Creating a Continuous Learning Culture

Continuous learning is best practiced in a culture that encourages daily rituals that personalize the process of reviewing what you’ve done, and then planning incremental improvements.

Most organizations continue to embrace the process called continuous learning, but managers complain that getting buy-in is an ongoing challenge. One possible reason for the lackluster response: too much procedure, not enough personal engagement.
As a young newspaper reporter, I had the good luck to work with news editor James C. West, who later became the longtime and esteemed news editor of Oil & Gas Journal. Every afternoon, as the final edition of our newspaper began rolling off the press, Jim would grab two copies and say, “Let’s go.”
Across the street at the Greyhound bus depot, we’d sip stale coffee and examine the day’s efforts. At first I was timid about the process, reluctant to criticize Jim’s headlines and page layouts, and flinching at his critiques of my rushed reporting. After some chiding, I eventually yielded to Jim’s insistence that the only way good gets better is via critical examination.
After two years of marked-up pages and untold gallons of coffee, our newspaper started winning statewide awards for page design and local reporting.
As Jim West proved, continuous learning is best practiced in a culture that encourages daily rituals that personalize the process of reviewing what you’ve done, and then planning incremental improvements.
A decade later, working as an executive communication counselor, one of my most learning-focused clients was Richard D. McCormick, then chairman and CEO of US West Inc. After every public event or meeting with employees, Dick would assemble his closest advisors and ask, “Well, what did we learn today?” This usually stimulated at least an hour of observations, note-making, brainstorming, and telephone calls to consult with various employees and external contacts.
During one of those sessions, we developed what we called “reverse Q&A.” Historically, executives’ meetings with employee groups involved a boring presentation on financial results and market strategy, followed by a solicitation of questions. Often, there was only a polite softball or two; occasionally, a bold employee’s angry complaint; sometimes just an awkward silence.
In the new format, Dick asked the questions. Such as: What are customers asking for that you’re unable to deliver? And why? Do you have all the tools, equipment, training, and information you need to do your job? Where are our competitors out-performing us?
Employees opened up, and afterward, most of Dick’s calls were to department heads who scrambled to fix problems employees had cited. In time, both customer service and employee attitudes improved measurably. And other executives—within the company and without—began asking for copies of our “reverse Q&A” template.
Another instinctively tutorial client was Jane Prancan, CEO of Community Ventures Plus. Her Denver consultancy advises organizations of all sizes on pathways to growth and improvement. Jane’s learning exercise involved coaching her associates to describe the current challenge—or its potential solution—in three words. When the Internet was a newcomer to the workplace, Jane saw its potential in education and hosted the first multi-state workshop to introduce high school teachers to the Web. Efforts to name the project came up dry until Jane employed her three-word process, resulting in “Widening Our World.” Branded with its acronym, The WOW! Project received national recognition.
When I asked Sandra Jones, spokeswoman for the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, for an educator’s perspective on the value of daily learning methods, she directed me to the classic 1992 paper, “Rethinking Management Education,” by Booth professors Harry L. Davis and Rachel M. Getz. The monograph emphasized that classroom learning needs to be continuously supplemented with “real-world knowledge (that) a person acquires on the job.”
Revised in 2012 by its original authors, the paper notes that “ultimate responsibility for developing action and insight skills—to become savvy and insightful—rests with the students themselves. These skills cannot be acquired through study alone, but require constant practice over many years in real-world situations.”
Savvy managers don’t just call for continuous learning; they create cultures where personalized learning exercises become an everyday activity.
Don Riggenbach is a freelance writer. Jim West and Dick McCormick are retired; Jane Prancan is still actively consulting.