Explore the evidence on learning cultures, the case for embedding a learning environment within organisations, and the steps L&D professionals can take to tackle any barriers encountered along the way
Date: 03/11/2020 | Duration 00:32:12
Do you have the right learning culture to nurture your people? What are the tell-tale signs you have developed a strong environment for learning in your organisation? Creating a supportive learning environment is imperative to ensuring employees have the right capabilities to adapt and respond to challenges in the right way. While 98% of learning and development practitioners would seek to do this, CIPD research reveals only a third feel they have achieved this feat.
Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests, Gavin McQuillan, NatWest and Mel Green, CIPD, to unpack what you need to do to instil a positive learning culture in your organisation.
View the full podcast transcript
Nigel Cassidy: Better trained, more capable staff make successful organisations, we know that but do you have the right learning culture to nurture your people? Stay with us for top tips to improve yours.
Hello I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast. Now more than ever before every business is being forced to rethink how its people gain the skills they need to do their jobs and it’s the learning and development teams who are in the thick of it. But there's a way to go, CIPD research shows that only around a third of L&D types feel that they’ve achieved a positive culture for learning at their place.
So this podcast isn't so much about the mechanics of virtual learning in the age of Covid-19, with or without Zoom on a dodgy line, it’s about, deep breath here, learning cultures. It’s about spotting what’s wrong with your learning environment at work and how you can go about changing it for the better.
With us an occupational psychologist turned HR practitioner, turned member of the CIPD research team she’s led much of the CIPD’s work on L&D it’s Mel Green. Hello.
Mel Green: Hi Nigel.
NC: And we’ve a real life head of learning and development with first-hand experience of managing the learning culture in a large, complex organisation, from NatWest Bank it’s Gavin McQuillan.
Gavin McQuillan: Hiya Nigel.
NC: So Gav let’s start by trying to get our heads around what we mean by an organisation’s learning culture, and I know you've got 65,000 staff who all need to be trained in what they do, I suppose in security and using ever-changing technology in helping customers and the bank to make money. I would have thought it’s the bank staff’s training needs that dictates what you teach people so for you what is the learning culture of an organisation, there’s sort of an implication it goes a bit deeper?
GM: Yeah absolutely and I think traditionally Nigel you’re right, especially in financial services which as we know are highly regulated I think there's an opinion that learning culture would be about what do we need to know to keep our staff and our customers safe. And to a certain extent that is still true today but I think as things are changing in the world and people, and certainly us from a NatWest perspective, really can see the value of true learning culture, becoming a true learning organisation we’re really, really starting to think about how can we empower people to learn what they want, when they want, not just in the role that they do today but the career they want to have tomorrow, but also bringing forward the notion that learning isn't something that is done to you, learning is something that you would want to do. So actually how do we empower our learners to take that into their own hands and to progress forward?
So when we talk about our learning culture for me it’s not just about formal learning it’s how do you create that environment where people are learning every day, people are empowered to learn, people are sharing what they’re learning, but it’s not just for the good of the organisation it’s actually for the good of the individual as well and that's something that we are really keep to develop in NatWest as we move forward.
NC: Now Mel Green we have this rather stark CIPD research finding that two thirds of L&D practitioners don't seem to think that they have a positive learning culture, I mean the cynic might say well they’re the learning experts in their business so they can't be doing their jobs very well.
MG: So I think there's a couple of pieces to unpack there and I think Gav said it really nicely when he said it’s not just about formal learning it’s about the informal things as well, it’s not just about training. So I think the first thing to unpack is what do we really mean by learning culture, is it something that we can ever fully achieve? And also whose responsibility is it to create it? So of course learning professionals absolutely need to be spearheading a positive environment for learning but we know it’s more than just formal training, we know it’s more than just individual learning, it’s really important that when we talk about learning cultures or the learning environment it takes into account the systemic environment for learning.
So we’ve done some research on this which is all about assessing the evidence on learning cultures and it’s clear that it’s such a broad concept that also feeds into things like whether an organisation is willing to take the new learning on board, whether it can innovate what management practices do you have in place to support learning but also that informal, reflective stuff and actually that's something that L&D professionals should champion but ultimately they’re not the only player in that space so it needs to be a broader organisational vision I think.
