Part of having a great overall workplace culture is instituting a continuous learning culture.
After all, learning isn’t a one-time event. You don’t earn a degree or a certification, or complete a course, and then you magically know everything and you’re done learning forever.
In reality, there’s always something new to learn and trends to keep up with. That’s because markets, industries and companies are dynamic in nature.
- The economy undergoes cycles.
- Companies innovate new strategies, products and services.
- Customer preferences evolve, along with the social and political landscape.
- New technologies are introduced.
- New laws are passed, or current laws are modified.
- Education, training and certification requirements change.
- Companies scale up and down in size, expand into new markets and merge with other organizations. In response, individual job responsibilities can broaden or narrow in scope, or shift entirely.
Of course, people don’t remain static either.
- Personal goals evolve.
- As employees desire to move up the organizational ladder or switch to new roles, they need to expand their skill set.
In fact, in some careers, professionals are required by law to continue their education (for instance, many medical professions).
Legal requirements aside, you want your people to have a professional growth and development mindset in which they take the initiative, continually want to improve and are able to adapt well to change.
A learning culture is not about getting everyone on your team up to speed and helping them attain a certain minimum level of proficiency. Employees should already have the basic knowledge and skills they need for their job when they’re hired and trained in their current role. Instead, it’s about stretching beyond current capabilities and always seeking to do better in light of new information, more experience and changed circumstances.
The risk of not continually learning
It’s easy to get focused on day-to-day tasks and just getting the job done. One of the most common refrains is “I’m so busy.”
Many people are also often resistant to change. They think the way they do things works just fine, so why step out of their comfort zone and rock the boat?
But what happens if you let a learning culture fall by the wayside?
Your company can:
- Become stagnant and complacent
- Fail to keep up with what competitors are doing
- Not align with customer expectations
- Fall out of compliance (in some cases, such as certifications)
When these things happen, your company can become irrelevant to the marketplace. As a result, you can lose out on business opportunities, shrink your market share and suffer diminished revenue.
When employees witness this, they can become discouraged and disengaged. This is especially true for employees who would otherwise be enthusiastic about learning and improving.
When employees become so disillusioned that they leave, it comes with a significant cost to replace them.
Enabling a learning culture to flourish
Here’s what you need within your organization to create a learning culture:
1. A clearly expressed commitment to learning and self-improvement
This should not only be an expectation for all employees, but part of your organization’s DNA. Examples of how to demonstrate this commitment to employees:
- Include it among your core company values.
- Describe your expectations and employee responsibilities for meeting them in a separate training and continuing education policy, or as part of a promotion policy, within your employee handbook.
- Explain, in each written job description, the essential knowledge and skills that you expect employees to further develop, along with any relevant certifications that must be maintained.
- Periodically check in with employees about their career development goals. Work with each employee to create an individual plan.
- Integrate this conversation into employee reviews.
2. A platform for collecting learning assets that’s easily accessible to all employees
If you want to empower employees to learn more, you need to make it convenient for them. You could provide an online portal for employees containing educational resources and training courses. Web-based learning is especially important for employees who work remotely.
Or, there could be an onsite resource library in your office containing books and educational materials that employees can peruse during breaks or check out for longer periods.
3. Regular internal learning opportunities
Host quarterly, monthly or even weekly roundtable discussions on different topics relevant to your business and industry. Encourage employees to share their thoughts and experiences.
Bring in speakers to inform and engage your employees.
Lead a webinar. (If you open the webinar to other professionals outside your company, this has the added benefit of good PR and establishing your company as a thought leader in your industry.)
These options work well in both in-person working environments or via video conferencing.
Want to give in-office workers an extra nudge to participate? Make these meetings “lunch and learns” – it’s easy to buy everyone food to bring people together, and employees appreciate the gesture.
4. Approved external learning resources
If you’re unable to provide internal learning platforms and opportunities immediately, or you want to offer employees more options, then identify suitable external opportunities. These could be training courses, webinars and conferences hosted by:
- Local academic institutions
- Certification organizations
- Local business groups
- Industry associations
It’s also possible that employees will pitch learning opportunities to you. It can be a great idea to let people choose their own avenue of learning – they can take more ownership of the opportunity if they discover it independently, and will be more highly motivated if it’s a topic that especially interests them. However, do your due diligence to confirm that the opportunity makes sense for the employee’s job and for your business.
To vet these opportunities, ask employees to clarify the learning objective and to present a business case for their participation. Explain that you’ll expect them to teach the rest of their team what they learned. Also be sure to research the source online independently – look at the website, review the learning agenda and identify which topics will be covered. Weigh the cost against the likely benefits.
