Businesses thrive when boards create learning cultures

by Sean O'Neill on Sep 21, 2022

how to create a learning culture

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One of the board’s key roles includes establishing the company’s culture, values and ethics. Boards should also establish a learning culture as change is rapid in today’s business climate.

A crucial role of any board is to establish the right “tone from the top”. Directors should lead by example and ensure that good standards of behaviour are maintained throughout the organisation.

This will prevent misconduct and unethical practices while supporting the long-term success.

Change has never been so constant

Today’s working environment is one that is information-rich, where the knowledge worker is king or queen, and change is rapid.

What knowledge, skills, and experience previously acquired by individuals may now have a sell-by date, and having the agility to respond to changing markets is the stuff which allows business to remain competitive.

Add to this the impacts of unforeseen events such as Covid 19 and other threats such as the climate crisis. There is an ever-increasing need for a different kind of organisational learning.

Since boards are crucial in driving businesses’ decision-making and ensuring that such decisions are ethical and sustainable, ensuring they have adequate expertise is vital. But while board members bring a lot of knowledge and experience to bear on decisions, this knowledge must also be kept up to date and flexible enough to allow for agile decision-making.

Focus on core competencies such as digital literacy, information gathering, and knowledge management.

Setting the tone from the top by creating a learning culture

Boards are critical to developing the learning culture for the broader organisation since they set the tone. If they display good learning practices, the rest of the organisation should model this.

This can mean acknowledging that learning is a shared experience and goal, not just the chair’s responsibility. It also means recognising that we are all subject to particular frames of reference built by our prior experiences. When something new happens, such as hybrid working, the new conditions may challenge our previous concepts and create uncertainty.

To embrace such change and learn from it, we need to be able to adapt the mental models we use to interpret things to accommodate our new experiences. If we cannot, this inflexibility can lead to stagnation among the leadership.

To remedy this, boards should ensure that individuals are not punished for taking certain risks or challenging existing practices.

A board that allows more voices to be heard will be more successful at tackling challenges.

What else can be done?

In addition to organising training and materials, it is worthwhile to create forums that encourage working together and knowledge sharing and create time and opportunities for reflection.

Personality may be another factor to consider, with some being more self-directed and proactive than others. In the hybrid environment, this is becoming ever more important, so enhancing metacognitive skills, or our ability to think about our thinking, can be helpful.

But there may be further barriers to learning in the boardroom, such as trust. Sometimes for the sake of harmony, difficult questions may go unexamined, even though this might not be in the business’s best interests.

Within some boards, there may be a fear of speaking up and being innovative or suggesting new ideas might be seen as going out on a limb.

So, creating a learning culture involves more than the organisation of formal training sessions, whether in person or over zoom, to place learning at the level of work.

Technology can play a more significant part when workers are more distributed and not in an office. It is worth recognising that this can occur in several ways. It can often be in response to some uncertainty that the individual needs to make sense of and could involve searching for new information via documents or searching for people who might know. It could be done alone or in partnership with colleagues.

In contrast to formal learning, informal learning occurs all the time. It can happen in the workflow without us realising that we have learned something. But while informal learning could be unplanned, it can also be guided and facilitated through coaching.

In addition to formal training, many senior executives engage in self-paced study such as viewing videos and reading articles, which can also be considered informal learning.

On some boards, there may be a fear of speaking up and being innovative or suggesting new ideas might be seen as going out on a limb.

Create opportunities for learning

Besides the above, it can be helpful to consider whether there are enough opportunities for reflection. This can be difficult when people are busy, especially on boards where individuals may commit a limited amount of time per year. Nevertheless, reflection and feedback are excellent ways to collaborate on new ideas while at the same time reinforcing informal learning.

This can be an excellent learning opportunity when boards go through an evaluation process. However, as mentioned, there can sometimes be a culture of fear or embarrassment, which is not conducive to learning from mistakes.

Criticism can be brutal, but ego can often be a barrier to effective communication. So, open communications are essential to enabling a learning response which embraces change.

So, boards can consider the areas in which members need to become more knowledgeable. They can also create informal and formal learning opportunities, such as retreats.

In the virtual environment, they can make sure that systems are in place to support collaboration and knowledge sharing. They can also encourage board members to give presentations and help teach other members to build organisational learning.

The board needs a common language to function effectively, and learning is essential to finding such a language. The ability to learn allows the board to change so they can better cover any gaps in governance.

A continuous learning culture will help move the company closer to achieving its mission and goals. Since it is focused on development in the long term, rather than short-term fire fighting, this can help with business growth.

An effective learning culture is a mindset that starts from the top.

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