Characteristics of a learning culture

Darren Johnson

Acting Director Quality and Performance, Service Development, Department of Corrections

Author biography:

Darren first joined the Department of Corrections in 2006 as a business analyst after finishing a contract as a data analyst with London Probation while on his OE. Darren has since been in a number of roles with a particular focus on compliance, quality, risk management, assurance and business improvement. Darren’s substantive role is a principal adviser in the Service Development Quality and Performance Team. However, in Oct 2014 he accepted a secondment as the Director Quality and Performance.


The Department of Corrections’ goal is to reduce re-offending by 25% by 2017, with the vision of creating lasting change by breaking the cycle of re-offending. There are a number of factors that will play a part in us achieving this goal, one of which is ensuring the right culture across the department.

Culture means different things to different people, however, this article briefly looks at what a ‘learning organisation’ is and the ‘learning culture’ within it. In particular it identifies some key characteristics required to develop, foster and build a learning culture.

It will also briefly consider the important role the learning culture will play in helping the Department to achieve its goal.

It is important to note that the ideas and characteristics described in this article are ones I believe are important to the development of a learning culture. They will not necessarily be new to you and I do not purport to claim them as my own. They are reflections developed through conversations with staff from a number of organisations, completing a small literature review, and my experience of working in several different organisations.

The learning organisation and the learning culture

What does a learning organisation look like? How would we know the difference between an organisation that is learning and one that is not? What is a learning culture and how do we know if an organisation has a culture of learning?

In The Fifth Discipline, Senge (1993) defines a learning organisation as:

“Organisations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”

In Sculpting the Learning Organisation, Watkins and Marsick (1993) define the learning organisation as:

“… one that learns continuously and transforms itself. Learning takes place in individuals, teams, the organisation, and even the communities with which the organisation interacts. Learning is a continuous, strategically used process – integrated with, and running parallel to, work. Learning results in changes in knowledge, beliefs, and behaviours. Learning also enhances organisational capacity for innovation and growth. The learning organisation has embedded systems to capture and share learning.”

To a certain extent big organisations are learning organisations in their own way. They each have teams, systems, tools, techniques and mechanisms in place for learning and development (at all levels), organisational development, quality and performance systems, research and development, and risk management etc.

The learning culture is also often mistakenly thought of as the responsibility of an organisation’s Human Resources (HR) department. A true learning culture, however, is bigger than the HR department or the way an organisation conducts its training and development. HR is certainly an important element in the development and growth of a learning culture but the responsibility for this falls to every individual and team across the organisation.

The key is to ensure learning is explicit, is second nature and prevalent in everything staff and the wider organisation does. It can not be something that comes from ‘HR’ or ‘national office’, or is established in certain pockets of the organisation; it must be a way of working and endemic within the organisation. Moreover, staff need to feel empowered and encouraged to ask questions like: why are things done the way they are, how can they be done differently for better results without compromising quality, does the way we’re doing this expose us to unnecessary risk?

The identification of past successes and failures and lessons learned needs to be embedded in everything an organisation does; knowledge, information and experiences should be openly and happily shared throughout the organisation, fostering an environment that strives towards continuous improvement and learning, and staff should be recognised and rewarded for their contributions to the learning environment.

In order to begin the journey towards a learning culture there are some key characteristics that an organisation needs to think about. It is these characteristics that will be vital in developing the learning culture across the department and ensuring it is continually developed and embedded in the everyday environment.

This will in turn play an important role in the department achieving its goal of reducing re-offending by 25% by 2017, creating lasting change for offenders, and keeping the community safe.

Characteristics of a learning culture

Most organisations have pockets where an effective learning culture is prevalent; the key, and often the biggest challenge, is to develop these pockets to ensure it is widespread throughout the organisation and instilled in every employee.

The following list of characteristics should not be considered an exhaustive list, nor is each characteristic necessarily fundamental for the development of an effective learning culture. What works for one organisation will not necessarily work for another; these are merely some characteristics that should be considered when developing an effective learning culture:

  • The development of a learning culture is not a finite project

    A learning culture is not something that occurs overnight, in a few months or in a year or two; it will develop and mature over time and is reliant on a number of underlying factors. It is something that organisations need to consider at all times and not be something that is ‘launched’ and then forgotten.

