By Peter Welch
Learning Culture as an Organisational Gyroscope by Nigel Paine

Learning Culture as an Organisational Gyroscope by Nigel Paine

The Gyroscope as a metaphor - an article by Nigel Paine

Learning Cultures are dynamic, not static. That is why I used the concept of an organizational gyroscope as my central metaphor in the book: Workplace Learning: How to Build a Culture of Workplace Development.

A gyroscope is a critical part of any avionics system and is built into every plane. This is because when it spins, it creates an energy that resists any shift from its equilibrium, creating an artificial horizon so the pilot knows, at any given moment, where the real horizon is and, therefore, where the plane is in relation to the ground, regardless of the visibility level outside the plane. It is an essential part of any pilot’s training.

Pilots flying in clear conditions hardly need to refer to the instrument as they can clearly see the terrain: they know at a glance what is in front of them, and what is below. The value of the gyroscope and its artificial horizon really kick in when the plane enters turbulence and there is poor or zero visibility. In those times, it is easy to be disorientated and lose your sense of perspective, to the point where you have no idea if you are upside down or heading straight into the ground. At these times it is helpful to know which way is up and if you are flying level.

Knowing your sense of direction is not simply nice to have, but absolutely critical for survival.

If we translate this into organizational life, the parallels are clear. When things are calm and you can plan for a pretty stable future, your own instincts will get you through most issues. The problem comes with uncertainty and turbulence. Organizations can lose sight of their horizon and get confused about what is really going on to the point where they fly upside down.

I would argue that a learning culture is a similar dynamic force. One of its key facets is rapidly bringing information from outside into the organization, sharing it, and taking action where necessary. A strong learning culture helps navigate turbulence and uncertainty and allows better-informed bets to be placed on direction and destination.

If you hold up a gyroscope that is not spinning, it is a lump of metal with no balance and no energy. Yet if you spin its flywheel it comes to life in a dramatic way. You can balance it on a piece of string, and if you hold it parallel, any minute change of direction is immediately felt as the forces of inertia want to twist back to stasis. As a kid’s toy gyroscopes are endlessly fascinating. I used to spend hours as a child working out what more precarious surfaces it would balance on. The physics eluded me, but that sense of power when spinning never left me.

I get a similar sense of awe when I am within organizations with a strong learning culture. They are dynamic, full of energy and full of curious people who continuously question and improve what they are doing so that they can better deliver the mission and purpose of the organization. People take individual responsibility for getting it right, and they reach out to fellow team members to help or share. There is a sense of collective ownership and responsibility rather than silos, and there is a huge power and energy that drives the organization forward.

In turbulent times, it is fatal to take your eye off the ball, and catastrophic to feel you have it all worked out. Arrogance and complacency are punished in the marketplace and it can be fatal to ignore potential disruptors and give them time to get established.

There is much more sense in tapping into the insight and experience of all your staff regardless of whether they are full or part-time, contract or gig workers.  Their connections will amplify any weak signals in the environment far faster than the executive board is able to!

Why does a learning culture work?

There are four key reasons why a learning culture revs up the energy and insight in an organization.

  • Firstly, encouraging staff to take charge of their own learning destiny and to build their skills continuously is hugely motivating.
  • Regular contact with the environment outside, and debate about contrasting perceptions and contradictions, or strange messages, helps organizations focus on reality is the second reason.
  • The third relates to a climate of open discussion, admission of mistakes, continuous work on problems. This generates a climate or curiosity and enquiry and allows very fast adjustments to be made to counter perceived challenges.
  • Finally, encouraging debate, listening to ideas and perceptions from right across the organization allows leaders to tap into a sensitive barometer that indicates a change. It enables them to distinguish between what is trivial and inconsequential; ‘noise’ in the system, and the signals that something significant is happening which the organization has to adjust to. And because a Learning Culture operates across the whole organization and is holistic, the response can be organization-wide in order to allow a coordinated and integrated response.

That whirring of insight is very like the spinning of the gyroscope wheel, and if you move towards a learning culture there will be a clear sense of that spinning up and energising the organization. It inevitably becomes more dynamic.

There are lots of by-products as well. Engaged and motivated staff are more likely to stay the course than frustrated and bored ones. And a learning culture allows that most precious of gifts to be given in abundance: discretionary effort.  If you can harness those that are prepared to go the ‘extra mile’ you have a dramatic edge over the competition.  It is not about working harder but working smarter and more effectively and enjoying helping and supporting colleagues.

The key to a learning culture is not more learning per se. It is building the right conditions for learning to bubble up. Those conditions will develop a happy and committed workforce, so you get two massive benefits for one input:  the churning of insight on the one hand, and a happier, more stable, workforce on the other.

It may be a slight exaggeration to say this, but I can think of no alternatives to a learning culture in this unstable and volatile climate. A strong learning culture may well be the best insurance for survival any organization can build in the 21st century. It is the bedrock of agility, and resilience and at the heart of innovation and deep collaboration. In the current climate, I do not believe that there is anything more important for you to consider. 

Nigel Paine - 3rd December 2018

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