Measuring your learning culture

Image courtesy of Pixabay

L&D colleagues, we’ve all heard the drumbeat that we have to drive a learning culture in the organisation. This sounds amazing and is what anyone passionate about learning and development would aspire to. When I try to deeper into what this means with clients, it can feel frustrating. Even the most experienced practitioners are tempted to fall back on the classic measurements L&D has been trying to use for ages, because that’s all they had: happy sheets, content completions, system adoption metrics. If I ask, “what does a learning organisation mean and how do you know whether you have one,” the conversation can become rather fluffy. If we have met, you know I’m not comfortable with fluffy…

I encourage clients to define their Success Measurement strategy for this objective in stages, using a sort of classic “maturity model” in the flavour of Bersin. You shouldn’t try to do all of these at once, building a learning culture is clearly a journey. Here are some indicators you can use to express more concretely what a learning culture means in your organisation. Type in “learning organisation image” into Google and you’ll get dozens of fancy frameworks. Meh, I’m not interested. For now, this is a list, easy first, challenging last. 🙂

Some of the metrics are yes/no, some you can run reports on in an LXP or other system.

Learners engage with your systems and learning content voluntarily

This is the bare minimum and easy to measure: do users log into your systems? How often, and what are they consuming in there? Do they enjoy the experience, according to a survey or NPS available in your systems?

What is the proportion of mandatory, assigned content the learners engage with, versus content they discover and complete on their own?

Learners know where they can find resources to learn, ideally “in the flow of work”

Clients often have a question in their employee engagement survey to measure this. In Degreed, you can also look at the types of content learners are adding to their profiles and uncover whether there are preferences for certain types of bit-sized learning items. You can add these to your catalogue and curate around them.

Learners talk about what they are learning and share with each other

One of my clients said, “we don’t even talk enough with each other about what we are learning!” This doesn’t have to happen in the context of your LXP but it certainly could. Are there opportunities for people to share what they have learned lately? Is this something you could drive with contests, awareness campaigns or other programmes?

Managers model learning behaviours

The top objection our clients hear to engaging with learning platforms is, “I don’t have the time.” Yet data showed during the pandemic that online learning initiated by the learners themselves exploded! So people were doing learning somewhere… is it right that they should be expected to do this on the weekends at their own expense?

Managers are often fearful that if their teams see them learning something, their teams will think they have too much time on their hands. This means learners are reluctant to be seen “not working” by contributing to their own professional development. Are executives sharing what they have learned recently? Is there time ring-fenced throughout the organisation for learning? Do teams set mutual learning objectives or commit to focusing on a set of skills together?

You have vibrant Communities of Practice

Even 20 years ago I listened to to a global engineering organisation describing how they calculated the cost savings attributed to knowledge sharing through COPs. Your organisation likely has them living in Slack, Yammer, SharePoint, somewhere. If they exist, how can you engage with these groups of people and bring them over to the Learning Side?

You have a Learning Champions Programme

There are many flavours to how to approach this so it’s sort of a yes/no question. It’s critical that your learning champions programme has representatives from outside L&D.

Every organisation has subject matter experts who are passionate about sharing what they know and developing others Are these jewels driving discussion in your Communities of Practice? (I find the IT team is often an early adopter in many clients). In Degreed you can uncover “influencers,” people around the business who have many followers and share content frequently.

Find them and get them involved!

The business drives learning, L&D are the enablers

This is actually easy to measure if you have an LXP or LMS. You can look at the proportions of content curated or created by those OUTSIDE of L&D. If you have provided the tools, templates and governance, you can let your champions shine. Compare SME-curated materials vs. L&D and measure this ratio over time.

I recommend our clients to formally “certify” curators to train them on standards for quality, consistency and good learning design. You can track how many of these certified curators you have; perhaps this is closely related to your Champions Programme.

User data drives learning programmes

Sorry to say my dearests, but learners know better than the L&D department what they want and need to learn. If you can get your hands on what learners are doing in your platforms, you can curate learning campaigns around their interests. You can look at search, view, share, completion data to uncover that learning hunger around the business. Then curate, market your offerings and be sure to measure the results.

You offer experiential learning and mentoring

There are plenty of tools out there for incorporating gigs and mentorships into your learning platforms. Where many clients seem to struggle is to keep these programmes alive with a good pipeline of opportunities after a splashy launch. Track your opportunities engagement data, which skills are the most popular, and where interested candidates are coming from. It’s really cool to see cross-functional interest in stretch assignments, for example.