NC: But if I could just push you on those findings why is it that L&D people are saying, they obviously have some concept of what this is, and they say that organisations don't have a very positive culture so what are they getting at? What’s making them unhappy?
MG: So we’ve done some research slightly more recently on this which is our Learning And Skills At Work survey and we asked learning professionals what their current environment for learning looks like and there are some really interesting findings there about line management. So around half said that line managers don't necessarily always support learning or facilitate learning, and while they feel like senior leaders have a vision for learning there's that disconnect between what line managers support and facilitate and what senior leaders say. So there's some really interesting environmental factors to think about there.
And of course another thing to point out is we’re talking about learning culture as an outcome here, it’s an ongoing process, we always need to think about how we update and iterate how we help people to learn, I think Covid shown us that more than ever that we sometimes need to rapidly shift and that's really what about a learning environment is. But it’s not a one-stop shop.
NC: I’d like to take up with Gav that point you’re making about management, I mean isn't half the problem that managements too often see training and learning as a kind of emergency fix, you know people can't work the new kit so they have to do some emergency training or maybe they force you to do some online health and safety course in your own time often, it’s all reactive rather than proactive, I mean really a bit of box-ticking exercise.
GM: Yeah to Mel’s point I think probably the reason that learning professionals, and maybe slightly controversial is, we’ve created this problem by that approach Nigel that you talk about which is making everything mandatory, making everything that becomes a box-ticking exercise, so in a way we are probably a little bit culpable in what we’ve created. That being said I totally agree with Mel’s point that leaders play such an intrinsic part in creating this culture and for me it’s not so much about a learning culture it’s about a culture of continuous learning is I think where we should be driving to now in society because I think what we know from all the various surveys on skills and the change in marketplace, people are going to have to continue to learn as they develop their careers rather than just see learning as something that you did maybe at school or university and then once you get into the corporate world you can maybe take your foot off the gas a little bit.
So I think managers play a key part in that. I think we need to empower them to really incentivise people to learn, to let people see the importance of it. But to do that I think we need to speak their language. I think we need to understand that learning isn't at the top of everybody’s agenda. While we would like it to be people are very busy, there's a lot going on so how do we help people see the value that it adds and then how do they build it into their day to day work? And I think that's a real key part for us. But to Mel’s point this will never work unless we have the leaders from the top, right the way down, bought in and really role modelling this for me. So leaders as teachers is probably an old fashioned phrase but it’s probably the best one I've got at the moment around how they can really start to supercharge this kind of culture of continuous learning that I think we’re all striving for.
NC: So to simplify some of that Mel what Gav seems to be saying is that people have got to want to learn, to see the need to learn, and it should just be a process which is forced upon them or indeed something that they’re denied when they want and ask for more training.
MG: Yeah absolutely. And it needs to be something that's important to the individual but it needs to link to organisational outcomes as well and I think when we’re thinking about what a learning culture is that there's different parts to it isn't there? There's what the individual needs to learn to do their day to day role, there's what they need to develop, but it’s also how teams need to adapt and change and how we feed that into what our organisation does and ultimately adapt to as well. So there does need to be that golden thread that's really clear throughout an organisation that learning is the way we do things around here. Mistakes are okay, iterating is okay and absolutely, senior leaders need to be really bought into that for that to really stick.
NC: Well Gavin you run learning and development at a really large bank, clearly there's an organisation which is very focused on its financial goals so presumably you’re pretty closely plugged into the management of your organisation, just talk us through how the culture of learning has changed in the last few years at your place, one hopes for the better?
GM: I think some of the big changes for us over the last couple of years is that we’ve been working really, really hard to align our learning strategy with business strategy and so to Mel’s point again before, that relevance. People need to see the relevance of and the understanding of how learning will be an enabler for what we’re trying to achieve as a business. So we’ve worked a lot of effort has gone into working with senior leaders and supporting that. I guess what really, really helped us and the cherry on top of that work was that Alison Rose our new CEO is really focused and one of her big priorities was to create this culture of continuous learning, to really focus on us becoming a learning organisation and investing, not just in learning for our colleagues but also who could be helped, the broader society around some of the challenges that we’ve got.
NC: So what more would you do with people now other than just giving them the obvious tools to enable them to carry their jobs? What’s the extra bit that you've added that makes this an improved culture?
