The emphasis on building a culture of learning in the workplace has never been greater. Take, for example, that between July and September 2021, the demand for learning and development specialists increased 94 percent over the previous three months. Why so much demand? To build a learning culture, of course!
A culture of learning is an environment where employees are encouraged to continuously improve their skills and knowledge. It’s a place where people feel supported in their efforts to learn new things and grow professionally.
When you have a culture of learning in the workplace, employees are more engaged and productive. They’re also more likely to stay with your company for the long haul.
So how do you create a culture of learning in your workplace? In this article, we'll examine:
- The characteristics of a learning culture
- Why a learning culture is critical today
- Expert advice for making learning part of your workplace culture
- How you can start building a learning organization
Ready? Let's dive in.
What does a culture of learning in the workplace look like?
Sometimes, the high-level definition of a learning culture can be somewhat oversimplified. It isn't just a place where you find out new things. Almost every organization would fit that bill.
Instead, it’s somewhere that:
- Encourages employees to take on new challenges
- Provides opportunities to learn new skills
- Supports employees in their professional development
- Helps employees see the connections between their work and the company's goals
- Creates an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions and seeking help
In 2014, Karen May, then the vice president of people development at Google, led a panel of learning leaders who shared many of the company’s secrets. Even then, they were working from four key tenants that are still applicable today.
1. Learning is a process, not an event
The first key to creating a culture of learning in the workplace is understanding that learning is a process, not an event. It's something that happens continuously throughout our lives.
One way to encourage this continuous learning is by establishing loops. These are opportunities for employees to receive feedback, reflect on their experiences, and apply what they've learned to their work.
By making learning part of the everyday work experience, you can help employees see it as a natural part of their jobs, not something that only happens in formal training sessions.
2. Learning happens in real life
The second key to creating a culture of learning in the workplace is understanding that people learn best when they're actively engaged in their work and when they have opportunities to experiment and try new things.
Encouraging employees to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from their experiences is crucial to building a culture of learning in the workplace.
3. Learning is personal
The third key that Google stands by is understanding that learning is personal. What works for one person may not work for another. In short, our learning styles vary widely.
Therefore, provide employees with a variety of learning opportunities and resources so they can find what works best for them. This could include everything from online courses and webinars to on-the-job training and coaching.
4. Learning is social
The fourth key is recognizing that learning is social. We learn from each other when we share our experiences and ideas.
Encouraging employees to collaborate and connect is essential to building a culture of learning in the workplace. Creating opportunities for networking, mentoring, and peer-to-peer learning can go a long way toward making learning part of your company culture.
Why is a learning culture important to have at work?
While you might understand what it is, there’s still the question of why building a workplace learning culture might be beneficial - and how it can affect the bottom line.
Let’s dig into the benefits and challenges that you may face.
The benefits of a learning culture
The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs report stated that “in many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist ten or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate.”
Likewise, LinkedIn research found that half of the most in-demand skills they release in a report each year weren’t there three years ago.
These studies reveal that what skills companies need their employees to have is changing at a faster pace than ever.
Just as developing a growth mindset became a popular topic for individuals who wanted to perform better, organizations need to adopt a culture of learning—call it an organizational growth mindset.
Companies that invest in developing a learning culture:
- Are more adaptable to change
- Have more engaged employees
- Outperform companies that don’t invest in learning
It’s not all roses, though. There can be significant challenges to creating a learning culture in the workplace.
What hinders workplace learning cultures from developing?
Even if you provide employees with all the resources they need to learn and develop, some things will stand in the way:
- Fear of failure: Some people may feel like they need to be perfect before they can start learning something new.
- A fixed mindset: A fixed mindset is a belief that intelligence is static. Some people believe that they cannot improve their abilities, no matter how hard they try.
- Confidence (over and lack thereof): On the other hand, some believe they don’t need to learn or are fearful that they may look foolish or uninformed if they ask a question.
- A lack of motivation: If people don’t see the value in learning something new, they won’t be motivated to do it.
Helping your staff overcome these issues can be difficult, but it’s important to try. As they become more comfortable with daily learning, they’ll be able to see the benefits for themselves.
The expert advice for making learning part of your workplace culture
Establishing a learning culture takes time because of its intangible nature. It is difficult to understand how each of your employees is approaching development without continuously offering and receiving feedback while adding further opportunities for growth.
There are a few key steps to take you in this direction, though, which we’ve detailed below.
1. Make it an organizational value
There’s overwhelming pressure for employees to keep their heads down and stay on top of their day-to-day priorities. With managers pushing for reaching short-term KPIs, it can be difficult for employees to step away from their work and engage in learning that may not be immediately beneficial.
But this thinking can be an organization’s long-term detriment. To begin building a learning culture, leaders need to be vocal about learning. In doing so, employees and their managers will give themselves permission to pursue learning and not feel guilty for doing so.
A great example of a leader who championed a learning culture from the top down is the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella.
- When coming on board in 2014, he was confronted with a rigid pecking order that stifled innovation and hampered learning.
- By championing the importance of a learning culture from the top-down, Satya has transformed Microsoft into a learn-it-all culture instead of a know-it-all culture. He did so by explaining that a “learn-it-all perspective and growth mindset will always perform better.”
2. Make it personal to each employee
94 percent of employees say they would stay at a company longer if they invested in their career development. But generic learning through courses that don’t spark enthusiasm isn’t what that 94 percent of employees want. Instead, they want personalized training that’s tailored to their goals and career aspirations.
Aligning corporate training with employee goals will increase engagement and performance outcomes. Organizations can do this by asking for feedback from employees and seeing what skills they want to learn.
Of course, the skills employees want to learn also need to align with business strategy, but including their input will make them more excited about participating.
