreds of instinctive reactions that govern how we behave with one another.

“I’m not sure I get it.”

“Okay. What would we have done if we were in the same situation and we were in Paris?”

Silence on the other end of the phone.

“We might have kissed each other on both cheeks because that is their culture. That’s why it’s so hard to determine what your culture is since it’s almost unconscious, simply a part of what is expected.”

“So what’s a learning culture or a training culture?”

“Great question. A training culture is one where people expect the training to be given to them and wait around for it to be pushed, you know, assigned or scheduled. They don’t go looking for the answers because it’s just not done. And they don’t take risks. It’s not part of the culture. It may seem disruptive to ask a question and disturb other people, or you don’t want people to think you don’t know how to do something. That’s a training culture.

In a learning culture people are expected to go and find the answers. To ask questions when they don’t know something. To take advantage of all the tools and resources in place to help them get the answer. To learn from their day-to-day successes and failures. It’s what you do automatically when you need to know something. You need an answer, you go get it, you don’t wait until it’s handed to you.”

“I need an example. I’m still not clear on what it is.”

“Okay, one of your new hires is shadowing a more experienced person on the assembly line. The new hire watches and tries to learn but they both know there will be classes that the new person will be going to, so the new hire is really just tagging along since she knows that she will not really be getting to work until after she passes the class. The new hire is probably more concerned about where to go for the best lunch, or how many days you get when you’re sick.

Now if the new hires were told they would need to start working and performing as soon as the orientation was done, and that they needed to know how to find the answers to their questions on their own, using all the resources they had, they would not only pay greater attention, they would feel confident about starting since they had all the resources they needed, and they knew in your company learning was their responsibility.”

“Hey, we have people who are new hires who can barely read English.”

“Then their resources come in two flavors, their native language and English. They can still go to class to improve their English language skills, but their time-to-performance is way faster because they are comfortable learning, pulling in what they need to know, since it’s in their language. You are still telling them that in your company they need to learn how to learn.”

“So tell me more about this learning culture idea.”

And so it begins …


It’s been awhile …. I’m back from what became a long journey, working with a number of leading research and consulting firms on what they defined as “corporate education”. Our little secret … it was all about the money.

I spent hours every day focusing on developing paid for webinars that were thinly disguised marketing messages for the sponsor’s products. Writing white papers that were paid for by companies looking to justify their approach or methodology to corporate education. Developing charts, diagrams, infographics and more that proved the current prescribed vendor approaches to learning were absolutely correct.

So the assumption that I’ve heard many times – corporate education analysts are too often paid lobbyists for vendors – turned out to be true. I was living on the wheel, climbing up and sliding down the spokes, avoiding the hub of things. This is a report from that hub.

The key message is simple. Change or die. Corporations that do not “get it” will go out of business and be replaced by those that understand the following:

  • The research tells us that high performing organizations, the type many aspire to become, are driven by a learning culture.
  • Enabling and empowering everyone so they can find what they need to know, whenever and wherever they need it, is critical to the success of a company
  • Becoming a learning culture is the only way a corporation can succeed every day and win in a highly competitive almost Darwinian global marketplace.
  • Finally, if you’re not scared, you’re not listening, and if you are not building a learning culture, you’re falling further behind every day in terms of sales, profits, customer satisfaction levels, innovations, service, and everything else that comprises your business.


So from this point forward this blog will be about  building a learning culture. We’ll define what it is, help you assess where you are (pdf), and recommend changes you might need to make. We will explore the relationship between leaders, learners and technology. And provide examples of learning cultures in action, from exciting new companies like Tesla and established organizations like the WD-40 Company, to not-for-profit organizations like Doctors Without Borders.

In addition, since we don’t have all the answers, we will be sure to add any links to books (Creating a learning Culture), other posts, whitepapers (At the Water Cooler of Learning),workshops, webinars and other resources that might help. As a starter. here’s one from my friend and colleague Stephen Gills 16 Signs of a Learning Culture and another great resource from Marcia Conner Introduction to a Learning Culture.

I will be working with many of the most experienced and brightest minds in our field, and the areas of learning psychology, neurosciences, sociology, learning theory and more. People who have come to the same conclusion. We need to stop looking at the pieces – the spokes – and start to focus on the real problem at the hub. We can no longer spend ridiculous amounts of money and time on point solutions, and not try and solve the real problem – how to create learning cultures.

Looking forward to learning together.

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The Endless Immensity of the Sea

 Once we get past the outmoded ideas of school – there’s only one answer, in the back of the book, take the test, and don’t look that’s cheating – we begin to see that learning and collaboration is an art and a science. We know more today about the science than ever before. We still tend to overlook the art.

A few weeks ago, my nephew asked me what the words “Subject Matter Expert” means. I told him it was all about learning. The expert was a team of people who each learned a lot about something, and learned more every day, until people agreed that team was The Subject Matter Expert. He listened carefully, then nodded and asked, “So, are Tommy and I the Subject Matter Experts about superheroes yet?” It made me pause and think about how that question would translate in the companies I consult with and what it meant for building successful collaborative teams who learn as they go.

Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, writes about “neoteny,” the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. This ability to learn is like the compounding interest on an investment; after two or three years, a relentless learner stands head and shoulders above his peers. It stands to reason that a team of relentless learners is optimized for successful collaboration.

