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Why Developing a Learning Culture is Crucial in 2018

With 2017 entering its final quarter, many organizations are rushing to prepare for the new year. Getting a solid plan in place for the upcoming year can make an enormous difference for an organization’s success.

When you’re setting up your business plan for the upcoming year, be sure to incorporate developing a learning culture as a part of your business strategy. Why is developing a learning culture crucial for the upcoming year?
Here are a few reasons to consider:

1) It Helps Employees Actually Improve

As much as every business owner and talent team member would like to recruit “perfect” employees who are fully trained and experienced in every kind of task they may be asked to perform, they know it’s almost impossible to find. Every work environment comes with its own set of ins and outs , and overcoming the learning curve takes time.
Unfortunately, many organizations can end up stifling employee development if they don’t have a well-formed learning culture in place. As Robert Kegan, an adult developmental psychologist at Harvard University, states in an interview with Big Think:

“In the ordinary organization most people are doing a second job that nobody’s paying them for and that second job has to do with looking good, hiding their weaknesses, covering their inadequacies, [and] managing other people’s favorable impressions of them. And you can say that’s human nature but it also turns out to be incredibly costly in ways that we don’t think enough about. If I keep hiding my weaknesses the likelihood that I’m going to overcome them shrinks to near zero and the organization has to keep essentially paying for the consequences of my limitations. And they’re paying me full time salary for part time work.”

Basically, in an organization where people aren’t being given the tools and incentives to learn, employees spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on just trying to look good rather than actually finding ways to improve. This leads to wasted time and money on the part of the organization.
However, in an organization with a strong learning culture, employees are encouraged to reveal their weaknesses so that they can be given the resources they need to perform better. As Kegan says in his Big Think interview, “The watch word of entrepreneurialism is not to avoid failure but to fail frequently and to fail fast and to fail forward. So imagine a culture where people were encouraged to do that so that they would keep learning and getting better.”
Rather than employees trying to hide or cover failures, they would be learning from their mistakes or limitations so that they don’t repeat the same errors over and over again.

2) It Improves Employee Flexibility and Creativity at Work

In a workplace where self-improvement and learning aren’t part of the culture, employees often fall back on the “default” mode of operation for work. This can lead to the creation of work habits that, when employees are presented with an obstacle, leave them lost and unable to adapt.
Without the appropriate skills and sense of independence to take action and make adjustments, workers have a much harder time adapting to unexpected changes or challenges.
A strong learning culture encourages workers to acquire new skills, naturally making these workers more knowledgeable and flexible on the job.
In a Big Think interview, Fareed Zakaria highlights the importance of having a workforce that’s willing and able to continuously learn:

“Any company hiring people will recognize that probably the trait they’re looking for most is not a particular set of skills the but demonstrated ability to acquire skills. Because any company will realize, I think, that what’s crucial is not the particular set of skills you have but that you demonstrate a capacity to acquire them now, because a few years from now, a few months from now it might turn out that you have to acquire new ones.”

In any organization, there is the potential for a major change—whether it’s because of a new innovation, a new regulation, or just an internal policy change. Whatever the case may be, having employees who can quickly pick up new skills and adjust their work processes to accommodate change can make an enormous difference in how much productivity is lost when changes occur.
In this way, a strong learning culture can help to future-proof an organization’s workforce.

3) It Helps Attract and Engage the Best and Brightest Talent

Staffing is a constant concern for any organization, from the smallest non-profit to the biggest Fortune 500 companies. Turnover is inevitable, and filling all of the talent and skills gaps in an organization is a near-constant source of expense and lost productivity.
In this Big Think article, it was posited that “one of the most compelling reasons to work at Google is to learn.” Having a well-known learning culture can help attract bright talents who are not only willing, but also eager, to grow. As Tom Glocer, the former CEO of Thomson Reuters, says in the article, “The best employees are the curious employees and those that want lifelong learning… They want to know how things work. Stimulate that curiosity and desire for learning within your employees and you will open the doors for innovation.”
So, not only does having a strong learning culture in your organization help draw top talent, it can help retain them, motivating them to grow and innovate within their role.

Creating an Effective Learning Culture in Your Organization

There are many steps to creating a workplace culture that encourages constant learning and growth among employees. Some of these steps include, but are not limited to:

  1. Thinking Outside the Classroom. Learning is never a “one and done” solution. Instead of only having regimented classroom lessons, consider reinforcing lessons with other learning opportunities like short-form videos that employees can watch at their leisure.
  2. Encourage Creative Solution, Even If It Could Fail. Fear of punishment can make employees averse to trying new things. So, rather than punishing a creative approach that doesn’t work, try analyzing the solution with the employee identify the flaws so that same result doesn’t happen again.
  3. Welcome Dissenting Opinions. A team of “yes-men” will usually just follow whatever their immediate superior says. This doesn’t breed innovation or learning. Instead, encourage workers to bring forth some dissenting opinions and debate things with whatever research they can muster. This encourages active participation and can give everyone a broader perspective on the topic.
  4. Reward Major Contributions. When employees try new things or make suggestions to improve processes, provide some form of acknowledgment or support—even if the new idea doesn’t pan out. This encourages employees to think critically about work processes and not be shy about sharing ideas.
  5. Get Upper Management Involved. Workplace culture tends to trickle down from the top as leaders set examples for their direct reports—and everyone else under them. If the top tier of leadership isn’t invested in building a learning culture at work, then others might not feel the need to be invested either.

Building a learning culture at work isn’t always easy, but it can be well worth the effort for how it improves employee engagement, retention, and innovation throughout the organization.
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