Lead by example to create an EMS learning culture

To truly build a culture that values education, the continuous process of learning must be a part of all levels within the organization


By Steven Knight, PhD

In emergency medical services we are in a constant state of learning. But does that mean we have a “learning culture?" For most organizations, the answer would seem to be “yes,” simply due to the sheer number of educational engagements. However, the greatest value of becoming an organization dedicated to continuous improvement will not be realized by the volume of educational sessions alone.

There are multiple definitions of a learning culture or learning organization, but I like a simple version that includes a set of attitudes, values, and practices that support the process of continuous learning. Of course, this learning must be put into practice through continuous inquiry that consistently challenges historical processes and methods. This ability to adapt to new knowledge ensures continuous improvement and organizational agility.

5 questions to measure your agency’s learning culture

To truly build a learning culture, the continuous process of learning must be a part of all levels of the organization. Often, EMS chiefs and CEOs obtain a level of formal education prior to filling those positions and rarely return to the learning mindset. While in some ways they are leading by example because they have an advanced degree, a diploma on the wall does little to demonstrate a dedication to continuous learning and improvement.

Ask these five questions to measure your agency’s commitment to a learning culture:  

1. How often does the EMS chief or CEO introduce the new training and then leave as it begins?  

Certainly, top administrators cannot afford to attend all of the training opportunities offered by a department, especially in larger agencies that may require many sessions to reach everyone. However, it is important for the chief or CEO to attend the first training and then reference the program and its value as subsequent deliveries are introduced. Ultimately, this embodies the “lead by example” component that is important as you develop a learning culture.

2. Are the learning opportunities and content contributing to organizational and individual improvement?  

An organizational learning culture’s greatest value is in the cumulative or synergistic effect of continuous improvement. Through this lens, the content needs to foster organizational and individual improvement that is aligned with the organization’s mission, purpose, vision, and values. Agencies should assess the overall content of the learning opportunities and ensure that mandatory industry training requirements consume as little of the overall delivery as possible.

3. Is continuous inquiry and dialogue encouraged by members at all levels?  

In a learning culture, inquiry is a vital component. Again, the greatest strength is the impact of continuously challenging the status quo through efforts to understand or to improve the system. The dialogue is valuable to the organization because the employee asking the questions gains new knowledge and the member answering the questions must have full command of the content area. Gaps in knowledge or sound reasoning are easily identified and should be addressed.

4. Do the best ideas rise to the top regardless of the rank from which they originate? 

In a quality organizational learning culture, the idea is far more important than the rank or position of the individual who suggested it. Ideas should be embraced and vetted with a process for evaluation and feedback. This is difficult at times, especially in paramilitary organizations. In a learning culture, the inquiry or idea should be fully addressed in a comprehensive and transparent manner so that both the individual and the organization have an opportunity for growth. In a learning organization, our paramilitary rank structures should have little negative influence over the flow of ideas.  

5. Is failure accepted as part of the continuous improvement process?

This is a challenge, especially in emergency services. In many respects, our culture promotes a “no failure” work environment. While we must maintain high-quality reliable skill sets for our EMS service delivery, we must also simultaneously support failure at the organizational level. This duality is difficult and organizations cannot allow the intolerance of failure in the field to influence the culture of inquiry and improvement. A learning organization allows new ideas to be tested and failure is one of the acceptable outcomes. Of course, pilot programs are the preferred choice for testing new ideas and processes so that the organizational mission maintains its integrity during the continuous improvement process. Finally, failures are embraced and utilized as an opportunity for growth as ideas are continuously refined and new knowledge is created and reintroduced into the organization.  

Make a commitment to a learning culture

One of the best ways we can lead by example is to put our money where our mouth is. When faced with budget reductions, many leaders’ first cuts are to the travel, training and educational incentive programs. Typically, these line items do not add up to significant savings, but have a significantly negative impact on the health and well being of the organization. Decreasing educational components is counterproductive to a learning culture and shows that organizational priorities do not include improvement and education.

To establish that an organization values learning and that its future success depends on continuous learning and improvement, you must lead by example and never stop seeking out more education and opportunities for yourself and your colleagues.

It is not atypical for a leader to have spent years “acquiring” all of the degrees and certifications necessary to obtain the leadership position. However, this “trophy case” does little to establish an organizational learning culture because these educational milestones no longer contribute to growth. Obviously, I am a proponent for higher education, but the value is the continuous application of knowledge in a process of personal, professional, and organizational growth.

This is critical not just to demonstrate the importance of continuous learning, but also because EMS is a constantly evolving field. Leaders who fail to learn will soon find themselves losing the respect of an agency whose members realize they are part of a stagnant organization, and not one adapting to new information or best practices.

Similarly, leading by example leaves executives vulnerable to failure. Under the veil of continuous improvement, leaders must be willing to take calculated risks to test ideas and seek new knowledge. Essential to this process is the reality that not all ideas will be wholly successful.

The most difficult part is that these “failures” should be transparent and public for two reasons. First, through leading by example, the CEO or EMS Chief can communicate to the organization that the agency and leadership is committed to new inquiry and continuous improvement and that failure is not demonized. The freedom to fail removes the greatest barriers to growth. Second, the new knowledge must be reintroduced to the organization so members do not only learn from their own experiences, but also have the benefit of learning from all organizational efforts.  

About the Author

Dr. Steve Knight, a Fitch & Associates consultant, brings more than 25 years of fire and EMS experience to the firm. He served for nearly 17 years as assistant fire chief for the City of St. Petersburg, Fla. He is a subject matter expert for the National Fire Academy and also held a similar position at the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE), a nonprofit corporation that serves as the governing body for the organizations that offer accreditation, education, and credentialing services to the first responder and fire service industries.

Knight has also served as team leader and assessor for the Commission on Fire Accreditation International and has held multiple faculty appointments in Fire Science and EMS. Prior to coming to Fitch, he served as senior manager of a consulting team within the Center for Public Safety Management.

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