So, why then are so many teams of smart people so stupid?

The answer has nothing to do with their collective IQ. I think the answer can be found in an obscure quote I pinned years ago on my actual pre-Pinterest cork board. It was written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, best known for his work The Little Prince. Here is the quote:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

The quote focuses on the art of collaboration. And it has a direct bearing on learning, lighting a fire instead of filling a bucket.

Amazing how some people knew so much about learning and collaboration before it became the business word du jour. The key to a great collaborative team is their ability to look outward in the same direction, to share a deeply felt goal or, as Saint-Exupéry wrote, “[…] to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Seems almost too simple to repeat. Yet I cannot tell you the number of times I listened to team members who had no idea what it felt like to long for the “endless immensity of the sea.” When we build teams to collaborate, we need to make sure that the first item on the punch list is to build a deeply felt desire, a “longing” if you will.

The next time you bring a team together, ask yourself a question: What is the longing — the deeply felt longing — which will drive the team to learn and perform, even if they do not have all the tools and knowledge to “build a ship”? What will wake them up every day and make them want to go wherever they dream of going? When you can articulate that longing, then you are on your way to a great collaboration and learning that will just happen.

Here are some examples that punctuate this idea:

We want to be the ones to really feel what it is like to step onto the surface of the moon.

The team will take the very first pictures of life on the bottom of the ocean.

We will actually see the proof of the ‘god particle’ that started all creation.

In the beginning, it is not all about the wood and the work. It’s about the art of collaboration, describing that longing that drives learning and collaboration forward. I spend a lot of time researching and studying, thinking and writing about the science of collaboration as a crucial part of learning. I just want to make sure I never lose sight of the art, of that longing for “the endless immensity of the sea.”


Forget About Level 4? Never!

Not too many years ago I remember the words of an L&D VP to whom I reported. We were talking about measuring the effectiveness of a very expensive training program we just delivered.

“Just focus on the first three. Forget about this Kirkpatrick level four,” he said. “It’s too hard and too expensive to figure out.”

As a refresher, here are the four levels of Kirkpatrick’s evaluation model (I’m avoiding the argument about Level 5 on purpose):

  1. Reaction – what the learners thought about the course
  2. Learning – what the learners remember as well as any new skills and attitudes.
  3. Behavior – How much the learners transfer knowledge, skills, and attitudes from the schoolplace to the workplace
  4. Results – the final outcome, months down the road from the event, which was initiated by the course.

The first 3 levels are relatively easy to measure. They include the smile sheets (Level 1), demonstrations of what was learned (Level 2) and improvements in performance back at work (Level 3). The first two can happen during the training event; the third can be reviewed and assessed by a learner’s manager.

It’s Level 4 that’s more difficult, even though it’s the level that measures real learning. Let me back up a bit. Rote learning is what ‘skill and drill’ teaching gets you. It’s perfect for a Level 1 and 2 evaluations. You can even get by if the Level 3 evaluation is done soon enough after the course is finished.

If no one checks in after that you will probably not get a “Pass” on Level 4, unless you have adopted what you do every day and adapt it under a constantly changing set of circumstances. Level 4 is gated by the idea that “Practice Makes Perfect”. So it’s the down the road assessment that really tells you if the learning has become a new part of the learner’s way of doing their job.

Level 4 is a longitudinal study or assessment. It can be done at intervals that range up to one year from the learning event. It’s usually not done at all because it is the most costly and time consuming of the four. What’s changed is that new technology can make it easy.

LCMS Learning Objects to the Rescue.

The LCMS is usually thought of in terms of their ability to author learning objects. These objects can be stored in a repository and used to deliver a custom learning program. The learning objects are assembled by an individual learner who can tailor them into a personal learning path. On the other hand, a course that is SCORMed and developed as one-size-fits-many can be seen as one big learning object fixed in space.

When people are done with either a course or their personal learning path, it looks like the pellets flying out of a shotgun. All the learners go off in their own direction, and have separate and individual experiences. In short, they learn to adapt the knowledge and know-how they acquire in a multitude of different ways.

The course object can only measure the mean or average since it was designed for many people. Most Level 4 measures I’ve seen look at corporate data as if it was functionally related to what the learner knows or has learned to do. For example, an increase in employee retention can be the result of wage increases or an improved management style. Reduced waste is an old manufacturing metric that has little validity in today’s manufacturing processes. Increased customer satisfaction results from a constellation of factors. Fewer staff complaints in a tough economy are to be expected (add in increased retention as well). So the standard measures used at Level 4 are virtually useless in today’s workplace and economic environment.

Learning objects on the other hand can be turned around as a one-to-one assessment down the road because they were assembled by each learner who proscribed their own learning path. Learning objects that state “What I need to learn” can be flipped to ask “Did you learn what you needed?” Turn a learning object around, add a question mark, and you have a Level 4 assessment. If the learner six months later has really learned a new skill or behavior, you can easily find out by assessing them on what they decided to learn. If the learner is struggling with what they tried to learn, you can determine that as well and provide whatever support is required.

Learning technology changes the equation. In the same way that elearning removed the barriers of time, space and the four walls of the traditional classroom, LCMS can provide an assessment of a learning event ‘down the road’, and really start get to that formerly unobtainable Level 4. It can measure the degree to which the learning has been adopted and is being adapted.



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