A group of people learning together, representing a culture of learning

Culture of learning. Ok, sure, but how?

Creating a culture of learning is as challenging as it is rewarding. Here are three suggestions to take your learning culture to the next level.
Jake Via author image
Jake Via, Partner Success Manager

I've been thinking about this non-stop as I keep hearing it repeated around the Learning and Development world. It's a catchy idea and a cool buzzword, but what does it really mean and how do we actually foster such a thing to grow?

Culture isn't something that just happens. Sure, it's influenced by our hiring decisions, but it takes more than that to create a curious community that shares ideas openly and celebrates diverse thinking.

The organizations that do it well proactively tackle it from 3 levels.

Level 1: What an open door policy really means

In the 2019 film, Ford vs. Ferrari, Henry Ford II threatens to fire an entire factory floor but offers that whoever comes to him with an idea to sell more cars could keep their job. This eventually led to the idea of building the legendary GT40 that went on to crush all competition in the 24 hours of Le Mans race. While this Hollywood telling is fictionalized, a bit extreme, and I think Mr Ford sounds like a jerk, there are some key takeaways that led to Ford's incredible success in that 1966 race.

  • Leadership needs help. Even though Henry Ford II seemed like the kind of man who wouldn't admit it outright, he knew he needed ideas from the people most passionate about Ford vehicles, the employees lovingly crafting them every day. In the film, he accomplishes getting ideas from them by offering them an evil ultimatum but that leads right into the second takeaway.
  • Idea sharing almost always needs rewards. When first changing culture towards one of open curiosity and idea-sharing, rewards are a fundamental part of letting everyone know that ideas are not only welcome, they're encouraged. Without this critical offering, fear of rejection will keep most of us from sharing ideas upwards.
  • Be quick to action when ideas have merit. Leadership needs to be ready to implement new ideas that flow upwards. Once an idea is shared and vetted, quick implementation is the surest way that more ideas will flow after. Everyone knows what it feels like to have an idea shot down and fear of rejection will kill a culture of learning quicker than sugar in a Ferrari gas tank.

Level 2: What makes a manager?

While the first level is all about executive leadership, managers are the bread and butter of creating a culture of learning. They're the ones who will create the work schedule to dedicate time to learning, the ones who will advocate sharing ideas, and the ones who will be encouraging social learning in their departments.

Managers need psychological safety first. No one who doesn't feel safe in their position is going to encourage their teams to think outside the box and challenge the status quo. It's just that simple. Creating psychological safety in the workplace is a topic well covered by others, for an intro I recommend checking out the eLearning course 'Building Psychological Safety' by Symmetra in the Go1 Content Hub.

Once we have a safe space, we can really dive into encouraging department leaders to make time for learning. A few ideas that I've seen:

  1. A weekly rotating course the whole department takes before each team meeting, with time built into the meeting to discuss learnings and how to incorporate them into our lives, both personal and professional. Some managers choose these courses themselves while others encourage their teams to bring ideas forward for courses they want to learn together.
  2. Scheduled time to learn weekly put on everyone's calendars. We've seen this sent out as a one-size-fits-all invite for a Friday afternoon and we've seen this encouraged on a personal level to have employees create a recurring calendar invite for themselves at a time that works for them. Encourage 30-60 minutes a week, maybe 30 one week and 60 another if time is at a premium, I promise the learning will increase productivity, buy-in, and efficiency.

A fresh take on goal-setting, with a focus on whole-person development

Creating a culture of learning is about meeting the whole-person, not just the person who shows up for the job you hired them for. As such, goal-setting with our staff needs to reflect that. Around 10 years ago, I started doing goal-setting with my staff the way I always wanted it done for me and saw immediate improvements in retention, community, and relationships. Here is the outline for the 3 goals I created with my employees:

  1. Personally Professional: The first goal is something they can contribute to the organization as a whole. This is likely related to their KPI's or their personal targets and projects.
  2. Professionally Personal: The second goal is something that makes them better at their job. What do they want to learn? What role do they want to start working towards next? How can I, and the company, support them in that pursuit?
  3. Personally Personal: And the third goal can have nothing to do with work. What's a totally personal goal that they want to accomplish this quarter/year? How can I, and the company, help support them in accomplishing that?

Changing our ideas of what success looks like for our staff changes the way we think about learning. When we focus solely on performance indicators, it's easy to lose sight of the development that needs to happen to make those indicators grow. Taking a step back and focusing on the whole person helps our management team realign on what's really important, our people.

Level 3: Culture of learning starts before onboarding

Very few companies are doing onboarding right and it's killing their culture before it has a chance to grow. Like any good culture (I love cottage cheese), a Culture of Learning needs an incubator and that incubator is onboarding.

When we start a new hire off with their mandatory compliance training and then shove them into a learning path designed to get them to OTJ training without addressing them as an individual, we've set ourselves back in creating a space where truly fresh ideas can be heard.

What if we tried a different approach and instead, after they sign the offer letter, we sent them a form asking them what they are most excited to learn. A Culture of Learning starts before Day 1, it starts with asking questions and encouraging out-of-the-box responses that let them know they're safe to grow with us and we were here to support them in that.

What skills are they worried they need to upskill to excel in their new role? What personal passions are they wanting to improve on? Photography? Wine tasting? Creative writing?

Can you imagine getting that email before you started a new job? Even before your first day, your new company is asking you how they can invest in your future?

It's more than worth the effort

In a recent Gallup poll, 41% of employees are actively looking for new jobs. That's nearly half of our workforce!

But there is hope. LinkedIn's 2019 Workforce Learning report found that 94% of leaving employees said they would have stayed longer if the company invested in helping them learn.

Creating a Culture of Learning isn't just a nice to have, it's not just something that makes a nice recommendation on Glassdoor, it is quickly becoming the most critical component of employee retention, preventing knowledge hoarding, and creating a dynamic and explosive growth company that employees are excited to contribute to.

It's not easy to steer a company culture towards one of creativity and curiosity, but implementing even a few of these ideas should get things started and once it catches on, strap in tight, you're racing in Le Mans now.

Jake Via is a Senior Partner Success Manager at Go1 and is passionate about eLearning, innovation, and motivation. Connect with Jake here.

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