GM: So I think the first thing is we’re really encouraging people to prioritise learning, so not just the leaders but the learners to say, look this is important how do you prioritise it within your day? So we did something, which I’m sure there’ll be many different learning professionals listening to this who have an opinion where we came out with a people pledge which says, we want you to spend 10% of your time learning.
Now for me personally what was important about that was not the number, because I'm sure you could have a great debate around what number’s right, but what was important was the sentiment behind that number, to say this is important we want you to prioritise learning. We created a learning academy, and again that was about just making learning really easy for people to find.
And then we did some really key things around moving away, not just to have technical learning but really focusing on those, what I would call, the power skills for people in the future. So things like critical thinking, innovation, building relationships, learning agility. So actually how do we help people grow as individuals for, as I've said today, the job that they do today but the career that they want to have tomorrow. So good investment; good empowerment; raising the profile of what we’re doing but actually we’re on a journey here and I think, as we’ve all said I don't think you'll ever be finished, we’ll never be finished this piece of work because things keep moving around but that’s some of the, I guess, real practical things that we’ve seen change in the last 12 months.
NC: Well it’s great to hear what you’re doing in this field, let me make it slightly more theoretical with Mel Green, you obviously don't want to blindly start improving specific courses or specific things you've got to first work out what state your learning culture is in and so can you talk us some of the things you might do to assess or benchmark how you’re doing this so that when you make changes they're actually going to produce some dividends?
MG: Sure and I think Gav shared some really nice examples of practical things that you can do which is why it’s so important to take targeted action. So think about where you might need to improve things or build on good practice as well. I think the first thing to say is that learning culture is really broad and there's a danger that we only focus on one thing, so we need to measure multiple things. And there's also, I think, a real temptation to use things like training uptake as a measure of learning culture. And of course that's a really important one, we want to understand who’s undertaking learning, whether that's formal or informal, who in the business is that? Are there different groups who learn more than others? Are there different teams that are struggling? That's really important.
But I think we also need to look at the broader picture. So we know learning culture has lots of different aspects to it, even things like employee influence, voice and innovation are important. So thinking a little bit about some of those other organisational indicators that can tell us how learning is used at work. So many of us will have a culture survey or an engagement survey that can give us an insight into whether people feel like learning is supported or whether iteration and new ideas are supported too. That's a really good indication of whether new learning and innovation is really fed into how things are done in the organisation, that's a little bit different. And also there's things like whether people are using the tools on offer, whether people feel like they're supported by their manager to learn, so really a suite of different things are really needed here to make sure we’re not just talking about that formal learning and thinking about some of the other things that need to be in place as well
GM: Yeah, again I think what Mel talks there is the formal stuff to me is almost hygiene factors and I think sometimes as learning professionals we’re too focused on learning hours or things like that. They’re an important part of the journey but for me they're not the biggest thing, for me it’s those kind of cultural indicators of behavioural change. So for example do you see greater innovation? Do you see more knowledge sharing going on in your business? Feedback is a great one for me. Feedback is such a simple thing but it’s a great way of developing a learning culture and so you see and people giving feedback how do you propagate that?
So yeah I really like Mel’s analogy there around those hygiene factors are important but that's what they are, hygiene factors, where are those big cultural and behavioural changes that you’re seeing and how do you measure them? And that's tougher and that's why I think sometimes as learning professionals we do like some of the easier stuff because it’s there. This is tough to measure and I think that's part of the continual focus that we all should have as learning professionals around what are those measures to help you understand if you’re making headway or not.
NC: And let’s just be clear what you mean by hygiene factors?
GM: Yes so what I mean by that is I think in the past we’ve been really good, as Mel talked about, around measuring what people do around formal pieces of learning, so how many hours do people spend on learning? How many courses? What’s the attendance? And as I say that stays a part.
NC: No more away days?
GM: Well that’s a different conversation. So they are great to let you know how you’re getting on but I think just that on its own tells you more about the efficiency of your learning proposition rather than the culture that you’re driving. It helps but I think to Mel’s point you need those behavioural things and those cultural changes as well and to measure them and to bring the two together then you start to understand progress.
NC: And talking of bringing people together we’ve heard already reference to management, Mel it is hard to change the culture if L&D is marooned in a kind of silo, semi-detached from the bosses and the business goals and also out of touch with individuals who now of course are scattered all over the place during Covid?
