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Here you will find ideas and code straight from the Software Development Team at SportsEngine. Our focus is on building great software products for the world of youth and amateur sports. We are fortunate to be able to combine our love of sports with our passion for writing code.

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Building a Learning Culture: Part I

08/02/2016, 12:30pm CDT
By Andy Fleener

A Learning Culture is the secret sauce of high velocity teams. It provides the mechanism for rapid iteration on everything.

So this post was inspired by my reflection on the 2016 DevOpsDays Minneapolis

What I realized as I was riding the bus home from the event was how many times I used the words “Learning Culture” in a sentence. For the uninitiated DevOps Days events are part single track conference half Open Spaces. It was during the Open Spaces that started to feel like broken record talking about how if you build a culture of learning you get x,y, and z. Or even things like “that’s not ok if you want to foster a culture of learning”. In this post I hope to part vent about why you should care about a culture of learning and inform on the benefits of such a culture.

There will be a follow up post that describes some of the ways SportsEngine has worked to implement a learning culture and what it actually looks like so you know you’ve made it.

Resilience is Learning

For me the power of a learning culture can be described as a resilient system. Erik Hollenagel says it best when explaining Resilience Engineering he describes resilience as

Resilience is . . . the system’s ability to absorb disturbances before it changes the variables and processes that control behavior.

He goes on to set it in an organizational context:

At the beginning of the 21st century, [RE] was picked up by the business community and used to describe the ability dynamically to reinvent business models and strategies as circumstances change.

And then drives it home with:

The ability dynamically to reinvent business models and strategies as circumstances change

That sounds like learning to me.

Learning as a Competitive Advantage

Now think for a second about how much of a competitive advantage that is. The research clearly backs it up:

First, our research shows very clearly that companies with High-Impact Learning Organizations outperform their peers.

These organizations delivered profit growth three-times greater than their competitors over the last four years. Why is this? Simply put - if you can keep your employees current and skilled, you can evolve and perform better than your competitors.

What Even is a Learning Culture?

Ok it’s a competitive advantage so that’s great for the organization but like why as a practitioner should you care about it? The answer for me is that learning drives my engagement and gives me a sense of fulfillment. Bonus points for having a mission, whatever that may be, which learning will enable you to achieve. But even if you don’t have a mission other than putting food on the table, there’s no better way to ensure your ability to do that than by learning on the job. I don’t really want to get into the intrinsic value of learning discussion, but you’ll find me solidly in that camp.

Assuming you’ve bought into the value of a learning culture what does it actually look like? There are really four facets: Trust, Empowerment, Knowledge Sharing, and Reflection. Each of these facets can make a positive impact but when you have all of them together there are very few immovable objects.

The 4 Facets

Trust is a make or break facet of culture. None of the other 3 can work without it. Entire blog posts could and have been written about this subject. For me this is really where the concept of Promise Theory shines. Giving people room to succeed can go a long way to creating relationships built on trust.

Empowerment is giving a voice the megaphone. Never underestimate how much we can achieve when there isn’t someone standing in our way. In a learning culture when someone stands up to say something everyone listens no matter who it’s coming from. This is a key feature that ensures many voices > few.

Knowledge Sharing seems kind of obvious. Almost all of what you'll be learning as an organization is knowledge individuals hold within that organization. However, knowledge is only organizational knowledge if it is well understood throughout the entire organization not just a single person. Setting context throughout the organization is key to enabling the previous two facets(Trust and Empowerment).

And finally, Reflection, which is perhaps the most important part of a learning culture. This facet drives the learning. Having a real retrospective process as part of your incident management is table stakes. Outside of that, reflection is the part of the feedback loop where you decide if you want to make changes. You need time to properly reflect on anything that is changing which in many cases is almost everything.

Started From the Bottom now We Here

Each of these facets are jointly part of what makes a culture a Learning Culture. As an organization you may be executing them to varying degrees and have honest work to do to improve and foster them. Over the last 4 and half years I’ve spent at SportsEngine we’ve had processes that have succeeded in helping to build this culture as well as some that didn’t. In the next post I’m going to highlight some of things we’ve done as an organization to rev up our ability to learn and grow. But if I could describe the process in two steps it’s:

  1. Always do the hard right thing
  2. Iterate on everything: code, designs, architecture, systems, process, procedures, organizational structure.

If you feel empowered to do these things that’s how you know you’ve built a culture of learning.

Tag(s): Home  Culture  Resilience