Data demonstrates engagement with the key skills strategic to your organisation

I considered whether to put this further up on the list because this is a quick win for many of our clients. If you can define the skills critical to achieving your organisation’s strategy, you can drive engagement, awareness and learning toward them. However, this is just an indicator of activity, it’s not yet a business result. However, simply having this data is a HUGE step forward for most organisations. You then can understand your supply of those skills, the depth of expertise, and how those two factors are distributed around your business.

Learning is embedded in your daily ways of working

Is it a regular part of your process to run a lessons learned after a project? We did this after every exercise when I was in the U.S. Army. I notice in the corporate life these are cathartic and encouraging, as long as everyone can see the learnings applied in the next project. I worked with one client who even ran a critique of each MEETING they had: what went well, what didn’t go well, what can we do better next time!

Data demonstrates learning has an impact on strategic and operational objectives

The “holy grail” of measuring learning transfer can require a bit of creativity and the data will be in other systems besides your learning systems. Maybe the impact will be a correlation but impossible to prove causation. It’s OK, just try to talk to your business in ways they consider important.

For example, one of my quickly-growing clients recently was able to automate their Onboarding programme and remove the manual work for trainers to run this routine work each week. The trainers were then free to work on more value-added projects. They were also able to eliminate outsourced compliance training programmes by asking their legal department to curate resources instead. There are real cost savings there that make a difference to the bottom line.

How about the learning programmes offered to your customer service representatives, project managers, software developers, engineers or sales? These folks manage discrete, measurable packages of work. Can you define the desirable business metrics when you design the learning experience?

I hope you can find something on this sliding scale of excellence to tempt your imagination into communicating and measuring what good looks like in your future Learning Organisation. Let me know if you want help defining your learning strategy and rollout plan!

Maintaining your “status flow”

I wrote this article as the final assignment for a course hosted by The Economist. Thus I was privileged to combine several obsessions at once! The Economist, strengths, and joy through flow. I hope you enjoy it!

At an ascendant moment in his career, the great golfer Tiger Woods described how it felt when he was playing well: “you feel tranquil, … calm; you feel at ease with yourself…for some reason, things just flow…no matter what you do, good or bad, it really doesn’t get to you.” Woods was unwittingly defining what neuroscientists and positive psychologists call the secret to happiness and exceptional performance: the physiological state of “flow.” Fortunately, flow isn’t reserved for world-class athletes. Flow’s benefits are available to anyone by diagnosing personal talents or “strengths,” then planning to use them in the most pleasing way.

When we use our talents, we are “in the flow,” performing fluently and completely absorbed, producing our best work. Time stops, a feeling of serene ecstasy takes over, and the work seems to create itself.  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as high level of skill combined with a high level of challenge, with positive feedback from the activity.

This positive feedback results from physical changes in the body. Human brains in a flow state exhibit slower alpha and theta brain waves. The endocrine system flushes out stress hormones and replaces them with feel-good endorphins and dopamine. The breath is slower and deeper. No wonder Csikszentmihalyi concludes flow is “the secret to happiness.”

Image courtesy of FitMind

Flow’s high level of skill and challenge come from honing our talents, according to Martin Seligman, a leader in the field of positive psychology. Management gurus Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, characterise a talent as “something one can do consistently and nearly perfectly, a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour, productively applied.” Compare this to the feeling you get as a beginner at a skill, say the awkwardness of speaking a new language, or clumsy motor skills learning a new musical instrument. Time and patience may bring proficiency, but the joy of flow will be hard graft.

Buckingham and Clifton recommend focusing on talents and devoting the minimum energy needed to weaknesses. Tiger Woods’ career golf game statistics show he used this technique to devastating effect throughout his career. Woods was famous for his drives, or shots from over 100 yards from the hole. Drives accounted for two-thirds of his advantage over his opponents. He was no slouch at shorter shots either, and was admired by other golfers for his putting prowess. Woods’ nemesis was the sand trap. But he didn’t obsess with improving this (relative) shortcoming. Rather, he and his coach made a strategic decision to train on sand traps only to the extent they wouldn’t harm his game, spending more time polishing his natural gift at driving. This impressive example of prioritising strengths in one’s profession is something anyone can do, once they identify their talents.