MG: Yes so I think it’s really important that, I think Gav you've said you've used this term before sort of speaking the language of managers because we know that managers are really key but we also know that managers have a huge amount of constraints and pressure on them as well. They need to deliver on operational goals which really should involve people management goals but we know often they might not, so it’s all about helping them understand why this learning is of benefit to them because ultimately we’re trying to drive an outcome here. If we’re talking about creating a learning culture we’re doing that for a reason, we want to see more innovation; we might want to see improved skills; we might want to drive to more knowledge sharing for example; and all of those ultimately, if done well, are going to impact to how people perform, how people develop and ultimately that's going to impact the bottom line which is really important for managers because it will help them deliver what they want to deliver. So really speaking their language I think is so important.
NC: Isn't there a bit of tension here Gavin because we’re talking about the way to make the organisation more effective, to make people have more rewarding careers but of course the pressures on organisations are enormous and managers cannot deliver for people, jobs are going in places, so is that a barrier to actually winning more trust from people?
GM: I don't know if it’s a barrier, I guess I can probably turn that on its head and tell you what my opinion on that would be which is I think now the concept, if you think about working for a bank 20, 30 years ago when I joined people thought they had a job for life and that's not anything that exists anymore, so I guess for us the way we look at it is if we’re investing in people’s skills and development yeah it might be for a career that they’re having with NatWest but it also might be for something that's going to help them propel on the next stage of their career that might be in a different organisation, a different line of industry and something totally different.
So I think how you win that trust is by just making it a key part of your employee value proposition. So again this gets back to this point around yeah we need to train people for their jobs to do today but actually what we’re trying to do is give them lifelong learning skills and lifelong learning that they can take and go and do many different things with that. And that I think is where you start to win back some of that trust.
So for example as people leave NatWest then what we’re looking at is how do we help them leave with, you know leave them well, how do we continue to keep investing in them after they’ve left from a skills perspective so that they feel supported? So you can't come away from the reality of what that looks like but I think you can help people and that's where I think from a purposeful perspective we’re trying to move to.
NC: Okay so Mel Green I know you've looked across the piece at different ways that organisations have implemented changes to their cultures are there any particular signs that things are improving?
MG: So I think when it comes to measuring progress there are certainly some of the indicators that you can measure over time, so things like whether people take part in learning, how people feel managers are supporting them, how we help people to learn, things like that. But I think what our research very much suggests is that when we talk about learning cultures whether or not creating a huge culture shift is the most effective thing to do is up for debate.
So when we look at the learning cultures literature and academic research it’s a really broad concept but what is less clear is what’s most effective, what pieces should we really be focusing on? So we really suggest that we reframe that culture piece as the environment for learning and use some of these factors that I talked about as a framework to measure progress. So look at things like people management practices, how they help people learn and influence organisational decision making, whether they have a voice, that sort of thing to really think about how things are changing but really tie it to tangible organisation practices. Instead of thinking about huge wide scale culture change it might be more effective to think about how we can create a supportive environment for learning and tie that back to a tangible organisational practice.
GM: What’s changing I think across the industry and I'm sure many people who do similar jobs to me would acknowledge this that I think the interest in learning has changed. I think we’re seeing it move from potentially being seen as a cost on investment. I think we’re seeing the C suite far more engaged around trying to understand what skills and capabilities their workforce needs and actually seeing it as that kind of competitive advantage around how we’ll move things forward. We know there'll be a skill shortage around certain key areas, so actually I think being able to see learning as a strategic partner rather than something that was done to people, as you say Nigel, to help them use systems, is changing and I think we see that across many, many boardrooms across the world that we’re in. So for me that might be doesn’t talk to your cultural piece but I think it starts to help drive that culture because it’s now seen as a strategic imperative whereas maybe it wasn’t in the past.
NC: Maybe Gavin just tell us a little bit more about what you actually do all day and every day to kind of push this process forward? I mean L&D, let’s be honest is a bit of a mystery to people in other parts of the business.
