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Building a learning culture – an interview with DR Nigel Paine

interview Nigel Paine for Rise Up

This is the second article in our series on learning culture. To see the previous post, visit: What is a learning culture?


Dr Nigel Paine, learning and leadership expert, international speaker and author of several books, talks to Rise Up about how to build a learning culture. In particular, he discusses four key elements that he says need to be in place in order for a learning culture to flourish: empowerment, trust, engagement and leadership.

Firstly, Nigel, what is a learning culture?


It’s organisation wide - it’s not about individuals. That’s a big mistake that a lot of people make - thinking a learning culture is lots of individuals doing lots of learning. That’s a culture of learning and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not a learning culture.


With a learning culture, learning is used to focus on organisational problems. It’s about shared learning, the shared generation of knowledge and shared problem solving.


And it’s about bringing insights in from outside that are then spun around the organisation. This allows an organisation to make adjustments to its trajectory, given the information, data and insights emerging. A learning organisation is what I call a tuned up organisation - it’s really sharp and ready to act.


What are the benefits of a learning culture?


People feel engaged and that they belong to an organisation. They say things like “I feel alive in the organisation. I have purpose. I have autonomy. People listen to me. I’m getting so much good experience. I’ve learnt so many things other than just doing my job.”


It’s also about motivating people, making them feel they have meaning in their life and meaning in their work. Learning organisations are usually much happier places than non-learning organisations.


In a learning culture, you’re acutely aware of failures in the system - those little insights, patterns and irregularities, the dissonances in the environment that alert you to gather colleagues together and say “I’m hearing this….I’m hearing that… What do you think we need to do? I’m going to do some further investigating...”  It’s about working constantly on the organisation as well as in the organisation.


In a learning culture, it’s never edicts coming from top down, but questions coming from top down. It’s about questioning and never assuming. It’s about informal sharing, admitting of mistakes and learning from mistakes.


Organisations without a learning culture have a lot more difficulty understanding what is going on out there and they find it hard to galvanise everybody to work out problems. A non-learning culture is where people sit around and wait for someone to tell them what to do. These organisations tend to be top down: the message comes from the top and your job is to do it.


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Are there any trends that stand out regarding learning cultures?


I think Communities of Practice (CoP) are going to become more and more important over the next five years. Etienne Wenger, who coined the term in 1996, says a CoP tries to work out strategies to deal with uncertainty. Most learning and development deals in certainty - You don’t know something, I will tell you about it. You used to be uncertain, now you’re certain, go back to your job. Wenger says that’s ridiculous at a time where there’s less and less that’s certain. Some things are certain but there’s more that you can’t be certain about. A CoP is a way of fixing all sorts of issues around an organisation, a way of shoring up against the incoming tide.


There should be lots of CoPs in an organisation. Membership should be by invitation, leadership by acclamation and they should be democratic. CoPs deliberately work against the hierarchy. Hierarchies are really good for making decisions and getting things done, but CoPs are good for picking up all the noise, all the disturbances and dis-functionalities and saying “What’s going on here? Is there something we could ignore? Take quite seriously or start panicking about?”


What has Covid-19 taught us about learning culture?


Covid made people realise that the companies that coped best were the ones where people took the initiative and made decisions.


The places where people broke the rules, got stuff done and fixed stuff were the ones that thrived. The companies that did worse were the ones where people were paralysed and sat around waiting for an order to come down from head office. It makes a difference when people take the initiative and are empowered to do that.


Empowerment is a key word for you. Why?


Empowerment is when people get on with doing the job without asking for permission, even when they’re not sure they know how to do something. They think: “I need to do this, I need to try to make it successful.”


If you allow people to give things a go, you also allow them to admit openly what they are struggling with and to ask for help when they need help. That encourages people to take small risks and to feel like what they do makes a difference. All these things are small but they add up because they are repeated endlessly in organisations.


Empowerment comes easily when there’s a lot of trust.


Why is trust important?


Trust is the most important thing - without trust, nothing else happens. If there’s a lack of trust, you have to fix it.


You have to explain to senior leaders the impact of a distrustful organisation - how it’s corrosive, how it paralyses the organisation if no-one is prepared to admit anything or share anything. I see it all the time. You might get a team that hates all the other teams or divisions that are at war with other divisions. This was once seen as healthy competition but I see it as very, very unproductive competition.


Lack of trust is when you wouldn’t tell your manager anything because it would be used against you. Lack of trust is when you have a great idea but don’t share it because it could be stolen from you. Lack of trust creates toxic environments and horrible places to work.


So many people live for so many years in lack of trust environments. They get used to it and they learn to behave in that way. You can see the wastage of quality people, with quality ideas and the amount of mistakes that get made again and again because no-one admits it was a mistake in the first place.


Why is engagement important?


Engagement is when you get up in the morning, wanting to go to work and you leave in the evening feeling you’ve made a contribution. And when you think you are working for a great place where everyone is pulling together, that people care about you and you care about them. And you care about the outcomes of your business. You’re engaged in the workplace when you feel you have purpose, you have autonomy, you know what you’re doing and you want to do your very best.


With engagement, people give discretionary effort. Discretionary effort is something no-one can order you to give – it’s your choice.


An organisation with lots of engaged people is an organisation that goes the extra mile.


Yet survey after survey after survey for the last 15 years show that only about 30% of the workforce are engaged. About 15% are actively disengaged.


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What is the role of leadership?


You can’t have a leadership team that thinks one thing and then encourages the rest of the organisation to think something else. Or a leadership team fighting each other. It’s not going to work.


But, not everything is started by an enlightened leadership team. You get ideas that bubble up. But you’ve got to have leadership that’s prepared to listen.


Any final thoughts on learning culture?


A learning culture is about connections - in and outside the organisation. It’s a focus away from the individual through to connections, connectivity and organisational excellence. It doesn’t mean that individuals aren’t important, but it’s a collective intelligence that people draw on.


The next post in this series on learning culture will look at engagement and the employee experience.

Previous article

What is a learning culture?