Jamming in traffic

Human physiology explains how talents originate at the nerve cell. Imagine driving a car along a motorway on a routine commute home, listening to music, taking the usual turns and daydreaming. Eventually the journey is automatic. But one day, the driver slams on the brakes, stopped by construction work. A detour takes the driver through unfamiliar neighbourhoods, turning at unknown roundabouts and relying on signs for direction. The detour feels mildly stressful, as does the delayed arrival.

In this analogy, the driver is the brain, nerves are the motorways, the car is the electrical impulses traveling along the nervous system, and the turns and junctions are synapses. Synapses are connections between nerve cells and the more seamless these contacts are, the easier the journey of the impulse. The familiar trip represents how it feels when we use our strengths, and the detour the opposite; one the driver will not willingly repeat. As humans, we make choices like this each day. As a person favours the strongest synaptic connections, or their talents, they avoid using the weaker ones whenever possible. At the nerve level, weaker synaptic connections die.

Synapses determine adults’ success in learning new skills in three ways:

  • Call on strong synaptic connections, or talents. Consider a gifted tennis player picking up squash or padel. The skills are so similar the new game is a doddle.
  • Be like Tiger Woods; focus on what already comes naturally and keep the weaknesses under control. In neurological terms, we strengthen our talent connections but allow ones for the weaknesses to die.
  • Build new synapses through repetition of an unfamiliar skill. Think of the typical annual performance review asking you to focus on your “development needs” or “skill gaps.” Unsurprisingly this feels demoralising, as this method requires physical effort at the cellular level. Forcing the body to expand blood vessels and create new proteins is possible, but tedious.

Keep a flow profile

To discover your talents and preferred way of achieving flow, try these diagnostics:

  •  The Clifton StrengthsFinder offers two paid options with 34 “themes” [talents], or the top five in the less-expensive version.
  •  The VIA Character Strengths is free but requires registration. Its final report delivers ten top “character strengths.”
  • The Flow Genome Project places you into one of four Flow Profiles, or situations you find most satisfying to achieving flow.

Results in hand, reflect on what sparks joy, how to hoard more of that and what weaknesses need managing. Define possibilities to:

  • Join or create alternative, more nourishing projects requiring your talents
  • Decline draining projects or meetings (hint: you are optional on the invitation)
  • Eliminate, refuse, or delegate draining tasks
  • Make frustrating activities more fun
  • Plan self-care and refreshment

A personal flow strategy means creating conditions for flow in a way most pleasing to you. Flow Academy clients’ biggest obstacle is carving out time to get into a state of uninterrupted concentration. A Flow Goer or Crowd Pleaser type may have more challenges with ring-fencing the time than a Hard Charger or Deep Thinker type. Making an appointment with yourself to achieve flow can feel rather like booking time with your partner for sex, but both are essential to a contented life.

Real-life status flow: Here is how it works in my life. I am an Achiever and Learner combined with two strategic talents on the StrengthsFinder. Love of Learning, Curiosity and Appreciation for Beauty and Excellence are top on the VIA survey. I am already honouring my strengths by working in the learning technology industry, using the Achiever and Curiosity strengths juggling several client projects at a time. Strategy discussions and creative workshops generate “flow,” but the operational, structured side of the job feels for me like playing whack-a-mole all day long.

I discovered I have unconsciously been using strengths to mitigate the demoralising details. Checking details off lists is in line with the Achiever and Appreciation for Excellence strengths. A project management tool displays rainbows and magical creatures randomly when completing tasks, boosting “micro joy” dopamine during the day. My wonderful management tips me for projects to bring out my strengths but I fortunately have the freedom to politely decline invitations to energy-drainers, or things not moving me forward.

I prebook tickets for concerts and museums on the weekends address the Appreciation for Beauty strength. By transforming details (firmly not a strength) to a source of fun, and deliberately replenishing on beauty, I am mostly able to stay in balance.

I am a Deep Thinker and need solitude to achieve flow. I reserve time in her work diary to focus on specific projects. I always set mobile ringers to silent; there are enough messaging apps “plinging” all day on the computer. Waking early affords me the quiet time I need for exercise, meditation, music, reading, and deep concentration.

The Tiger Woods of learning I shall never be, yet I try to savour beautiful moments. I often reflect that I am happy and grateful. Any of us can achieve a glory and brilliance valuable to ourselves and loved ones.  With a few diagnostics and honest self-reflection, we can all invite “status flow” into our lives.