The terms learning culture (or, alternatively, culture of learning) and learning ecosystem have been relatively trendy in the corporate learning and development world for many years, but our experience has been that they are used much less frequently in the world of learning businesses. We’re seeing some signs that may be changing, and it’s a change that’s needed.
We’ve made the point before that learning is not an event; it’s a process. But that process is neither linear nor isolated. Even our most clearly defined learning experiences happen in interaction with other people and our environment and are influenced by countless other processes that may be unfolding on our lives.
And, of course, most of our learning experiences are not clearly defined. They emerge organically from the sum of our day-to-day experiences.
Most of the focus of learning businesses historically has been on what might be described as “point in time” solutions – classes, courses, conference sessions that are mere blips on the overall context of a learner’s life and career. Blips that appear and fade away quite rapidly, often leaving little, if any, trace behind.
If we’re going really support lifelong learning, if we are going to position ourselves in the career business, rather than the education or events business, if we are, in fact, going to lead learning in the fields and industries we serve, then we must understand and address each learner’s need in context, over time. And we must understand that we have some ability to not just to react to context, but also to influence and shape it.
As our series on the frontiers of learntech made clear, technology has opened new possibilities for serving learners in this way. The sheer increase in our ability to reach and connect with learners has changed the learning landscape permanently, and the emergence of artificial intelligence and possibilities for personalization will also leave an indelible mark.
But simply implementing better technology isn’t going to carry us into the future of learning. The key is in our relationships with and to our learners – and learning culture and learning ecosystem are at the heart of those relationships.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
What is a Learning Culture?
Culture, broadly speaking, may be defined as a cohesive, integrated, and persistent pattern of knowledge, belief, and behavior exhibited by a group of human beings.
Learning may be defined as “the lifelong process of transforming information and experience into knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitudes.”
Learning is the the lifelong process of transforming information and experience into knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitudesMission to Learn
Combining the two definitions, a learning culture is one in which the process of learning drives the pattern of culture. Learning is among the highest values of the group of people involved, and learning, because it inherently leads to change, enables and drives the evolution of the culture.
Put somewhat differently, a learning culture is a culture that clearly values and prioritizes learning, rewards the pursuit of learning, and is therefore able to change, adapt, and evolve as circumstances require.
For learning business, this culture is not confined to a single organization, but rather extends out to the broader community, field, or industry the business services. (That said, as prerequisite to supporting the broader culture, the business should have a strong internal learning culture. Modeling the desired outcomes is crucial, and it is difficult to model what you have not fully appreciated and integrated into your own practices.)
It is important to recognize that while education and training can be important elements of a learning culture, there is nothing about “learning culture” per se that requires formal education and training experiences. Living itself is learning. Participants in a learning culture recognize this equivalence, whether consciously or not, and this recognition shapes their mindset with respect to both life and learning.
Too much of a focus on training and education can actually impede a learning culture if training and education experiences – and, typically, the credit associated with them – evolve to act as a proxy for true learning. Simply putting in the time or “checking the box” for a formal, structured educational activity may be perceived as learning when, in reality, little is gained from the experience, whether because it is not truly relevant to the learner, the learner is not motivated, or myriad other reasons.
Finally, a true learning culture is never fixed or static; it is emergent, representing the continuing accumulation of interactions within the culture – i.e., the patterns. Because this is the case, learning culture cannot be prescribed, it can only be influenced and fostered. Equally important, learning culture, by its very nature, requires social interaction and community. Those seeking to influence and foster a learning community must be meaningful participants in these interactions and community wherever they arise.
An ecosystem in nature is a community of living beings interacting with each other and their environment. When healthy, it is characterized by balance and an innate understanding that no single part of the system is more important than another and that changes in one part of the ecosystem may impact multiple other parts of the ecosystem directly or indirectly.
Ecosystem is an apt metaphor to apply to learning given that learning is also fundamentally about interactions among human beings and between human beings and their environment or context. We have the ability to shape and influence a learning ecosystem through decisions about the people involved, the substance of the learning experiences offered, and the tools and technologies used to support and connect the two. From this perspective, a learning ecosystem is comprised of people, content, technology, and the processes and strategies that unite them.
The whole of a learning ecosystem, however, is greater than the sum of its parts. Learning culture emerges from a learning ecosystem while simultaneously influencing and impacting the ecosystem. Just as culture is dynamic and evolving, the ecosystem, too, is dynamic and evolving. The two concepts are inseparable from each other: two side of the same coin or, borrowing from the poet William Butler Yeats, as hard to distinguish as the dancer and the dance.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,William Butler Years, Among School Children
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
That said, while firm control of culture and ecosystem is impossible, decisions made about an ecosystem – the components, the processes, the strategy – do impact its health and, by extension, the health and efficacy of the learning culture. As in nature, too much of an emphasis on any one factor – a delivery method or approach to learning, for example – may negatively impact the whole. Learning ecosystem decisions should always be made with the desired outcomes – including the desired learning culture – in mind.
Start With a Shift In Mindset
Of course, very few learning businesses start from a blank slate with respect to either ecosystem or culture. There are already elements of each in place, both within the business and within the broader community, field, or industry it serves. The challenge and the opportunity are to make the effort to assess current culture and ecosystem, to establish a vision for the future state of culture and ecosystem, and consciously set about the work of influencing each in a positive direction, one that will elevate the range, relevance, and quality of learning experiences available to each individual learner.
For most learning businesses, this will require a significant shift in mindset across the stakeholder base – often meaning not only staff, board members, and volunteers (where relevant), but also learners themselves. In the world of adult lifelong learning, we tend to be very validation-centric, viewing primarily those experiences associated with continuing education, certification, and other forms of “credit” as valid learning experiences. This bias is usually unconscious, but it confuses education and learning to the detriment of learning.
As an initial step toward prioritizing learning ecosystem and learning culture, the bias needs to be made conscious – again, across the stakeholder base – and organizations need to make a much more conscious effort to support less formal opportunities as well as opportunities that are not “one size fits all” as so many continuing education and professional development opportunities essentially are currently.
None of this is to say that there is not a place for traditional formal approaches. Rather, it is a call for a significant shift in emphasis and a recognition that, while formal education certainly can and should play a key role in supporting a learning culture, excessive focus on it can make it difficult to realize the potential of other, less formal elements as well as to personalize experiences to the needs of individual learners.
For most organizations, gathering the right group of people – usually a combination of staff, key volunteers (if relevant), and some representative learners – and asking the question, “How else – beyond what we have traditionally done – could we foster and support learning for the people we serve?” is a simple, but powerful first step toward shifting mindset and identifying the opportunities that a focus on learning ecosystem and learning culture represent.
How else – beyond what we have traditionally done – could we foster and support learning for the people we serve?
If you are interested in successfully navigating and leading the future of learning in your community, field, or industry, it’s a gathering I highly encourage you to start scheduling today.