Learning cultures with Nigel Paine

What is a learning culture and how is a learning culture fostered, supported and enabled? In this podcast, Robin is exploring these questions with author and podcaster, Nigel Paine. Nigel's latest book is called Workplace Learning: How to build a culture of continuous employee development. This podcast builds upon and discusses themes from the book.

About Nigel Paine 

Nigel Paine is a change-focused leader with a worldwide reputation and a unique grasp of media, learning and development in the public, private and academic sectors.

Nigel focuses on the use of learning technologies, organisational development, leadership and creativity with a spotlight on maximising human potential, innovation and performance in the workplace. Nigel is a strategic thinker, able to motivate, lead and drive organisations forward to deliver business and training objectives.

Nigel has been involved in corporate learning for over twenty years.

He has a Professorship from Napier University in Edinburgh and is a Fellow of the CIPD, LPI, the RSA and a Masie Learning Fellow in the USA. He presents a monthly TV programme (Learning Now TV), shares a weekly podcast (with Martin Couzins) called From Scratch, and regularly writes articles for magazines and journals about development, technology and leadership.


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Learning cultures with Nigel Paine

Robin: Nigel, you've been doing some really interesting work around learning cultures. What's your definition of a learning culture?

Nigel: I don't know whether it's unique but it emerged from the research and my book. I didn't start with the definition of learning culture. My definition of learning culture is, I think, importantly different from other people. What I'm saying is, the learning culture inside an organisation is when an organisation is open to the outside world. It brings in ideas and insights from the outside world. It shares those rapidly inside the organisation and turns them into action. So it's an energy model. You constantly churn the ideas and turn them into action and I call it an organisation with a gyroscope. So I think learning is the organisational gyroscope that allows the pilots, the CEO, the executive board, to know where the horizon is and know where their organisation is in relation to the horizon. And it stops organisations flying upside down or flying into mountains.

And that's one of the big problems, when you're a big organisation, you become more and more insular. You stop listening to the outside world and you start listening to the inside world or you're an organisation which is full of wonderful individual experts but they don't share their knowledge. So the organisation has to learn again and again, exactly the same stuff. My model is critical, bringing stuff, bringing information, bringing insights from outside, sharing, having a learning community inside the organisation, which goes, "That's interesting. What can we do about that? That will help improve this process. That is an important lesson from the customer." And then turns those insights into action. It's an action model because if you don't adjust, if you don't make changes big and small, then what's the point of having a learning culture? So it's a critical way of aligning the organisation constantly to a changing external environment. So it's about balancing the external environment with the internal environment. That's my learning culture.

Robin: The gyroscope is a lovely metaphor for that as well, that sort of balancing out. It's the way, when you talk about it, I think about it as almost like a customer insight engine, reaching out and being connected back through the actual people you're serving and the people you're connecting with.

Nigel: Engine is the right word, Robin. It's an engine, it's got energy. It generates energy. And if you go into organisations which have got a pretty advanced learning culture, you feel that energy. People are engaged. People talk to each other. Wow, shock horror, they sit and talk. They ask for advice, they admit mistakes and they're constantly curious about what's going on. And they don't hesitate to bring in other people when "I don't understand that. I need some expertise in this area. Robin, will you come in? Peter, will you come in?" It's that sort of place where dialogue is free and active and you don't get punished for talking to someone. It's not a place where people are sitting in front of screens all day, never daring to stand up even. It's a place of curiosity and engagement. It is an engine. It's a great, great word, energy. That's the key.

Robin: I think it's also starting to become a little bit of an overused term and part of what you did in your book, which I think was a fantastic thing to do, was actually go back only 20 years, 30 years, to look at the history of the term and to go back to Peter Senge and a few other people. It was so interesting because essentially they talked about what it looks like, which is still very similar to what you're talking about but their how to go about doing it is different again.

Nigel: I think it was a different age. And the one thing that if you go back to Senge, which I did and Bob Garrett of Learning Services in the UK, there was a huge amount of interest in learning organisations, learning companies, and the power of learning. In the year 2000, Jack Welch in the GE annual report, it's famous report in 2000, Jack Welch said “an organisation that learns slower than the changes in the outside environment is doomed.” So Jack Welch got that. He was very influenced by those people.

