Four Powerful Steps Government Leaders Can Take to Create a Culture of Learning

Local governments can create a culture of learning that will help them adapt and innovate in a changing environment.

BLOG POST | Aug 1, 2018
By Lauren Girardin

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by Lauren Girardin, marketing and communications consultant, laurengirardin.com

A culture of learning is an interwoven set of organizational habits, strategic decisions, and core values that encourages employees to be constant learners. It takes visionary leadership to create conditions conducive to sustained curiosity and the continuous acquisition of skills and knowledge.

Your organization’s ability to serve its community with groundbreaking solutions, all while maximizing employee performance and operational efficiency, hinges on its commitment to a learning culture.

What are the steps you can take today to create a culture of learning at your local government organization?

1. Incorporate learning into your organizational strategy.

As a local government leader, organizational strategy relies almost entirely on you. Your decision to instill a culture of learning can be deeply transformative. Individual employees become more productive as learning gives them greater confidence in their abilities and decisions. Teams become more cohesive as employees build mutual respect and trust by learning from each other. And, your organization gains an edge as employees’ growth gives rise to innovative ideas and, ultimately, improved performance.

Learning is at the center of initiating a change in priorities, practices, and outcomes. In an article for Government Executive, Andrew Feldman, public sector strategy director at Grant Thornton, and Nick Hart, director of Bipartisan Policy Center’s Evidence-Based Policymaking Initiative, described how learning and strategy are intertwined at government organizations:

“The value of learning agendas is tied to a realistic and humbling fact about public policy: For many of our most important policy challenges, especially around expanding opportunity, there is still a lot we don’t know about what works best in different contexts and what strategies are the most cost-effective. That makes strengthening a learning culture in government all the more important.”

Set expectations that employees at every level should take part in continuous learning connected to individual and team performance and the organization’s goals. Provide frequent opportunities for employees to apply what they learn to the real-world problems your organization needs to solve.

2. Make learning accessible and shareable.

Transformational leaders will eliminate obstacles that prevent strategic learning from suffusing throughout organizational culture. Technology can boost the impact that learning culture has on employee performance, morale, and retention, and your workforce’s overall efficiency and effectiveness.

Modern learning management systems allow government organizations to conveniently distribute content in such formats as self-directed online courses, webinars, materials, and in-person classes and conferences. Your organization can offer custom content to meet people’s unique needs or opt for tried-and-tested courses provided by the learning management system.

Employee-to-employee knowledge sharing is also essential to a robust learning culture and to organizational success. According to research by the Association for Talent Development, employees at high-performance organizations are nearly four times more likely to regularly share knowledge with their colleagues than those at lower-performance organizations. Champion a learning management system that makes it easier for all employees to share their knowledge and skills, pursue professional development opportunities, and receive feedback on how well they are applying learning.

3. Instill learning throughout the organization.

The cultural shift toward learning cannot succeed without the buy-in of leaders who commit to learning as an organizational priority. As Edgar Schein, culture expert and author of Organizational Culture and Leadership put it:

“The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.”

Effective leaders weave learning into team objectives. When learning permeates an organization through the initiative of leaders, each employee better understands that it is part of their job to seek out, share, and apply new knowledge and skills.

Resistance to change within an organizational culture is to be expected. It takes transformational leadership to keep the culture of learning moving forward. Local government managers can partner with human resources and change management professionals to guide employees through the culture shift.  

4. Commit to an organizational learning culture for the long-term.

For learning to become embedded in your organization’s culture, go beyond requiring a few webinars and certifications. Demonstrate leadership’s commitment to a learning culture by providing the resources necessary for success. Make the strategic decision to ensure your team has the tools, coaching, budget, recognition, and systems that promote employee learning achievements.

Support employees as they take on a variety of characteristics and experiences intrinsic to a learning culture. This includes experimentation, autonomy, empathy, collaboration, admitting mistakes, open communication, reflection, transparency, and personal responsibility. Model these positive behaviors and participate in the learning yourself to spearhead this long-term culture shift.

Creating an organizational learning culture is not a one-and-done effort for local government. It is a complex practice that your organization launches, then intentionally and indefinitely sustains and evolves for as long as your doors are open.

NEOGOV is an ICMA strategic Partner that provides a high-quality and easy-to-use talent management system to service the public sector market.

Related Resources 

Nine Leadership Strategies for Continuous Learning in Local Government. In this 2016 blog post, the focus is on ways that local government leaders can encourage continuous learning throughout their organizations.

How Do Cities Learn? This 2013 blog post looks at how communities learn from each other, as well as examines the case of Curitiba, Brazil.

Producing Smarter Results. A PM magazine article from 2017 looks at how learning organizations produce smarter results, as well as provides tips on how to engage employees in making an organization a learning organization. 


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