7 Ways to Build a Culture of Learning


July 25, 2019

LinkedIn research says that nearly every employee would stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning and development. And younger employees – millennials and gen Zs – say the chance to learn and grow is the top thing that inspires them and makes them want to work harder. In fact, this group gives learning more importance than what kind of work they do or getting a raise.

As we look at building a stronger, more talented culture of people who can have a bigger impact on business, learning becomes fundamental.

Take Vi, a Chicago-based senior-living retirement community. More than 450 employees have been a part of the company’s year-long Management Development Program (MDP). In an industry that struggles with attracting and keeping employees, Vi’s focus on learning gives frontline employees and soon-to-be managers with a variety of ways to learn. This means classes, executive coaching, webinars, projects, reading assignments, job rotations and ways to “teach back” to others to reinforce what they’ve learned.

Within a year of completing the MDP, 25 percent of participants had moved into a higher-level position. But maybe more important, its employee turnover rate is lower than its competitors – 21 percent compared to an industry average of 33 percent. For some companies in the space, attrition is as high as 65 to 70 percent.

Keep in mind, though, that there’s a difference between learning and training. When a company makes learning a part of its culture, they motivate employees to become curious, find answers and then share what they’ve discovered. People start looking at their work with a fresh, more inspired point of view. Learning implies an on-going growth mindset while training creates isolated events.

In a world of constant change, employees need an environment that nurtures new discoveries. Part of that environment means communicating that learning isn’t just expected, it’s safe. This helps employees understand why and how they’ll deliver better experiences to customers. As this becomes known outside the company, these opportunities for growth and development will attract, retain and keep better talent – and that’s a big plus for a company that wants to be proactive about adapting to change. Over and over, research shows that if employees aren’t learning, they’re leaving.

When you’re ready to build a learning-first culture for your company, here’s seven places to start:

1. Make employees responsible for their own development

The employer-employee relationship today is a lot different than a decade ago. It’s less paternalistic and now a two-way relationship. Because of this, it’s only fair that companies hold employees accountable for their learning trajectory. Be clear about your company’s expectations so you can avoid finger pointing.

2. Make learning social and interactive

Learning doesn’t just mean sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher drone on and on (Bueller? Bueller?). Schedules are busy and people want to make the most of their time. Giving employees the chance to collaborate with instructors and other people in forums, groups, or Q&A sessions gives them valuable breadth and depth on a subject. Mobile’s also a great platform for take-it-anywhere learning. By giving employees a variety of channels to tap into when they want, you’ll up the chances that they be actively educated.

3. Create SMEs

You don’t have to go outside your company to find great topics, curriculum or teachers. Tap into your subject matter experts and create a knowledge-sharing program. When you harness the skills and know-how of subject matter experts and train employees to train, you’ll raise the quality of your education. This is because the people already on the job understand how your company works – both good and bad – and can weave in company goals, culture and other elements of the work environment. That’s a big advantage over someone from the outside who has to learn about your strengths and weaknesses while also getting to know people.

4. Remember soft skills

Learning isn’t just about hard skills. It’s also about the human-to-human talents that people need to get along, understand each other and move things forward. According to LinkedIn, the top three in-demand skills for companies to cultivate in their employees are creativity, persuasion and analytical reasoning. Employees recognize the need for these skills. This gives companies a great opportunity to create a more sophisticated, creative and accountable group of people.

5. Link learning and performance

Learning is great, but it all needs to contribute to something that benefits the organization. When you make it clear that your company – or you, yourself as a leader – value on-going learning because it’s how you perform better, employees have an easier time getting on board. This ensures that learning isn’t just a one-off event but rather a core part of the culture.

6. Let people apply what they learn

Once people understand the connection between company goals, learning and performance, it’s easier for them to make it a part of what they do every day. This is because it makes learning more relevant. Managers can support employees by following up on what people apply and what results they see. This also reinforces that new skills are noticed, matter and are preferred behaviors.

7. Measure results

We can tie everything together as we look at what matters to the organization, what behaviors will accomplish those goals, and then how well new learnings play out.

When you start out by defining the behaviors that will and won’t meet organizational goals, it’s an easy way to promote learning. For example, if you want to bring more customer ideas into the company, then one of the skills that employees need to learn is how to have more candid and collaborative conversations. Now there’s a focus for learning that can be measured and tied back to company performance.  

Always assess the results of your efforts. Make sure to benchmark where things start, and look at the results of learning, impact on company performance, and employees attitude and involvement. Are they taking advantage of the programs you’ve set up? What tools do they find most valuable and why? Besides determining your effectiveness – both financially and culturally – this will give you the information you need to keep your business case updated for management.

The best and brightest

With the rise of AI and other sophisticated technologies, a call for greater creativity and a looming skills gap, creating an always-on learning culture has never been more important. By supporting employees who are hungry to learn, then rewarding their performance, you’ll not only have happier employees but keep them as well.

Photo credit: Pixabay

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.