The problem was that when you look at Senge's "Fifth Discipline", the complexity is just mind-boggling. First of all, you've got five disciplines to master. That in itself is really hard. So you've got five disciplines. Then you've got 15 learning disabilities that you've got to overcome. So you go, "Oh, right. That's 21." Then there are 21 laws that you have to apply. So by the time you begin to look up "How do you do that inside an organisation?" Your eyes begin to water. The funny thing, a very unsurprising thing, is that everyone thought this was a wonderful, wonderful breakthrough book but no one actually worked their way through the implementation and Senge realised this.

So about three years after the release of "The Fifth discipline", he sold millions. He made a fortune from that book. If only, I would love to get 10% of what Senge did for the book. He produced "The Fifth Discipline" field book to make it easy but that's even more complicated. It's just impossible. When you get to Josh Berson, Josh did a wonderful report on learning culture, but he has 40 characteristics of a learning culture.

I just think people will look at the forty and go "Well, what do I do here?" And that is the problem. So I kept it nice and simple. In my model, there are really only four building blocks, external building blocks. The first one is trust, simple stuff. Organisations with low trust will never build learning cultures, period. Empowerment, engagement and then a leadership that embodies those other three. If you haven't got those, then you're not going to move into my inner circle and start to build the learning culture. So for example, if you take an organisation where the CEO's not interested, the HR people think you're a bit weird and you're doing your best in the margins. What can you do? Well, what you can do is focus, not on learning or increasing the quantum of learning, because none of the organisations that I case studied focused on learning, they focused on the organisation.

It's a holistic model. And I wanted to call the book "Look Up, Don't Look Down, Don't do Another E-learning Course" but the publisher thought that was ridiculous because there were 25,000 books called "Look up". But that's the philosophy behind it, look up and look at what it's like working in your organisation, focus on the blockages. If you can convince the organisation they need to build higher trust in the organisation or staff need more empowerment, you can build a strategy or develop a strategy to deliver that and the strategy you can start with, maybe a team, your team, handful of people in the organisation. But if you can prove that actually makes a difference. You can then begin to convince the CEO, not about learning, who cares. Don't talk about learning just yet, talk about making your organisation more successful, creating a climate where people are prepared to give discretionary effort, where problems are solved faster, that your allies and allegiance with the customer is much, much stronger.

Start there and you'd have to be pretty insensitive to not get that. I think if I was in learning and I started there and I proved my case and the CEO still said, "Not interested, I'll look for another job." You can convince even the most cynical, bring me the spreadsheet CEO, that this is the real stuff that will improve the organisation and help him or her deliver their objectives. So, there is always a starting point. It's not, you don't have to be very sophisticated and a long way down the track to begin to think about learning culture because the building blocks are pretty fundamental. They're the things that you should put in place before you move on.

Robin: Yeah. Cause I think, a lot of the L & D people would sit there and go "Oh, I'd love your trust or empowerment" is not actually part of the role of what I'm meant to be doing or meant to be practically living programmes. This whole thing is sitting there going well, let's focus in on what we can do, and even say, rebuilding a team, the L & D team and L & D function around trust and empowerment.

Nigel: You're spot on how that was. You're absolutely spot on. Also, that linked to that is that if you get these fundamentals right, the learning takes care of itself because people are curious. They want to learn. They will find ways of learning. So you're turning the learning function into an enabler and facilitator, not someone rushing away to develop laboriously, tonnes of e-learning or content. People will find the content. You can just tweak their interests, set them off. They will work it out. An organisation with learning culture is full of people learning for themselves. To me, that's a joy. If you're in learning and you're not having to whip people into this compliance course, sanctions if you don't do it, you've got an organisation that is, you're pushing against an open door. That is a joy behold. I can't see any learning team saying "Oh God, we don't want that. No, no, we, we have to do it for them. We don't want them to learn on their own." Of course, they do. But you have to have the conditions for learning.

That goes back even further to the 60s to Gagné and "The Conditions of Learning" and it's he's right. There are conditions which enable learning and there are conditions that stop it at all costs. What I try and persuade learning teams, often, is that you are not loved necessarily in your organisation. People don't think learning is a good thing. There are plenty of places which have a culture where learning gets in the way. "Get out of my way. I need my bonus. I need to do this. I need to close that sale. Get out of it. I don't care about your stupid learning." That you're fighting always against the prevailing culture. So fix that first and then everything else begins to fall into place.

Robin: Yeah. The curiosity thing is so interesting Nigel. It's something I’d completely forgotten the Harvard academic has done a fair bit of work around the importance of curiosity in organisations and to actually internally play with it at Sprout labs, to sit there and go "How can we actually be more curious?" It's interesting because essentially the empowerment bit supports curiosity. You can't just encourage people to be curious. If you're not thinking they're going "You've got autonomy. You're going to empowerment for change. You've got the ability to be able to change things." And I think that sort of focusing back on those bigger picture fundamentals is a really nice thing. So the curiosity ones are really good examples of where you need to dig down to that layer.