    Often the best way to lay the foundations for a learning culture is to make small incremental changes and improvements to how an organisation operates. This way, the wider organisation and its staff start to adopt and live the learning culture without even knowing it.

  • Culture needs to be driven from the top

    Senior leadership teams play a significant role in the drive and push to develop a learning culture. This includes clear and consistent messaging. Staff need to see the learning culture as something that is being ‘lived’ throughout an organisation and not another ‘thing’ or ‘project’ being forced upon them.

  • The learning culture must be encouraged and promoted at all levels

    Similar to the above, the learning culture requires buy-in and development from staff at all levels. The messages and culture must be driven from the top, but it is equally important for managers and frontline staff from across an organisation to display, encourage and promote the culture within their teams and with their colleagues.

  • Staff must be empowered to speak out, challenge processes and actions that they feel are too risky or are not effective

    In order to ensure continual improvement, staff need an environment where their ideas and suggestions are encouraged and listened to. Operational processes need to be reviewed and challenged to ensure they are robust, achieve their intended purpose and are continually improved.

    Effective mechanisms should be put in place for staff at all levels to raise their concerns, as well as to provide their ideas and innovations. The challenge for staff is not just to raise their concerns but to identify the cause of concern or risk and also identify potential solutions.

  • If something new is trialled and fails, focus on what was learned and not what failed

    It is hard to learn if we do not try things and it is better to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all. These are often-used phrases but ones that are vital in creating a learning culture. The key is to use the failure to learn what went wrong and why it didn’t work so the same mistakes are not made again. This also ensures staff are not afraid of making mistakes.

    The focus then is on the lessons learned, enabling continuous improvement which, as outlined above, is a foundation block for the learning culture.

  • Effective, clear and consistent communication

    The learning culture must be underpinned by good, effective communication at all levels, in a multitude of ways. Communication needs to be two-way, open and honest and allow information to flow freely across an organisation.

    Communication needs to consistently reinforce key messages about the learning culture and where possible contain learnings, improvements and/or experiences to reflect on in each message.

    Effective communication also includes the celebration of success stories across an organisation.

  • Innovation and creative ideas need to be valued and rewarded

    All ideas should be received and valued. This does not necessarily mean all innovations and creative ideas are implemented, however staff should see that their ideas are considered, encouraging them to continue to offer them.

    There needs to be effective and valued rewards and recognition for creative ideas and innovative solutions. By celebrating success, staff are further encouraged to innovate and think about ways of doing things better.

    Staff need to feel that they can freely express their ideas and innovations without fear of being shut down. Another often-used phrase, “no idea is a bad idea” is an important one within the learning culture

  • Have one clear goal

    One clear goal provides staff with a common cause the organisation can work together to achieve, and which the learning culture can be intrinsically tied to.

  • Capture and, more importantly, share knowledge and experience

    Staff from all levels need to be encouraged to offer and share their ideas and experience to other staff through an open environment.

    There can be formal processes in place to assist in the sharing of information across an organisation, this does not, however, ensure that operational knowledge and experience is shared and this is often where the most important information and learning comes from.

    Staff need to see the value and importance of sharing their knowledge and experiences with their colleagues, not only within their own working environment but also across geographical boundaries.

  • Driving continuous improvement

    Continuous improvement needs to be driven across the organisation. This incorporates all aspects of the organisation, from frontline operations to national office functions and activities.

    In order to learn, we need to continually improve. And in order to continually improve we need to learn. An effective learning culture ensures this ongoing cycle of learning and improving is constantly and consistently applied.

  • In a productive learning culture, what and how employees learn is driven by the right learning opportunity, capability and environment

    This captures a number of previous points in that there needs to be the right environment to enable staff to engage in the learning culture.

    It is about recognising that not all staff will be empowered by the same opportunities. Staff need to be given the right learning opportunities at the right level and then encouraged to share their experience.

