Fostering a healthy learning culture is intimately bound up with employee engagement.
Fostering a healthy learning culture is intimately bound up with employee engagement.

Learning citizenship

‘Learning citizenship’ describes a process of using technology to help people seek opportunities to learn and improve and help others to do the same, says Dr. Tim Gibson.

Tim Gibson

Tim Gibson

Dr.Tim Gibson is Head of Learning Services, MoJ Shared Services at HM Government Ministry of Justice, and advisor on e-learning to the Leasing Foundation. Tim has worked in learning and development for the last 15 years in both public and private sectors, in agency and client roles, particularly in financial and professional services. Tim is a PRINCE2 Executive and an experienced LEAN / Six Sigma champion with specific experience in the design, build, rollout and evaluation of blended learning and development programmes. Previously Tim was founder of knowledge=power, a leading training provider in financial services learning that trained over 30,000 UK Independent Financial Advisors, and was co-founder of BT Online, BT’s first internet connectivity and content business.
Tim Gibson

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Introduction from Executive Producer Christian Roelofs

One of the Foundation's core missions is to improve the learning and development opportunities available to the industry  A key topic , that Tim Gibson addresses in this piece, is how we can establish, maintain and improve a culture of learning and continuous improvement in our organisations. Tim introduces the term ‘learning citizenship' which describes a process of using technology to help people seek opportunities to learn and improve and help others to do the same.

Who should be interested in this?
Any learning development professionals in all sizes and kinds of organisations, and those human resources professionals facing the challenge of employee engagement.


Using technology to foster learning citizenship promises better business results

 The origins of learning transfer, like the origins of language, lie in speech rather than in writing.

Thousands of years ago learning would have been shared through demonstration and conversation, with participants negotiating their way through the different flows of information and interaction. In a sense, writing was the first “technology” to revolutionise the learning process. The Ancient Greeks codified learning into texts, made it permanent and increased its reach. But it did so at the price of interactivity. Readers lose the ability to ask questions, check their understanding, corroborate or challenge. For better or worse writing has formalised learning. The textbook, which really took off following the invention of the printing press, has given us more than five hundred years of push content.

The first half of the twentieth century saw the first general purpose electronic computers and instructional design establish itself as a discipline. In the second half, multimedia became commonplace, bandwidth increased with more and more people using the internet to do more and different things. E-learning was a new technology but in its earlier incarnations it merely technologised a very old, formal process. But it did add value. E-learners could learn at their own pace, weren’t obliged to turn up to a classroom, could repeat difficult or important sections and could interact with materials. The better products certainly were a lot more engaging, with different forms of testing adding a lot of value. Learning was richer and more “intra-interactive” than ever before. But in those early days of e-learners were left to their own devices (quite literally) and denied “inter-interactivity”. Learning wasn’t properly shared and there was always the nagging doubt that the learning didn’t always pay back the investment.

Now, in the early part of the twenty first century, learning is going through its first, real paradigm shift:

  • Formal, structured learning is increasingly being recognised as insufficient as well as expensive
  • More workers are expected to learn more “on the job”
  • Classroom-based stand-up training is reducing
  • Learning and development departments are slowly being dismantled, with survivors reinvented as facilitators, coaches or curators
  • Web 2.0 has allowed learners to share, produce and co-operate

The 70:20:10 model has been adopted by a large number of very big global organisations and has gone through a number of definitions and redefinitions over the last twenty years or so but one version states that lessons learned by the most successful employees come roughly:

  • 70% from their own experience of doing the job
  • 20% from others
  • 10% from formal, or structured learning

There is a good deal of empirical research to suggest that, in business and industry, employees learn to do their jobs (better) in the workplace rather than anywhere else. Things are learned informally by a variety of different means, practised, applied and improved, sometimes seemingly by osmosis, while simultaneously formal learning is more carefully managed but too often fails to make an appreciable difference. All too rarely do the different ingredients in the learning mix blend together satisfactorily to improve bottom line results.