GM: From my perspective I think first of all it’s about building relationships and engaging people and you do need to be close to the business, I think you need to get that foot in the door and when you've got that foot in the door you need to be thinking about how you’re building relationships, how you’re listening, how you’re adding value. So a big part of my job is about understanding the strategy of the bank and then being able to overlay the strategic direction of L&D and talk about how we’re adding value. So that's one part of it.
I think the second part is that talking to people in the voice that they want to hear. So we’re continually thinking about how do we engage people and that's not just in what they’re learning and how they’re learning but how we engage them to get them to learn. So we spend a lot of time on that. We still spend some good time around solution development, as you would expect. Curation is obviously a big part for my team around actually finding the great learning.
And then the final part is just how do you make learning easy for people. So we know that people are time poor how are we just making learning easier for people to find on the formal piece but on that informal piece again Mel said that it’s not the responsibility of L&D to create this culture it’s the responsibility of everybody in the organisation. I think while L&D professionals play a bigger and bigger part is how do we help encourage that culture, how do we propagate it, how do we encourage it? And we do that in many, many different ways through great systems and technology, helping people with those kind of great behaviours and really just helping people role model that and engaging those leaders as we said before around how do you create that safe environment where people want to innovate, people want to take risks? So a lot of our development is about creating the culture that we want people to have, as well as doing probably quite a few emails still unfortunately in my day to day.
NC: I want to ask Mel about the culture of an organisation in terms of learning, is that not somewhat broken up because everybody is scattered, I mean maybe people who are stuck at home might be less willing to learn new things when they’re not steeped in a house culture, you know all that stuff that comes from the structure of being at work, having chats round the cooler, being supervised, being able to ask questions across the desk? I mean homeworking must mess with the way we learn?
MG: I think it changes the way we access learning and how we do it organically because as you said Nigel it is more difficult when you’re remote working to grab someone for a quick chat or ask someone very quickly if they’ve got five minutes but I don't think it’s impossible when we’re doing that remotely and I think if we really do think we’ve got a really positive environment for learning it doesn’t require supervision and structure, we want people to really be empowered to learn on their terms and be able to access that when they need it.
So actually there's some aspects of remote and digital working that can actually really support that, so we know organisations are thinking more and more about how they make sure that their learning is digital and accessible but we also do know that we perhaps need to think about how we facilitate that more social, informal side and it’s really important again that I’ll say it again managers are really important here because they can really help teams be more cohesive, they might need to spend a bit more time thinking about how they facilitate that knowledge exchange and those collaborations but I certainly don't think it’s impossible and if anything it’s a really good opportunity for organisations and L&D teams to think about how we change things up and make sure people can access learning when they need it in a method that suits them as well.
NC: Okay and Gavin do you want to say any more about what the pandemic has taught you?
GM: Yeah so I think it’s accelerated their strategy, to Mel’s point in the digital space. So we were on a virtual kind of journey anyway, that's just accelerated that. I think from a digital uptake point of view we are seeing far more people, if we talk about traditional LMS’s for a minute, 41% of all interactions now are done on an app, on a mobile device rather than a desktop, so we hoped we would get there but the pandemic has accelerated that, to Mel’s point, where people have got more choice around how they want to learn.
I guess what it’s made us focus on is when people are sitting at home they’ve got so much information hitting them haven’t they, from various different sources. People are on Zoom a lot. We hear about the great Zoom fatigue, so I think what we’re thinking about is how do we engage people so that we can get our messages across in that environment but also understand that in that environment people haven’t got a lot of energy, so actually how do we make sure that what we’re giving to people is relevant? How do we give people choice? I think that's really, really important. And how do we try and give them as personalised an experience as possible? So for me those are three ingredients of our strategy that we’re working on that I guess are being accelerated because of the Covid situation of people being at home, just to try and make it as easy for people to do as we go forward.
NC: And this is a bit of a wild question Gavin but do you think that corporate calamities like banks overreaching themselves, obviously before your personal time at NatWest, might have been prevent by a strong learning culture at the top?
GM: Yeah and I don't know if a learning culture stops people doing bad things, what I hope it does is it lets people analyse what they’ve done, reflect on the good things and the bad things and move forward. I think we can sometimes, as a society, maybe this is just us being very British that we love to analyse what we’ve done badly rather than what we’ve done well, so I think a learning culture allows you to yeah absolutely reflect on the things that people should learn from and how could that have done better and the emotional side of it, but I think we should also get better at analysing the root cause of success. Let’s play on our strengths a little bit more.