  • Effective risk management policies and procedures

    There need to be clear and consistent risk management policies, procedures and behaviours in place to enable all staff to engage in regular risk management discussions about how to deal with uncertainties that matter to their operations, activities and objectives.

    Risks need to be proactively and regularly identified and managed at all levels of the organisation and communicated up, down and across as appropriate. The organisation should also look to actively learn from incidents and near-misses to reduce the likelihood of their reoccurrence.

The learning culture and reducing re-offending

How will the development of a learning culture assist in the Department of Corrections achieving its stated goal of reducing re-offending by 25% by 2017?

The department can claim to have some of the characteristics described in this article already, for example:

  • There is one clear goal; to reduce re-offending by 25% by 2017.
  • The culture is being driven from the top with the Executive Leadership Team consistently displaying the behaviours of a learning culture.
  • There are a number of communication channels that provide clear and consistent messages, a few examples of which include:
    • Frontline – a weekly update that notifies frontline staff of changes to practice, policies and procedures.
    • CE’s Update – a weekly email from the CE containing his observations and highlights from the week.
    • us@corrections – a two-monthly publication that celebrates good news stories, provides staff with information on upcoming initiatives, as well as regional updates and other relevant information.

Work is also underway to implement a number of other characteristics that are not yet common across the organisation:

  • Implementing further communication channels to ensure frontline staff and managers receive assurance, quality, performance, risk and practice improvement information to help drive continuous operational improvement.
  • Creating clear and consistent processes to capture and share lessons learned across the Department.
  • Improving the mechanisms for frontline staff ideas and innovations to be considered from a national perspective.
  • Focusing on improving practice, whilst not losing sight of bottom-line operational requirements.

By building and strengthening these characteristics, Corrections will enable its greatest asset – its staff – to thrive. Staff are the key driver in achieving the targeted re-offending rate so it is the staff that need to be provided with the opportunity and ability to utilise their knowledge, experience, expertise and ideas in the most effective and efficient way.

An effective and widespread learning culture allows for this. Staff feel empowered to question and ask why we do things the way we do and if they feel there is some inherent risk involved then will have the mechanisms to speak out and be involved in the improvement process.

This will lead to continuous improvements in operational processes that will ensure staff time can be focused on the things that will have the greatest impact on reducing re-offending. Processes will be strengthened and streamlined to ensure frontline staff can focus on each individual offender and what works for them.

The wealth of information received and inherent within Corrections will be effectively utilised, with lessons learned actively shared amongst groups, sites, districts, regions and nationally, ensuring the mistakes of the past are not made again.

The corrections environment is one of constant change and challenges and the department needs to be in the best place to adapt to these changes and challenges in the best way it can. Continuing to build the foundations of a learning culture will enable the department and its staff to meet things head on and help take us into the future.

Tangible progress in our learning culture has been made over the last few years – too much to describe in this article. However, it remains, and will always be, a work in progress as the department strives to improve, develop and mature in everything it does.

Final thoughts

The learning organisation and the learning culture can often mean different things to different people. The characteristics described in this article can help guide an organisation in its journey to developing a learning culture; however it is important to acknowledge that what works for one organisation will not necessarily work for another.

What is important is to ensure that staff (at all levels) are driving the culture, that staff believe in it and that staff live and breathe it. The learning culture needs to permeate the whole organisation to enable growth and development, continuous improvement and ultimately ongoing learning.

The following two quotes provide a succinct summation of the importance of the learning culture:

“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere” (Chinese proverb).

“Once you stop learning you start dying” (Albert Einstein).

If Corrections continues to develop the characteristics described in this article it will be well on its way to developing a learning culture which in turn will assist in the achievement of its goal of reducing re-offending by 25% by 2017 and keeping the public safe.


Senge, P. (1993) The Fifth Discipline, The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation. Australia: Random House.

Watkins, K. & Marsick, V. (1993) Sculpting the learning organisation: lessons in the art and science of systemic change. US: Jossey-Bass.