The concept of the learning organisation is making a resurgence.  This time round you’ll hear the term ‘learning culture.’  Perhaps you’ve noticed it popping up in leadership publications and events.  It may feel like a fad.  If you’ve been around long enough you’ve seen it before.  It had a flash of popularity in the 1980s thanks largely to the work of Peter Senge.  However, it never really took root.  It was fuzzy, complex and difficult to implement.  The promised innovation and performance benefits were rarely achieved.

Now things are different compared to the 1980s.   The world is more complex and changing rapidly.  Massive change is occurring on multiple fronts – technology, globalisation, mobility, social structures, consumer and workforce expectations.  This demands an unprecedented level of sensitivity and responsiveness to the environment.  Adapt quickly or die.

Adaptation demands creativity.  New knowledge must be created; new skills developed.  CEOs see technological change as an opportunity.  The smart ones are adopting it to disrupt their industry.  Data analytics, automation and Artificial Intelligence are creating new tasks and jobs.  The labour market cannot meet the demand for new skills.  Recruitment and training are too slow to respond to disruption.  Experimentation, sense-making, collaboration and fluid knowledge-sharing are essential.

My own philosophy and practices have changed radically since leaving the military twenty years ago.  As I moved into corporate roles my structured approach to training was initially effective.  Then the speed of business increased.  Courses were too slow to keep up.  I turned to the online world to discover and create solutions.  I connected with people, research and practices at the cutting edge of my field.  I brought the outside into the organisations I worked with.

My mindset shifted from controlling training to sharing responsibility.  I no longer see workers as recipients of training.  They are connected contributors who co-create and innovate.  I now unleash the power of discovery and adaptation with my clients.

I’m inspired by others I speak to and work with who are building learning culture.  A national airline with an internal marketplace connecting people with problems to innovators. A government department developing their next generation of leaders by inviting them to solve complex business problems together.  A marketing organisation with a ritual around learning from failure.  A global retailer that has embedded growth mindset in their leadership and people management practices.

Satya Nadella gets this.  Since becoming Microsoft CEO in 2014 he’s created a culture-led business renewal.  He encourages his people to be curious and open and to learn.  He calls this being a ‘learn-it-all’ rather than a ‘know-it-all.’  In three and a half years Microsoft’s market value has grown by more than US$250bn.

The evidence is clear.  Learning culture positively impacts organisational success.  It enables you to identify and fix problems quickly.  It creates the conditions required to sense and adapt to environmental shifts.  It keeps you ahead of your competitors.  Learning culture is a business strategy that deserves your attention as a leader.

Building learning culture is a bold play that helps organisations become adaptable.  As leader your actions set the conditions that make or break it.  The degree of exploration and risk-taking you encourage either unleashes or constrains organisational agility. Learning culture is not fuzzy and soft, it’s competitive advantage.

Adaptation at the pace of disruption is about empowerment.  Empowerment gives people authority to make decisions, act autonomously and move quickly.  It gives them permission to connect with others across and outside of your organisation.  It encourages them to look up and look out – to stay abreast of change and discover what others are doing.  It sets them up to identify business opportunities and find better ways to do things.

Trust is also critical.  Make no mistake about trust being fuzzy.  A solid research base attests to its hard business value.  Trust gives people the confidence to try new things and experiment. It gives them courage to openly admit to and learn from mistakes.  It makes it okay to bring their whole self to work.  Counterintuitively, when people feel safe they take the kind of risks you want them to take. The risk of being seen and heard.  The risk of failing.  Establishing trust and empowerment at scale, right across an organisation, creates agility.

I’m excited to work with leaders and organisations who embrace learning culture and lean into disruption.  If you’re ready to put learning at the heart of how things are done in your organisation, reach out to me.

Michelle Ockers introduces business leaders to learning culture tools and strategies, and supports them with implementation and strategy. If you’re in Australia or New Zealand, join her Building Learning Culture program, with workshops running in August 2019. Participants will create practical action plans they can immediately implement.  For more information and to register go to


  • Julian Elve

    “Courses were too slow to keep up” – a serendipitous discovery that’s the perfect contextual quote for a work paper…


    • Michelle Ockers

      This is such a common problem faced by learning teams Julian. When your primary service offering cannot keep up with the speed at which solutions to problems and opportunities are required – when you cannot be responsive enough to meet demand – then it’s time to change how you are working and the services you offer. What problem are you facing and what solutions are you looking at?

      All the best with your paper.


  • On Focusing & Innovating - Rotana Ty

    […] “Recruitment and training are too slow to respond to disruption. Experimentation, sense-making, collaboration and fluid knowledge-sharing are essential.” — @MichelleOckers […]


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