What do successful companies like Amazon, Google, IBM have in common? The answer: Learning Culture. Quite recently, they have gone deeper into offering postsecondary credentials, bypassing traditional colleges, with expanded training options (Fain, 2019). Other giants like FedEx, Oracle, and Microsoft, offer extensively long-term collaborations with universities to instil lifelong learning (Lutchen, 2018). Likewise, newfound companies like Coursera, Udemy, and McGraw-Hill are jumping in that burgeoning bandwagon of innovating learning and transforming the way we see learning (The Muse Editor, 2019). So if you observe our increasingly intelligent world today, from leadership, knowledge-driven outlook, down to technology utilization, it is clear that organizational initiatives and corresponding leadership directions are putting a premium on strengthening its learning ethos.
To sustain the competitive advantage of the organization’s culture, be it in theory or practical perspectives, leadership and learning are always underscored as it is interconnected. No matter how much the organization’s vision is tailor-fitted to its creed and circumstance, cultivating universal building blocks on learning are research-proven to be crucial in addressing strengths and weaknesses that impact overall performance (Garvin, Edmondson, and Gino, 2008). Organizations are more receptive to nurturing a holistic learning culture for their people by providing avenues for dialogue on how to create, acquire, and transfer different sets of knowledge. For example, the successful companies mentioned (FedEx, Oracle, Microsoft) earlier expose how their leadership teams demonstrate a willingness to new ideas and options for learning, triggering new process, innovative products, and collaborative teams (Lutchen, 2018).
In one recent study on organizational capabilities, particularly in ensuring effective organizational innovation and talent, five dimensions (1. connection, 2. community, 3. dialogue, 4. experience, 5. risk) have been recognized to have substantial interrelationship in leadership and learning performance (Tohidi and Jabbari, 2011). Organizational capabilities for utilization of learning factors require suitable diversity in language, daily culture, and resilient motivation to generate stronger results (Graupp, Jakobsen, and Vellema, 2014). Learning organizations are heavily influenced by core and external facets that are also abstract, dynamic, and qualitative, learning-oriented leadership is necessary, but should not be considered a standalone. For example, the successful companies mentioned (Amazon, Google, IBM) reveal how their leadership teams are sensitive to the widely varied local cultures of learning, therefore offering customized local-centric learning environments (Fain, 2019).
Leadership in Learning Organizations
Leaders must understand and become “lead learners” themselves to craft their leadership strengths and styles in terms of clarity, coherence, and capacity (McDowell, 2018). This enables the leaders to go beyond the challenges and differences of their inclined leadership styles, and influence learning and change. Different kinds of leaders must lean into their core leadership skills in seeking out ways to create a culture of learning that has no endpoint, but more of “built on as you go” (Center for Creative Leadership, 2020).
In navigating learning cultures and changes within an organization, great leaders who have preferred leadership styles, especially with more experience in life and work and wider geographic/demographic exposure, are often seen as adjusting according to the diverse circumstances within which he spearheads learning (Zhu and Valerie, 2017). Instead of identifying whether leaders are charismatic, transformational, or transactional, considerations should be on achieving fluid leadership (Goleman, 2017). This kind of leadership in action strengthens people with the right push for learning and maximizes reasons behind the inputs and characteristic results behind the outputs (Gallup, Rath, and Conchie, 2008).
Such fluid leadership in a learning organization is FedEx. Spearheaded by FedEx’s Chief Learning Officer Bob Bennett, the organization advocates for various pioneering programs in developing and measuring employee’s learning culture. For the past four decades, FedEx meticulously leverages its annual survey feedback action to maximize day-to-day tasks and find knowledge management approaches for the right teams, while championing existing platforms (FedEx, 2020). To become true partners of its people when it comes it achieving learning objectives, FedEx expands its extensive leadership training from entry-level positions up to ensure that leadership styles are non-monolithic (Corporate Learning Network, 2014).
True to “The Purple Promise” of making every experience outstanding, FedEx builds different kinds of informal leaders depending on their strengths, current roles, and future aspirations are embedded into the culture (FedEx, 2020). FedEx (2008) takes this to the next level through the Skills Pledge, a government initiative advocating for its employees’ skills, which includes a learning ‘passport’, a virtual academy, a tuition assistance fund, and a government-recognized qualification. This demonstrates chances for its inexperienced/experienced leaders with specific predisposed styles to experience varied life-long learning and contemporary learning approaches that are not only specific to the organization but also general leadership-building skills.
I like to echo March & Olsen’s (1976) theory on learning organization and organizational learning, which centres on adapting behaviours in terms of experiences and modifying understandings that are intendedly adaptive to bring meaningful engagements and results. This holds true, particularly when blending suitable leadership styles and learning processes to create powerful experiences, be it for innovation, competitive advantage, or knowledge sharing. Equally, this holds relevant, especially in times of crisis, ambiguity, and volatility, leadership impact should be a contagiously outstanding learning experience.