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Employee Development

How To Build A Learning Culture: 7 Steps

Developing a learning culture may be the best thing organizations can do to remain competitive amidst all the changes of the 21st century. To attract top talent and develop new and innovative products and services, leaders should be investing in employee learning and development. In doing so, they’ll cultivate a learning culture that pays dividends well into the future.

Ryan Carruthers

November 19, 2021

What is a workplace learning culture?

A learning culture is a workplace that prioritizes employee development by giving employees access to training courses, mentoring opportunities, and knowledge-sharing activities. 

In addition, companies with learning cultures have employees that continually seek out opportunities to acquire skills and knowledge that drive professional improvement and organizational success. 

Learning opportunities are sought because it’s baked into performance reviews. In this way, employees don’t feel guilty for dedicating time to learning because they know it improves their own performance, which, in turn, helps the business.

Why is a learning culture important?

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. What skills employers need their employees to have is changing at a faster pace than ever. Therefore, a learning culture is essential because the skills your employees bring to the table now will need to evolve.

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; and,
  • Outperform companies that don’t invest in learning.

Let’s look at how to build a culture of learning in your organization.

How to make learning part of the culture

Establishing a learning culture takes time because, with culture, it’s intangible. But that doesn’t make it any less important. There needs to be a change in how leadership talks about and values learning to unlock the benefits of learning cultures. After that, programs can be put in place that encourages employees to take advantage of learning opportunities. There are six steps. Let’s look at each in detail:

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% 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% 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 it 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 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 where 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% 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% 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.

A culture of learning starts with mentorship

76% of millennials believe professional development opportunities are one of the most important aspects of company culture. Employees want a learning culture, but they don’t want boring courses that we can simply click through. Instead, they want more collaboration baked into their learning. 

This is best done through mentorship. 

Discussing what you’ve learned with your peers reinforces it so you don’t forget, but talking about your goals and challenges with a mentor can be enlightening. A mentor, who’s a leader in your company, can shed light on upcoming opportunities to apply what you’ve learned or provide guidance on particular challenges you’re facing. 

The point is: mentors are crucial to employee development and building a learning culture. 

Running mentoring programs in the workplace takes time and effort. Realistically, if you’re going to run the program manually using spreadsheets, it’s only feasible if you have less than 25 participants. If your program is growing past that number, it will be an administrative burden to manage. With Together, you can turn your manual mentoring mess into a simple and streamlined process. Learn more about how we make it easy to build a mentoring program that runs itself.

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