So I think there's a balance there but for me that learning culture is where you stop and pause and think, right what could we have done better; what has gone well; how do we build on it; and how do we learn and move forwards so that perhaps we don't make the mistakes that we’ve made in the past? I guess if you don't have that learning culture then you don't take that time to reflect, you’re not as attuned to that, to the emotions of it and perhaps you continue to do what you've always done.
NC: Mel you were nodding during that do you want to add anything there?
MG: Yeah I think that's a really interesting question which really feeds into what is a learning culture and why is it broader than individual learning? It needs to be about organisational learning as well and I think Gav you put it really nicely when you said it allows people to take a pause and think about what went well and maybe what didn’t go well. And really when we’re talking about what a learning culture is that's really integral, it’s about being open to mistakes but also learning from them and also using those mistakes and changing how things are done. And really that requires a huge amount of buy in and also people to think about how people management practices feed into that. So what opportunities do employees have to feedback when things have gone wrong? Is it a safe environment to admit that mistakes have happened because we know from other research we’ve done into things like ethical behaviour that when there's seen as ramifications for speaking up that can be really problematic and stop those issues coming to the surface which is why it’s important we think of organisational learning culture as something quite broad because it taps into those other people management practices, other aspects of our organisational culture, they’re all quite interlinked.
NC: Okay and I've seen a list of some of the wider benefits of a better learning culture Gavin, I won't run through them all but I just wonder which of these might strike a chord with you since you've made changes in the business: efficiency and productivity gains; increased profit; decreased employee turnover as satisfaction levels rise; continuous improvement mindset, and we talked about that; developing leaders at all levels.
GM: Yeah I think they’re all good ones. The ones that jump out for me is that continuous improvement and innovation. So I think having that in your business people like to innovate, from my signs, and I think if you’re going to grow your business innovation has got to be key. I think the decreased turnover one yeah the way I would put it is greater employee engagement and obviously you want it to be something that is really going to support your growth of your business and look after your customers and provide for that as well. So that's the three that resonate for me Nigel from that list,.
NC: And I suppose also Mel encouraging, enhancing people’s ability to embrace change because I mean well we’ve seen a lot of that in the last year.
MG: Yeah absolutely. And thinking about how we can upskill people and individuals and teams to really be able to embrace that change is really important as well I think. As you've said we’ve seen that so much this year and what an interesting question will be going forward is whenever this might be, whenever the change forced by Covid slows down will organisations stop such agile behaviour or will they really capitalise on what they’ve learnt and really take that forward? And I think that's something really interesting to think about as we move into next year and beyond.
NC: Well Mel it’s certainly got us to think about it. And Gav just maybe one or two tips to end, something that you’ve done that's proved most effectively in changing people’s mindsets in improving practices there?
GM: I think for us a few practical tips and then a few cultural tips so I think what we’ve tried to do is when we make things mandatory what we’ve tried to do to make that as engaging as possible, to make it as short as possible and to make it as relevant as possible. So to counter the culture that you talked about at the top of the call Nigel, how do we engage people in a different way? I think then the other thing is how do you really start to focus on that culture? How do you help people understand what you mean by that and how do you engage with them? So we’ve done lots of different things this year around just trying to get people to engage with learning in a totally different way.
So yeah I think that's for me where you have to start. And I think the final point then to echo what Mel said is to understand the role that L&D plays in this cultural piece. You cannot create this on your own, you’re there to propagate it, you’re there to drive it from your position but you can't do it alone and you need to take all your leaders with you.
NC: Excellent. Well I've certainly learnt a lot from this edition. With that we have to take our leave. Let me thank Gavin McQuillan, Head of Learning and Development at NatWest and the CIPD’s own Mel Green.
Just time to mention our last podcast which remains highly topical with those endless post-Brexit trade talks still up in the air as we speak and we spell out the practicalities of the new migration restrictions, events prompting the Association of Professional Staffing Companies to comment that recruiters still feel unprepared without clear access to the flexible international skills they need. So give that last podcast a listen. Have a look through some of the recent ones, there's plenty there. And subscribe so you never miss an edition. But until next time from all of us here at the CIPD it’s goodbye and keep safe.
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