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How to create a learning culture in the workplace

By building a learning culture, L&D leaders can equip their organizations to adapt to a business world that is transforming before our eyes.
learning culture
Credit: Ana Kova; Image Sources: Adobe Stock, WavebreakMediaMicro

Technological disruption, VUCA conditions fueled by the ongoing pandemic, and evolving organizational architectures are just a few of the major challenges businesses face today. As a learning leader, your role is to equip your workforce with the capabilities needed to stay competitive amidst these changes. In other words, you must build a transformation-ready organization.

Being transformation-ready doesn’t mean adopting the latest technology or rewriting your mission statement to keep up with current trends. Instead, it’s about developing a learning culture that positions the entire organization to adapt to the inevitable unknowns the future will bring. 

5 characteristics of a learning culture

To empower transformation-ready employees, an organization must foster a learning culture. Such a culture develops employees’ habits of mind so they can recognize outdated practices and drive necessary changes quickly and efficiently. 

To determine if your organization is moving toward a learning culture, ask whether the environment you’re creating embodies the following characteristics. 

Does the culture produce and support insightful workers?

There’s no guarantee that today’s knowledge will solve tomorrow’s problems or that skills will remain evergreen. But insightful employees can recognize when the nature of a problem shifts. They then use that comprehension to hone their skills and seek out fresh knowledge. 

These characteristics help workers face novel challenges, which allows the entire organization to transform as well. 

Insight isn’t an innate quality, though. Cultures must nurture it by creating opportunities for employees to acquire knowledge, explore promising ideas, and experiment with new solutions. They must also encourage the pursuit of lifelong learning.

Does it extol growth mindsets?

In his studies, psychologist and professional development consultant Robert Keagan found that people in most organizations expend copious effort trying to hide their weaknesses and learning needs. So much effort, that Keagan considers it the equivalent of a second job.

Such playacting has serious consequences for the organization and employees alike. For employees, it depletes time and energy that could go into true development. All the while, organizations pay for such unproductive efforts. 

For these reasons, Keagan recommends that a learning culture fosters growth mindsets. In this type of organization, learning is not seen as a sign of weakness but of character. Failure is not the antonym of success, but part of the growth process.

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Is it collaborative and matrixed?

Even the most insightful worker can’t do it all. Sometimes the time required to hone a new skill will be too great. In these instances, insightful workers need to connect with those whose complementary skills can be an asset.

Far too often, the help they need is siloed away in a neighboring department. And within the hyper-specialized architecture of many modern organizations, that can be a difficult barrier to cross. 

Conversely, organizations energized by a learning culture work to break such barriers down. They do this by creating learning experiences that span departments, opportunities for peer-to-peer knowledge flow, and interdepartmental skill-sharing mentorships.

Is it adaptable?

It’s clear that transformation is the default condition of today’s business world. There will inevitably come a day when the tried-and-true no longer works. When this happens, reactionary organizations panic and falter. 

But transformation-ready organizations evolve, and that begins at the employee level. A learning culture provides time and resources for employees to hone the skills needed to adapt to changing market conditions and demands, skills like resilience and agility. 

Is it cultivated by leaders at the organization?

Leaders have an outsized influence on everyone at an organization. Directors who want their managers to learn and grow must model a willingness to do so. The same holds true for managers who want to see their team members improve.

Kelly Palmer, the chief learning officer at Degreed, puts it another way: Leadership culture must shift from a group of “know-it-alls” to one of “learn-it-alls.” Learn-it-alls grant permission to admit fallibility and desire to grow. 

Leadership must shift from a group of “know-it-alls” to one of “learn-it-alls.”

This requires developing leaders with intellectual humility — they must be open to learning, commit to improving, and never use their intellect or position to discourage others. Teaching those skills will mean having open, honest conversations with key leaders as well as embodying intellectual humility yourself.

What’s a learning leader to do?

A learning culture isn’t built overnight. Organizations must commit to intentionally developing employees, and that requires being strategic about how investments are made. To begin developing a culture of learning at your organization, consider the following factors. 

Budget

When the time comes for budget cuts, learning often gets slashed first. “I’ve talked to companies that have rationed learning to the degree that if you’re not rated high in the performance management process, you don’t get to go to learning,” says Josh Bersin, the founder of Bersin by Deloitte — a leading provider of advisory services in enterprise learning.

Decisions like these unfortunately result in piecemeal efforts that aren’t conducive to continuous learning. They also send a negative message about the value education holds throughout the entire organization.

One way to maintain a consistent budget is to gain buy-in by making the value of learning explicitly clear. Write a mission statement that aligns your vision with organizational objectives, then choose and design programs with ROI in mind. 

Gain buy-in by making the value of learning explicitly clear.

Every organization will have unique training needs, although a common denominator is often the leadership gap. Leadership development programs are in high demand to meet this gap, and research shows they’re getting the job done — such programs have been found to increase team engagement, improve retention, and cut the costs of hiring externally.

Set well-defined goals for programs like these, and keep a regular pulse on their effectiveness. Plan ongoing initiatives to measure their impact, such as the use of qualitative feedback from employee surveys, and always be prepared to communicate on progress to goal. 

Time

In our interview with Bersin, he pointed out that leaders often schedule time to provide employees with feedback, but not for them to work on their areas for improvement. Leaders must allocate time for learning if they are to expect employee growth to occur. And time for learning should be protected against the myriad other tasks that encroach upon it.

It doesn’t matter how effective a learning program promises to be if employees don’t have the time to participate. For this reason, Google and others have instituted the 80/20 rule. They offer employees 20% of their time to learn, develop, and experiment on new ideas. This ratio can vary, but having a formal rule serves to convey the importance of learning. 

Additionally, small doses of microlearning sprinkled throughout an employee’s week can have a big impact. L&D departments can utilize existing tools in creative ways to facilitate this, such as devoting a channel on the company’s digital communication platform to share daily insights. Weekly emails that feature new learning content can also be effective at reaching employees when they have a few minutes to spare. 

Final note

Learning leaders are important drivers of organizational culture. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world of work, the culture of learning you create will be the energy that powers transformation. That’s an expansive mandate, but the good news is you don’t have to go it alone. 

A learning culture isn’t built from the top-down, where leaders mandate the necessary conditions and workers follow the piper’s tune to compliance. It requires a bottom-up approach where everyone is on board.

A learning culture requires a bottom-up approach.

Hiring managers should look for applicants with qualities such as insightfulness and a growth mindset. Senior leaders should allocate time for their direct reports to participate in training. The executive team should become L&D’s biggest advocates and evangelize for keeping the learning culture alive and strong. 

Gone are the days when being a leader meant having all the power at hand. Today, leadership is about what Bersin calls “followership” — the ability to inspire people and get them to follow your lead so they can collectively build something greater. By building a followership of learners, L&D leaders can become a catalyst for change and equip their organizations to adapt to a business world that is transforming before our eyes.

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