Nigel: It's just asking why. So many organisations discourage asking why, just do it. There used to be in a well-known failed UK bank, the expression was JFDI and I won't say the word about what the F stands for, but basically that was the culture. You didn't ask questions, you just effing did it and that is toxic and where did the bank end up? Nearly collapsed. And you need people increasingly in this turbulent age to ask why and Jeff Bezos, Jeff has this layer of six that Jeff Bezos pleads that if you ask why, and then you ask "Well, why did that happen? And then so why did that happen?" It's only when you get down to the fifth or sixth layer that you get to the root cause.

So, Amazon is full of ask why, explore, don't take things on face value. But if you can imagine an organisation full of people like that, then they actually fix things faster. It sounds really slow and pedantic but it's not, you fix things faster because you're not fixing something that breaks immediately. You're fixing something forever and that's critical. And curiosity is the only way that you'll get people asking "Well, why, why did that happen? Why did that work? Why did that not work?"

Robin: Yeah. You're articulating nicely into this. This is the first in a series of podcasts leading into learning cultures and tech companies. So, just want to explore something for a moment because the five why's is actually a technique that comes from Lean manufacturing and essentially an analysis technique. One of the things you did in your book would actually make this connection back to the total quality management system.

Nigel: Back to Edwards Deming, his 14 rules. If you read those now, that he wrote in the 60s or 70s, they're radical and still very interesting. It's all about setting the workforce free and letting them work out their own problems and not expecting the workforce to do what they're told. And you put in a whole bunch of quality control people to sort out any of the issues. So Deming was saying a long, long time ago, let people free, make them curious, give them the opportunities to fix stuff and they will. That started in Japan, his influences in Japan and around the world.

Robin: That sort of trend transfers back into, then, the agile thinking movement and projects in IT, which then leads back into that sort of thinking through now of where we're seeing the organisations that disrupting are the organisations that are doing exactly what you're talking about, which are listening to customers in very different ways and responding in very fast ways. Possibly sometimes because they've actually taken out whether they're given empowerment probably and trust and has those values embedded in them?

Nigel: Yes, It's true. I was talking to a games designer in Dublin last week and he was saying that if you're in a games company, the learning culture has to be there. Otherwise, you're a failed games designer. Because you're constantly solving problems because you're building a world and that world is complex. And if you give, say, you do this bit, you do this bit, you do this bit, the world never comes together. So he said they spent most of their time talking, talking through, trying to solve problems. Then the actual coding was done very quickly because they worked it all out rather than they all sit there laboriously coding. Then that clashes with something else. The whole thing looks very dodgy and weak. Whereas when they were collaborating, when they were building this communal world, it became strong and deep. So, I think you're right. I think tech companies can either "This is your job, 50 lines of code" or tech companies, which say, "Talk to the customer, see what it's like, understand the user." rather than just do your job. There's a big difference in those two different approaches.

Robin: Yeah. And it's this sort of cultural shift. There's even a project management technique where essentially it's the whole notion, idea, one person on the keyboard, but two people talking constantly. I sit there and go, in some industries, the idea of actually having two people to do one task is just so radically different and people would see it as a waste but because of that dialogue constantly, it's actually more productive.

Nigel: Way more productive. I think that's right. People like to, well, not everyone but the vast majority of people are communal beings. We seem to have got work wrong, we sit them in serried ranks and we stick a screen in front of them and tell them not to talk or tell them that you're annoying anyone if you speak and if you interrupt someone, you're interrupting their workflow. Whereas, in a learning culture talking is the essence of the organisation. That's how you understand and see what's going on and get a holistic view and not just your narrow, narrow view of what you do and only what you do.

Robin: The case studies that you explored in-depth in your book was the WD 40, which as I looked through it through the index, I sort of went "That's an odd one to trip up on Nigel." Then when you really got to it, it was sort of like "Oh, actually this is a perfect example of a CEO led learning culture."

Nigel: Yeah. It doesn't call itself a learning culture. If you talk to the CEO, the CEO and staff of WD 40, which I was lucky enough to be able to do, what you get is a focus on problem solving and admitting of mistakes and great ambition. It's a really ambitious company. The CEO took over that company when it had a market cap of 220 million and was seen generally as a boring, go nowhere company. You know, what do they make? They make a little can of oil and that's all they're going to make. Now 10 years on, the market cap is $1.6 billion and it's all over the world. He's turned that little product into a whole product range for different markets and the whole place buzzes with excitement.