Interestingly, we have more technology at our disposal than ever before to brigade these different learning resources for the benefit of the organisation and its people. This is often a complex challenge but more challenging yet is the subtle business of establishing, maintaining and improving a culture of learning and continuous improvement.

Fostering a healthy learning culture is intimately bound up with employee engagement. Frighteningly, there is much recent research to suggest that less than 25% of UK employees are engaged, which is particularly concerning as there is a good deal of quantitative evidence to suggest that engagement levels hugely predict business success. Set against the doldrums of austerity, belt tightening and deficits, doing all we can to help as many people as possible get the best out of one another, go the extra mile and generally make things better has never been more important.

Engagement has been described as the difference between doing your job and loving it. Or as others say, disengaged employees are more interested to know what they can get out of an organisation whereas engaged ones are more interested to know what they can put in. Learning, in the very broadest sense, has a huge hand to play in all of this.

Low learning engagement inevitably happens when learners are expected largely to be on the receiving end. Unless it’s done brilliantly well, compliance training is perhaps one of the harder things to get excited about. Content that’s mandated, broadcast, formal, pushed down, non-negotiated is by definition harder to engage with. But now that informal learning is on the increase, learners are expected not just to consume, but also to produce, share and co-operate. Some will be naturally up for it; others will need to be encouraged; and some – hopefully not too many – won’t want to make the journey at all. But informal learning simultaneously requires and engenders higher engagement levels.

A second dimension is around perceived opportunity. Different people perceive there to be different levels of different kinds of learning opportunity available to them in their workplace. Finding and deriving benefit from relevant learning opportunities are skills like any other and some people are better at them than others. There are also more than is often appreciated: central Government recently published an excellent leaflet called “The 39 Steps”, which lists different examples of workplace learning, many of which aren't immediately apparent.

Combining these two dimensions gives us a 2 x 2 matrix:

  • when learners perceive there are lots of opportunities to consume, produce, share and co-operate and they’re sufficiently engaged to make it all happen, then you have something special. Let’s call that performance or sustainable learning, which promises great value
  • when there are perceived to be learning opportunities but people can’t, won’t or don’t get excited about them, then you have learning waste
  • when you have highly motivated learners but a perceived absence of opportunity, then you have learner waste
  • when disengaged learners don’t perceive there to be many learning opportunities, then you face un- or a-learning, which is a bad place to be
Learning Citizenship

The orange arrows of “learning citizenship” are about making – and helping others make – the journey from wasteland to promised land. It’s very much easier said than done.

There’s probably another dimension around “practicality”, which would include considerations of access, time, money, immediacy, and so on, but better not open it up too much further beyond people and culture because these things typically don’t get the air time they warrant.

The orange arrows of “learning citizenship” are about making – and helping others make – the journey from wasteland to promised land. It's very much easier said than done. Some people’s hearts and minds are never going to be won over, but that’s not to say that you shouldn’t try nor is it to say that you can’t learn or improve anything without total commitment. Different workplaces will have different problems and opportunities so it’s difficult to generalise.

“Learning citizenship” is a useful phrase because:

  •  it counteracts the dangers of interpreting the ‘Learners Have To Take Personal Responsibility For Their Own Learning' ethic too narrowly and necessitates more co-operative working
  • it’s deliberately not restricted to the people immediately above or below in the organisational hierarchy
  • it takes some of the pressure off the line manager

The relationship you have with your boss is massively important and predictive of your job satisfaction.

But in the UK, disengaged workers are three times more likely to be disgruntled by their line manager than their pay. In theory the person most expected to help you self-actualise is your line manager; in practice this doesn’t seem to happen that often. It’s still every manager’s responsibility to help establish, maintain and improve a learning culture but it’s now no longer solely their responsibility: time to open it up a bit to other citizens, giving and receiving.

Learning citizenship, or seeking opportunities to learn and improve and helping others do the same, is the difference between having a work life and a work existence, simple as that.

CC BY 4.0 Learning citizenship by Tim Gibson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.