4 Ways Learning Predicts, Protects Culture

When organizational beliefs, values and norms are part of a company’s learning strategy, they’re sustainable for the long haul.

It doesn’t take long to know whether an organization has a positive or negative corporate culture. Employees feel it in their guts, and they know instinctively if they want to be a part of it.

While there may be a written set of beliefs, values and norms that define organizational culture, it only comes to life when it’s manifested through employees. This doesn’t happen through osmosis. Learning is a critical predictor and protector for culture. When organizational beliefs, values and norms are taught and reinforced, the company can instill these ideals in employees and ensure they are sustained long term.

While there are many ways learning can positively affect culture, here are the three most meaningful:

1. Culture empowers employees to feel confident and achieve their potential. The most successful organizations — whether they’re manufacturing giants, retail businesses or business-to-business enterprises — view culture as a strategic business priority, for which development has a strong focus.

When every employee has development opportunities and support with which to reach their potential, this not only fulfills an inate human desire to be better at what we do but also creates a pervasive culture of continuous personal growth. As employees become more knowledgeable, they also feel more confident. This builds their skill level and the value they can provide to the organization.

Research backs this up. James Bruno, professor of education at the University of California Los Angeles, created a confidence-based assessment and learning methodology and identified that when confidence and knowledge are correlated, they become critical determinants in evaluating future performance. Employees who are “masters” — displaying high knowledge and high confidence in specific areas — know the facts and are not afraid to use them. Knowledgeable, action-driven employees are the type of workers organizations want and need.

2. Culture fosters trust and innovation. At the risk of sounding cliché, trust starts at the top, and learning is the cornerstone.

When leaders are honest, share their expectations and discuss organizational successes and failures, this creates a culture of trust and openness that allows all employees to learn about, and understand, the business. Highly informed employees increase the collective brain power necessary to achieve corporate success. And, the smarter everybody feels they are allowed to be, the better they feel about where they work.

Further, the more everyone trusts each other, the more they will communicate and collaborate to get things done. In a culture where learning and openness are valued, employees feel safe to express their opinions and try new things. This encourages them to contribute ideas and can lead to innovative strategies that benefit the entire organization.

3. Culture instills behaviors to achieve common goals. While it would be ideal if employees automatically adopted behaviors consistent with the corporate culture, most of the time behaviors need to be taught and reinforced.

Organizations can use regular learning interventions to instill desired behaviors that enable targeted business outcomes. For example, Wal-Mart Inc.’s distribution center implemented a microlearning program to improve safety, resulting in a 54 percent decrease in safety incidents. Similarly, an e-learning program to decrease safety incidents and inventory shrink at Bloomingdale’ssaved the company $2.2 million a year.

By using learning to drive a culture of safety, trust, customer service or other important attributes, organizations exemplify their importance to employees. This “practice what you preach” approach increases the likelihood employees will embrace the values the company deems essential.

4. Learning is a cultural competitive advantage. Although company activities and social events are often the most common methods organizations use to build culture, continuous learning is more effective at teaching beliefs, values and norms, as well as preserving them long term. And this approach isn’t just based on a gut instinct. It’s becoming a deliberate strategy. According to Arie de Geus, former head of strategic planning for Royal Dutch/Shell Oil, as organizations seek to find new ways to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, the “ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”