The outcome for employees can be an Individual development plan (IDP). An IDP is a shared document that outlines clear and actionable steps employees will follow to learn new skills. There are several parts to an IDP:
- Professional goals and aspirations
- Strengths and talents
- Development opportunities
- Action plans
Managers can build an IDP with individuals on their teams and follow up with them on it throughout the quarter before their next performance review.
3. Incorporate learning outcomes into performance reviews
Another way to build a culture of learning is to incorporate employee development into quarterly performance reviews and status meetings. By outlining an IDP, the employee and manager can refer back to it and follow up on learning commitments that were made.
Doing so holds employees accountable to not let learning get deprioritized. It also signals to the manager that they are responsible for ensuring their teams are dedicating time to grow and learn.
4. Provide mentorship to employees
A key part of developing a learning culture is providing employees with mentors. For an employee development plan, mentors are crucial.
- Mentors can guide a mentee’s career development
- Mentors can expand their mentee's professional network, opening up opportunities for more learning and development
- Mentors hold their mentees accountable for work toward their goals.
- Having a mentor is a valuable opportunity to engage in knowledge sharing to get a more mature perspective on your career or organization.
Mentorship within the workplace looks like leaders across the organization connecting with more junior employees to help them grow. Overall, mentors support employees’ professional growth.
An effective mentoring relationship has 1-on-1 discussions at least once a month where they both come prepared to discuss particular topics and follow up on previous conversations. It isn’t a simple check-in but an active conversation around particular goals or challenges.
Together empowers organizations to accelerate their employee learning and development through mentoring programs. Our mentoring platform enables organizations to start 1-on-1, group, or peer mentorship programs that provide resources, monitor, and report on employee growth.
Rather than solo training programs that emphasize coursework and quizzes, employees can connect and accelerate their professional development through career-changing guidance from mentors and encouragement from peers.
5. Reward learning (soft and hard rewards)
Employees are rewarded for hitting milestones or applying new skills to achieve positive business outcomes in a learning culture. Rewards don’t have to be promotions, bonuses, or raises. They can be soft rewards like public praise, which managers celebrate with their employees when they finish a course.
Similarly, when an employee engages in a new activity through cross-training or job shadowing, their manager can recognize the effort it takes to step out of their comfort zone to learn new skills.
Recognizing great results is one of the biggest drivers of employee engagement. On the flip side, when employees feel they’re working super hard and exceeding expectations but aren’t being recognized for it, they’re naturally going to feel pretty demotivated.
So it’s no surprise that, according to research from Quantum Workforce, employees are 2.7X more likely to feel highly engaged when they believe their positive work will be recognized.
Importantly, that doesn’t mean they expect a handshake and a pat on the back from the CEO every time they do something good. Instead, they expect positive feedback from the leaders who are closest to them, with 52.5 percent of employees stating they want more recognition from their immediate manager.
6. Combine solitary learning with collaboration
There’s an over-emphasis on coursework, surveys, quizzes, training videos, and other activities that employees can complete independently in traditional corporate training.
According to The Forgetting Curve, coined by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, we forget 70 percent of what we learn within 24 hours if it isn’t reinforced. By learning with colleagues and engaging in discussion around how to apply it, learning is reinforced. We call this Social Learning.
The University of Mexico conducted a study of medical students and their class formats. They found that classes designed to encourage active participation in the material and spur discussion between students and teachers led to higher marks and course information retention.
There will always be a place for individual study and guided learning. But numerous studies and surveys show that it isn’t enough for employees. Employees—especially those in remote workplaces—need learning and development steeped in social interactions and collaboration.
7. Empower employees to learn at their own pace
The best way to engage employees in learning is by making it flexible and allowing them to learn at their own pace. This means that you need to provide opportunities for employees to continue learning even after they’ve completed their mandatory training.
While the preference for many is to learn independently, it is still important to monitor their development to make sure that the company’s goals are being met. Learning and Development programs should provide support along the way but not micromanage the process.
8. Celebrate “Aha!” moments
Encourage your employees to take risks and experiment. When they have successes, no matter how small, celebrate them! These "Aha!" moments are essential to keeping employees motivated and inspired to continue learning.
One way to do this is by sharing stories of success within the company. This could be done via an internal newsletter, social media, or even a dedicated section on your company website. Highlighting these successes will show your employees that their efforts are appreciated and that their development matters to the company.
9. Encourage employees to share their knowledge
Once employees have completed their training and had time to implement what they’ve learned, encourage them to share their knowledge with others in the company. This can be done through blog posts, articles, presentations, or even leading a discussion group.
10. Don’t let the loop break
There is no end to the process once you've established a culture of learning in the workplace. The loop goes 'round and 'round, from experiencing a problem, asking for help, and learning the solution. These simple steps can be repeated over and over forever, with each cycle bringing new insights and levels of understanding.
This continuous learning is a central part of what it means to have a growth mindset, and encouraging feedback is an integral part. Feedback should be a two-way street, with employees feeling comfortable giving and receiving it from their managers and colleagues.
Start building a learning organization through mentorship
Workplace learning can be a daunting field, with endless ways of encouraging growth and development within your company. One of the most impactful and often overlooked methods is developing a mentorship program.
Experienced employees help guide and support the development of less experienced employees. It’s an excellent way to build a culture of learning in your workplace because it:
- Fosters relationships between employees
- Encourages open communication
- Builds trust
- Helps with succession planning
With Together, these mentor-mentee connections can be completed at the drop of a hat, pairing up employees to quickly contribute to the company’s learning culture.
Building a learning culture in the workplace can be a long, difficult process. But following these tips (and maybe adding a little technological help), you can motivate your teams to continue their personal and professional growth.