He sets really tough targets. If you'd say "Oh, it's a learning culture. It must be really easy in there." Not at all. It's a really tough organisation with big challenges but they solve them collectively and they admit mistakes and they make progress and they do amazing things. It's a remarkable company, WD 40. And I looked at Glassdoor because I'm listening to the CEO saying "It's a really happy company. People feel fulfilled." So I checked out Glassdoor, which you get the truth from Glassdoor; disillusioned people posting their messages on the way out. On Glassdoor, Gary Ridge, the CEO, has an approval rating of 99% and Sundar Pichai, from Google, has 95%. So he's beaten even the really popular CEO of Google. And people say in Glassdoor "Yes, I left the company. It wasn't big enough to really sustain my career but it's the best place I ever worked for." So you can do it. If you judge Gary, you don't judge him by learning culture, you judge him by the results and his results are spectacular.

Robin: It's just an amazing, amazing result. Actually, to pick up on something I wanted to talk with you about and it's the problem-solving bit in the learning culture. And there's actually in your leadership book, you talked about action learning. And the roots of it as well, Nigel. It wasn't, it's not sort of just doing something. It was actually that whole solving a wicked problem. It's one of the things, a lovely reminder, that it's a simple, getting people together to solve problems. The powerful way of moving things forward.

Nigel: Yeah, it was developed by Reg Revans in the 70s and Reg, when they were setting up Manchester University Business School, Reg applied to be the first principal. He said the whole business school should be based around action learning. Anyway, they appointed the first director, it wasn't Reg and they went for the Harvard case study model. And so Reg went off in sulk and it was never seen again in Manchester Business School. Reg's belief was that committed colleagues under pressure could really solve any very complex problem. And action learning doesn't work for simple, straightforward stuff, where there's an answer. Action learning works when there is no answer, where you're really struggling and it's a peer group model, and it has lots of advantages, i.e., you make progress, you solve problems but peers get to know each other, get to know the other person's world and the other person's challenges.

It creates a kind of holistic view of the organisation. Where you have action learning successfully in operation, it has massive knock-on effects in terms of the collegiality and the willingness to open up, admit mistakes and that ability of my learning culture model to bring in ideas from outside and share them rapidly amongst peers. So, it's a peer-based learning. When I think peer-based learning is an incredibly important trend. I've just written a report on leadership innovation around 15 companies in Europe. One of the big trends now is to encourage leaders working together as peers to solve their own problems and not kind of devolve responsibility to some outside organisation to tell them what to do and what to think. So, action learning is very important but again, it's going back. This is something that came up in the 70s and was incredibly popular in the 90s, died a death in the noughties. Literally, no one was interested in action. Now it's beginning to revive and it's becoming increasingly important.

Robin: I'm hearing that same thing around leadership, as well. That in actual fact, a lot of leadership development people are sitting there going actually, we're now at a spot where we're setting up conversations around problems rather than doing any other facilitation and seeing that peer to peer at the most. The person who explained it to me, didn't ask the question "What were the trends you're seeing in leadership development?" And he didn't use the word action learning at all. He just sat there and said, "Oh, I'm finding that facilitating these peer to peer discussions around our problems is getting better results across the organisation than we've done my traditional workshop model."

Nigel: Yeah. It's also one of those things, I think, that L and D teams are really up for being able to do it and being able to facilitate and make happen. There's possibly a significant way of really being able to push forward in learning culture.

Robin: So it’s about the time with Nigel, always get to this spot and sit there and go "Well we're out of time." I'd like to finish with this big complicated question, which is actually, what's your greatest general wisdom about fostering learning culture?

Nigel: I think it's the one that I've been rambling on about right through this podcast. That is that you start with the evidence of what's really going on in the organisation. You don't start with a dream or you don't start with learning, or you don't start with a programme. You actually find out what drives people crazy and stops them doing good work. And then you work backwards to, "So, what can we do to make people's life easier and to set them free and empower them and engage them?" And that is the beginning. When people see the organisation getting better, they're on your side from the very beginning. So don't start with complicated models, start with what it's really like, day-to-day, inside your organisation.

Robin: That's a great way to finish the conversation, thank you, Nigel.

Nigel: It's a pleasure. Thank you. Good to talk to you, Robin.