5. Opportunities for employees to stretch themselves and shine
Typically, we learn by doing. Select certain people – according to their background, interests, capabilities and potential – to lead projects or assume greater responsibilities in teams. This could be either in:
- Areas in which they already have demonstrated skill and passion, and simply need more experience and visibility to advance upward
- Areas in which they can build new skills, expand their network and influence, and forge relationships throughout the organization
6. Peer learning
There’s a lot that peers can teach each other, so you should encourage your people to pair up and share knowledge internally.
Maybe one employee demonstrates stronger mastery of a specific skill that another teammate would like to develop. Perhaps cross-disciplinary training could be helpful in providing deeper insight into other roles and giving an employee a more holistic view of the organization.
As an added bonus, peer learning can improve team camaraderie and engagement. It can also help to protect your company against loss of knowledge or skills in the event that an employee leaves or takes an extended absence.
And it goes both ways – there’s probably some skills and knowledge that newer, less experienced employees can teach their mentors as well, especially if mentor and mentee hail from different generations. All types of employees offer unique attributes and are capable of contributing valuable knowledge.
Cultivating learners in the workplace
Some employees may be resistant to change – learning new skills, gaining more knowledge and undergoing training – and some people feel like they’re just too busy to bother.
You’ll have to change these employees’ mindset and overcome their objections.
It can be challenging to change employee mindsets that resist change, but the benefits of having a growth mindset are win-win for employees and the organization. Gaining a growth mindset positions the employee for more opportunity, and it positions the company for future growth. If they still aren’t convinced, here are more benefits.
- Tie the mastery of certain skills to salary increases and promotions. After all, many people want more money and status at work. For these employees, the issue really boils down to: Do you want to move up or not? Eliminate any blind spots employees may have about what it takes to advance to the next level of an organization.
- Encourage the employees to reminisce about how they obtained the skills they have now. What was that initial learning process like for them? Try to use that experience to get them excited about learning something new – it can lead to new opportunities they may not have considered and will help them remain competitive.
- Explain to them why your organization values a learning culture and how it benefits the company for employees to continually develop.
- Get to know your employees on a deeper level. Assess each employee’s learning style. Find out what motivates and excites them. Help them to identify learning opportunities that are a good match.
- Engage in periodic check-ins to evaluate progress. Be a good coach to support and encourage them.
On the other hand, some people love to learn new things. Rely on these employees to spread positive energy and enthusiasm, as their attitude can be contagious. These are your learning culture champions!
To acquire a workplace full of eager learners, it’s helpful to hire these types of people in the first place. How to pinpoint whether a job candidate is a learner at heart:
- In job interviews, discuss your company’s commitment to continual learning. Through their responses, consider whether prospective new hires share your values.
- Ask creative interview questions that can help you decipher a candidate’s eagerness for learning. For example:
- What’s the last leadership book you read?
- What was your last learning opportunity, and what did you learn?
- Can you describe a time when you taught a new skill to a teammate?
- Listen for candidates’ questions about growth potential and their career path.
The biggest mistakes employers make
- Not understanding what the intended goal of the learning opportunity is can prevent you from being able to measure the success and cost effectiveness of it. You must define employees’ learning objectives at the outset.
- Don’t fixate on checking boxes. It’s not about finishing training and continued education for the sake of finishing and meeting basic requirements in an annual review. You need to understand what mastery of new knowledge or a specific skill looks like and confirm that the employee can demonstrate this. That’s the real ROI on your company’s investment in education and training. This is especially critical when salary increases and promotions are involved.
- Be careful about spending money and time on irrelevant learning opportunities. Make sure that learning is directly related to an employee’s current job or future career development. If it’s not, then it’s beyond the scope of what your company can support.
- If leaders don’t model a learning culture, then your employees won’t take it seriously. This should be a top-down initiative supported by the upper echelons of your company.
Summing it all up
A continuous learning culture is all about recognizing that companies and people need to remain committed to growth and development amid constantly changing markets and industries. This is so companies can remain competitive, on trend, in alignment with customer expectations and, occasionally, in compliance. It’s also so employees can progress in their own career advancement more efficiently.
You will need to institute certain policies, processes and programs to demonstrate to your employees how important a learning culture is to your workplace. Additionally, you may need to work with individual employees to overcome resistance and tweak hiring tactics to cultivate a team of enthusiastic learners.
And before any employee embarks on a learning opportunity, you must determine its relevancy and value to your business, define the learning objective, and be able to confirm an employee’s mastery of new knowledge or skills – especially if the completion of the learning opportunity is tied to salary increases or promotions.
To learn more about establishing a learning culture in your workplace, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to learning and development.